Sarnath is one of the four most important Buddhist Pilgrimage centers. According to Mahaparinibbna Sutta, Buddha himself told his disciples to visit four places- Lumbini, BodhaGaya, Sarnath and Kusinagara which were connected with his birth, enlightenment, first preaching and decease (nirvana) respectively. In ancient Buddhist literature the places finds mention as Rishipatana Mirgadava or Mirgadaya. The Place was called Rishipatana, as it was here the bodies of five hundred Pratyaka Buddhas Or Rishis (sages) fell after their attainment of nirvana (salvation). The inscriptions of early medieval period found Sarnath referred to this place as Dharmacharkra or Saddharmachakrapravarttanavihara ( Convent of the Turning of the Wheel of the law). The Modern name Sarnath seems to be a contraction of Saraganatha (Lord of deer) still borne by the Lord Shivaenshrined in a temple nearby. Sarnath is also sacred to the Jainas because they look upon it as the site of asceticism and death of Sreyansantha the eleventh Trithankara . Buddha the great sage after attaining enlightenment at BodhGaya came to Sarnath and delivered his first sermon to five monks (i.e. Kaundinya, Vappa, Bhadriya, Mahanaman and Asvajit) for redeeming humanity. It is this place where foundation of new order of monks (Sangha) and new order of religious doctrine (Dhamma) was laid.
The history of this place is covered with a veil of obscurity for the period of three centuries after the Buddha. Excavations carried out at the site revealed that it had a continuous occupation from third century B.C. to twelfth century A.D
Ashoka (273-32 B.C.), the great Mauryan emperor, raised several monuments at this place. Dharmarajika Stupa was constructed to enshrine the corporeal relics of the Master.
Sarnath passed into oblivion in the thirteenth century and veil was lifted in 1798 when Mr. Duncan, the then Commissioner of Nenares gave an account of a casket of green marble inside a stone box imposed by the workmen of Jagat Singh, Diwan of Raja Chet Singh of Banaras while dismantling the Dharmarajika stupa in order to procure building materials in 1794. The discovery had created wide interest about Sarnath.
Later on excavations were conducted at the site by Sir Alexander Cunningham (1835-36). Major Kittoe ( 1851-52), Mr.C.Horne(1865),Mr.F.O. Oertal (1904-05), Sir John Marshall (1907), Mr. H. Hargreaves (1914-15) and Mr. Daya Ram Sahni(1927-32).