The Great Stupa of Sanchi, the oldest stone structure in India, is a reflection of India’s great history that many have forgotton. Every moment spent in the vicinity of Great Stupas, transcends the mind to an era when India was the glorious cynosure of world stage. Every step taken around grand stupa embraces your senses with its protective energy and soothing aura. Every touch felt on balustrade stone, induces intense feeling enveloped within multi-layer of spiritual vibrations. Every breath inhaled here elevates your mundane soul to a new level of self awareness and actualization. Nothing remains ordinary here for the place is blessed with the relics of Buddha and his prominent disciples.
Table Of Content
- The Sanchi Stupas – A UNESCO’s World Heritage Site
- My Tryst With The Grand Stupas of Sanchi, Central India
- Ashoka the Great & His Sanchi Connection
- The Great Sanchi Stupa – Its Story Of Creation
- The Great Sanchi Stupa – Its Rediscovery By Britishers
- The Battle of Relics & The Sanchi Stupa
- The Majestic Toranas (Gateways) of Sanchi
- Interesting & Lesser Known Facts About The Sanchi Stupas
- The Sanchi Stupa – Travel Tips
The Sanchi Stupas – A UNESCO’s World Heritage Site
The Sanchi Complex of Temples is like a womb of time where the glorious past of India is best exhibited and preserved. Great emperors of bygone era added their perspective and style to it over a period of 1500 years from 3rd century BCE to 12th century CE making it grander and bigger. Mauryans, Shungas, Satvahans(The Andhras), Kushanas and Guptas all contributed to the Stupa that was finally rediscovered, conserved and preserved by Britishers, the biggest empire of modern era and finally the prominent royal family of central India, the Nawab of Bhopal also played their role in 19th and 20th century.
Few monuments in India are left that can boast of such evolution happened over an elongated timeline. All this makes it a truly world heritage site, a tag that was added to it 1989 by UNESCO. Indeed, among the vast galaxy of historical monuments of India, Sanchi overshadows others and stands out majestically.
My Tryst With The Grand Stupas of Sanchi In Central India
In my three visits to this place stretched over a period of 12 years, I have always been bowled over and overwhelmed by its inescapable spiritual opulence. My first visit was more like just see the structure, pay my homage to the great saint, take the photo and leave my footprints. In my second visit, I was more evolved and deeply involved with the whole complex, when I could connect with the surrounding and feel its vibration.
And, during my third and the last visit, I could sense an interwoven connection of self actualization as if I was entwined with it and awakened to sublime sense of my own existence. In this visit, I felt as if I had, finally, walked the bridge and I was one with the grand existence. At this place, you get enormous me-time to explore the place and yourself. In this chaos free environment, the more you stay, the more you want to be there. It is few of those places which is better to be explored alone to become one with the aura and vibes of Buddha.
Ashoka the Great & His Sanchi Connection
Ashoka The Great is one of the most iconic figure not just in India but across Indian Sub continent and South East Asia. His story is legendary and nuanced with thrill, romance, solace, penance, politics, battles, drama and then glory, respect and honor. He was probably the first in world history, who entwined religion and governance in most efficient way. His Ashokan Pillars, Stupas and Monasteries, some lost, some forgotton and many destroyed and plundered, are the telling story of his glory and among them, The Great Stupa of Sanchi is the cardinal accomplishment, an irresistible appeal to the human kind. This structural magnificence and geographical spread have made him a figure that still stirs the social and religious milieu of almost all oriental countries.
In his earlier days as prince and heir-apparent, he was appointed viceroy of the Malwa region (Avanti Mahajanpad) to govern Central India by his father and the Mauryan king Bindusar. He was stationed in present day Ujjain and another town under his rule was prosperous town of Vidisha, also the capital of eastern Malwa(Akara). There he met Devi, daughter of local banker, the Jagat Seth. She was a follower of Buddha and this was probably first time when Ashoka had his first rendezvous with Buddhism. He married Devi with whom he had two sons Ujjeniya and Mahendra and a daughter Sanghmitra, and thus started his Sanchi connection, which then had a Buddhist Monastery – Chaitya Giri on the hill top. All this made Sanchi and Vidisha special for Ashoka, where he later erected not just an Ashoka Pillar but also built Stupa with Buddha relic.
