The city of Sarnath flourished during the reign of Pali kings. It was a golden period when the architecture and spiritual activities were at the prime in the city. Hundreds of monuments and architectural brilliance cloaked the city then. But the Turks brought everything down in the 13th century with their invasions. The city got lost completely in the dark until a digging work in 1798 carried out to gather building materials by the labours of Raja Chet Singh’s Dewan sparked the interest in its past. The reason was a green-coloured casket that was found nestled inside a stone. The casket was examined by Mr. Duncan, who was residing in Banaras then.
As the news about antiques being found at the site caught fire, several excavators and history enthusiasts armed themselves to move the earth further with a view to find more objects. People who took an interest in finding the old belongings were Sir Alexander Cunningham, Major Kittoe, Mr. C. Home, Mr. F. O. Oertal, Sir John Marshal, Mr. H. Hargreaves, and Mr. Day Ram Shani. The excavation in the order of the name of the excavator took place in 1835-36, 1851-52, 1865, 1904-05, 1907, 1914-15, and 1927-23 respectively. However, the decision to erect a museum at the excavation site of Sarnath was taken in 1904 by the English government, which was initiated by Sir John Marshal.
Mr. James Ramson prepared the construction plan of the Sarnath Museum with the idea of housing, researching, and displaying the antics. The museum building was completed in 1910, and it resembled a monastery, though not entirely. The museum comprises of five galleries and two patios for the display of antics. The names of the galleries have been given according to the contents they housed. The gallery to the north most of the museum is called ‘Tathagata.’ Adjacent to it is ‘Triratna.’ The ‘Shakyasimha’ gallery is the main hall. To the south of the main hall is ‘Trimurti.’ Ashutosh’ gallery is to the southernmost of the museum. Both the patios to the northern and southern ends are called ‘Shilparatna.’
The treasures that were collected during the excavations are from the 3rd century B.C. to 12th Century A.D. The findings produced a great insight into the Shunga period of the 2nd – 1st cent. B.C. Railing pillars beautifully carved with images of god, commoners, and animals were unveiled. The findings also showed the beginning of Kushanas’ period, which was in 1st – 2nd cent. A.D. This was the time when the north of India saw the emergence of a new religious and artistic activity.
The main hall or the Shakyasimha gallery has the most prized possessions. The centre of the attraction is a 2.31 metre tall Lion Capital built in Maruyan art. On the top of it is four semi lions, an inverted lotus at the base, and a circular abacus at the centre. Figures of lion, elephant, bull and a horse are adorning the abacus, each separated by a dharmachakra with twenty-four spokes. Another dharmachakra that consists thirty-two spokes, most of which are broken, covers three-fourth part of the capital. The four crowned semi-lions are now the national emblem of India.
As Sarnath was also at its prime during the Gupta period, a new school of art (Gupta sculptural art) gained prominence. The carved sculptures in the museum are the representation of this art of school. The immensely ornamented statue of Tara, a mystical and revered female figure of the Buddhist pantheon, is beautifully carved. There are also sculptures of a mythical animal, Bodhisattva Padmapani in a seated position, pot-bellied god of wealth and prosperity, Jambhala and his wife Vasudhara, Ramgraha stupa are important antics displayed in the main hall.
There are also carved structures depicting the important episodes from the life of Lord Buddha. Figurines of three female deities, namely Sadakshari Lokeshvara, Shadakshri Mahavidya, and Manidhara in a seating position with leg crossed are displayed here. The ‘Tathagata’ gallery is inundated with the images of Lord Buddha in different forms and positions. The’Trimurt’ gallery is not to be missed for the statues of Yaksha and the Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh) in Buddhist style. Friendly and evil figures with lots of pots and pottery are adorning the ‘Ashutosh’ gallery. The remarkable display of this gallery is a Navagraha panel. Besides, there are several images of Shiva depicted in his fiery avatar and as the killer of demons.
The archaeological museum of Sarnath is one of the oldest site museums of the Archaeological Survey of India. It is brimming with the wealth of Buddhist culture and architecture, and is constructed with sandstone with a flat roof. If one has to study Buddhism and experience the Mauryan and Gupta art, the museum is the best place to visit.