Singhpur, a village approximately one kilometre away from the site, was the birthplace of Shreyansanath, the Eleventh Tirthankara of Jainism, and a temple dedicated to him, is an important pilgrimage site.
Also referred to as Isipatana, this city is mentioned by the Buddha as one of the four places of pilgrimage to which his devout followers should visit, if they wanted to visit a place for that reason. It was also the site of the Buddha's Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which was his first teaching after attaining enlightenment, in which he taught the four noble truths and the teachings associated with it.
Sarnath has been variously known as Mrigadava, Migadāya, Rishipattana and Isipatana throughout its long history. Mrigadava means "deer-park". Isipatana is the name used in the Pali Canon, and means the place where holy men (Pali: isi, Sanskrit: rishi) landed.
The legend says that when the Buddha-to-be was born, some devas came down to announce it to 500 rishis. The rishis all rose into the air and disappeared and their relics fell to the ground. Another explanation for the name is that Isipatana was so called because sages, on their way through the air (from the Himalayas), alight here or start from here on their aerial flight (isayo ettha nipatanti uppatanti cāti-Isipatanam). Pacceka Buddhas, having spent seven days in contemplation in the Gandhamādana, bathe in the Anotatta Lake and come to the habitations of men through the air, in search of alms. They descend to earth at Isipatana. Sometimes the Pacceka Buddhas come to Isipatana from Nandamūlaka-pabbhāra.
Xuanzang quotes the Nigrodhamiga Jātaka (J.i.145ff) to account for the origin of the Migadāya. According to him the Deer Park was a forest given by the king of Benares of the Jātaka, where deer might wander unmolested. The Migadāya was so-called because deer were allowed to roam about there unmolested.