After the sorrowful war of Kalinga, he decided to take the path of Dharma and that was the turning point not just for Ashoka, but also for Indian Sub-continent and Buddhism, which soon would gain prominence. His desire to create his legacy and willingness to make people forget his bloody past merged and he found the ultimate way forward in Dharma(Dhamma) and Sangha(Samgha). With vast resources on his disposal and supremacy of his rule, he started his journey from Chandashoka to Dharma Ashoka. Once he gave patronage to Buddhism, he wanted to ensure there is never a schism in Sangha and he further established Buddhism with political bend of mind. Among the three pillars of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and The Sangha, Ashoka was instrumental in establishing a system to further strengthen Dharma and Sangha not just in India but also beyond.
Till Budhha was alive, He was enough to propagate his ideas and unite people around him. Once he was dead, some symbol was required to further spread and keep people attached to the edicts. For this to happen, Ashoka collected all the relics of Buddha at one place and under his stewardship distributed them all over and established 84000 stupas. He gave Budhhism its first symbolism, so as to build a well structured religion, which can unite people.
Under his benevolence care and enthusiastic guidance, Buddhism and its creed transcended the outskirt of Maghda, spread across Indian sub-continent and went beyond to far places. From a monastic sect, with Imperial power of Ashoka, Buddhism transformed itself into a religion of mass. The glory of Ashoka would endure as long as the sacred laws(Dharma) of Buddha prevails for he was the strict followers and strong propagator of the same. He although preceded Constantine, yet from the eyes of western world, is known as the Constantine of Buddhism for his unmatched contribution to Buddhisms.
The Great Sanchi Stupa – Its Story Of Creation
In 3rd Century BCE, Ashoka commissioned The Great Stupa of Sanchi as a mere reliquary mound, a solid mud and brick structure to house Buddha’s ashes representation Spartan simplicity of Buddhism and also erected his Ashokan Pillar. Both were symbol of his supremacy, one for religious supremacy and other for his administrative supremacy in central part of India.
In later years and after the decline of Mauryan empire, Sunga King Pushyamitra tried to destroy the Stupas as he was rather against Buddhism and persecuted followers. However, his Son Agnimitra restored the Stupa by enlarging it with stone structure and railing around it. A square structure, harmika, was also added at the top containing three tiered umbrella (The Wheel Of Law) representing three Jewels of Buddhism – Budda, Dhamma and Samgha. The central structure that exists today is by Agnimitra.
The real beautification and most elaborated adornment was done by Satwahanas, the first Indian empire from South also known as Andhras in Puranas. In first century BC, Satwahan King added the most significant and remarkable element i.e. Tornas (gateways) to the grand stupa one in each cardinal direction. These four gateways are the most picturesque and valuable elements covered fully with bas-reliefs and telling the story of Buddha, depicting his journey and showcasing various incidences from His life.
The last addition to the Stupa was made in Gupta period, which is considered as the Golden Period of Indian history, when four seated statues of Buddha were consecrated aligned with the four gateways.
It is believed that the Sanchi Complex with multiple stupas, temples and adjoining monastery was a thriving place of learning up to 13th century BC under the patronage of who is who of Indian history. With the decline of Buddhism and arrival of Delhi Sultanet, Sanchi started to lose its sheen and subsequently surrounding area became notorious for other reasons, falling off from main trade route.
The Great Sanchi Stupa – Its rediscovery by Britishers
After many centuries, it was rediscovered by Britishers in 19th century while they were fighting with Pindaris. It was found abandoned and overgrown by jungle around it, which actually saved it from the fury of Muslim conquerors for centuries, who otherwise have already plundered nearby Vidisha and many more all over India.
In 1818, General Henry Taylor first documented various aspects of Stupa and Sir Herbert Maddok was the first to breach it in search of treasure. Later Captain Johnson did the great breach from top to bottom on one side which caused much damage to whole structure and collapse of western gateway.
Later Sir Alexander Cunninghum and Fedrick Charles Maisey made first official survey in 1851 and recorded its existence in detail. While surveying, they opened the Stupa 2 and 3 and excavated the relics also. Many decades later restoration work started under the supervision of Sir John Marshal. In between, many novice historians and treasure hunters kept ravaging the structure. Today, it stands restored with its full glory as testimony to the successful preservation & restoration work done by the Archaeological Survey of India
The Battle of Relics & The Sanchi Stupa
For the facts, total three battles were fought over the relics of Buddha after His death and Sanchi has been at the center of two battles. The first battle of relics happened right after his death Mallas wanted to keep all the relics, but under the rule of Ajatshatru, finally they were enshrined in eight stupas. The second battle was commanded by Ashoka, when he collected of relics of Buddha from seven stupas as Nagas of Ramagram never relented. Ashoka redistributed and enshrined them into 84000 stupas as symbol of Buddhism. Later, the third battle was about the relics and reliquaries of Buddhist saints Sariputta (Sariputra) and Moggallana (Maudagalayana) that were sold to museums in London and returned to India in 1952 after a protracted agitation by Maha Bodhi Society in London and government of Srilanka and India.
The Majestic Toranas (Gateways) of Sanchi
The Great Gateways or Toranas around Stupa are the high point and crowning glory of Sanchi complex and indeed among the greatest contributions by India to the world’s sphere of art. Adorned with intricate carving of Buddha’s life, they represent timeless folklores, legends and anecdotes in an engraved form. The scenes carved depict various episodes of the life of Buddha from Syama Jataka, Chhaddanta Jataka, Vessantara Jataka and Mahakapi Jataka, history of the Buddhism and related events.
Whole day can be spent reading these bas-reliefs, which are so finely done with photographic details by the ancient Indian artists from Vidisha. In those days, Vidisha was a prosperous metropolitan with definite influence from geek art and style. In those days, artists must be experimenting and these gateways suggests that its not the work of stone masons but of carpenters or ivory artists, for once the central part was full of elephants and Vidisha was famous for ivory work. It could also be a fusion art where all came together to create these remarkable art pieces under the royal patronage of different eras. They, though, delicate but could survive more than 2000 years of history through period of renaissance and quiescence. Toranas withstood all, the glorious construction and wanton destruction, and fell from an abundant opulence to abandonment and finally lost in oblivion.
The complete art is a beautiful combination of spirit of storytelling and spiritual contemplation entwined within. Hereby, I give a quick glimpse to few stories that are carved on the gateways, to intrigue your mind.
- War over relics of Buddha including removal and distribution of relics by Ashoka
- Ashoka visiting Deer Park
- Miracles of the Buddha – walking on the water
- Birth scene of Buddha
- Worship of Bodhisattva
- The temptation of Buddha
- Enlightenment of Buddha
- The great miracle at Saravasti – Fire and water
- Visit of Indra to Buddha
- Departure of Buddha from Kapivastu
- Homage of Kind Shuddhodana to Buddha
- Procession of Bindusara to meet Buddha
- The death of Buddha
Interesting & Lesser Known Facts About The Sanchi Stupas
Interestingly the great complex of Sanchi was never visited by Sakya Muni – the Gautam Buddha. Still, it rose to prominence because Ashoka enshrined relics of Buddha along with his two chief disciples – Sariputra and Maudgalyana.
On the currency note of 200 denomination issued by the Central Bank of India, RBI, , you will find the image of The Great Stupa of Sanchi
Ashoka erected one of his Ashokan pillar with inscription in Brahmi, which is placed near temple 18 in three pieces. The monolithic column with Ashoka’s edicts was transported hear from the quarries of Chunar in UP which
Among Europeans, Toranas were of great interest. French wanted eastern gateway once and later southern gateway was to be transported to London as gift from Nawab of Bhopal to the Queen Victoria.
Over a period time under the patronage of Ashoka and Devi, Sanchi became a prominent place of Buddhism in central India. Some nearby places can also be visited for more Buddhist history and many more stupas such as Bhojpur, Satdhara, Andher and Sonari. Archaeological surveys have unearthed more than 150 ancient settlements in and around Sanchi.
Temple 18, the Chaitya Hall is one of its kind structures in India with a definite influence from Greek style of architecture as it looks similar in appearance to iconic classical Greek columned buildings.
The South Torana (Gateway) has Lion Capital which is the national symbol of India. Lion capital was also carved on the top of Ashokan Pillar, which can be seen in museum.
The Sanchi complex is a network of 50 monuments built in different era by different kings and followers.
The most notable early works on Sanchi Stupas are
- Sir Cunningham’s Bhilsa Topes (1854)
- Major Ferguson’s Tree & Serpent worship (1868)
- Gen. Maisey’s Sanchi and its remains (1892)
- Sir John Marshall’s Guide to Sanchi (1918)
Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) organizes light and sound show every evening, which is an amazing presentation of facts, stories and legends around Sanchi, Buddha and Buddhism. It is very well curated and beautifully presented show
The Sanchi Stupa – Travel Tips
How To Reach Sanchi
By Road – Sanchi is located 46 Km from Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh in Central India and have year round connectivity via road. From Delhi, its is 760 KM with superior quality of road.
By Air – Nearest airport is Raja Bhoj Airport at Bhopal with regular flight connectivity from all major cities of India- Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Indore, Raipur & Hyderabad.
By Train – Vidisha and Bhopal are the major railway stations to reach Sanchi. Sanchi has its own railway stations but very limited trains stop here.
Best Time To Travel Sanchi
By all means, Winter months of November to March is the best time to visit Sanchi for summers are very hot in central India. For me, however, the favorite time to visit Sanchi is Monsoon days, specially July and August as then the all around greenery makes it look beautiful.
Places To Visit Near Sanchi
Tropic Of Cancer
After grand Stupa and its Toranas, Tropic of Cancer, an important geographical point, is the most photographed nearby point that lies around 20 KM from Sanchi toward Bhopal.
Bhopal – The State Capital Of Madhya Pradesh
Bhopal known as the lake city of India has beautiful lakes to explore. Being the capital of erstwhile princely state ruled by Nawab’s of Bhopal, it has many monuments worth visit like Moti Masjid, Shaukat Mahal, Taj-ul-Masjid etc.
Bhimbetka Caves – UNESCO’s World Heritage Site
About 35 KM from Bhopal, the place is world famous for its pre-historic evidences of human dwelling in paleolithic era. It has around 600 caves with rock paintings making it a UNESCO’s world heritage site.
Bhojpur – Biggest Shivalinga In The World
Located 30 KM from Bhopal next to Betwa river, Bhojpur is home to a gigantic Shiva Temple of 11th Century built by Raja Bhoj. The Shivalinga is largest in the world made from single rock with a height of 18 ft. In mythology, it is believed to be built by Pandavas for their mother Kunti.
Udayagiri Caves In Vidisha
Near Vidisha, there are 20 rock cut caves from 5th Century known as Udayagiri Caves. They are from gupta period and considered most important Archaeological Sites of India containing iconography from Hindu Mythology.
Every great empire in the world has built something remarkable which has out lived time. Sanchi is one such monument from the time of Ashoka The Great, which is a standing proof of his glory days. What Taj Mahal is to Mughals, Sanchi is to Mauryans.
A walk around this grand complex, takes you in the realm of peace and calmness. Each circum-ambulation around The Great Stupa, fills you with more mindfulness and cleanses the senses as it it’s a purging cycle, which atone your body and mind, put them in better sync with each other.
Sanchi and India’s glorious past go hand in hand, carved in stone, set in stone and written in stone. Sanchi is a story full of awe and wonder, of multitude production and reproduction, of a continuous transformation over the ages from being a paramount pilgrim to abandoned and forgotten place, of again regaining its glory from being a site of ravage and plunders to one of the well preserved Buddhist Stupa Complex – a master piece of antiquity, from antiquity and for antiquity.
If you feel motivated, please share this blog post with your loved ones so that they can break the mundane cycle of everyday life and explore the world.