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Vaishali, Bihar
Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh - Buddhist Holy Sites in India
156    Dibyendu Banerjee    22/04/2024

Situated on a hill overlooking the plain, around 40 km northeast of Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, Sanchi is a popular tourist destination, containing the Great Stupa, believed to be the first monument to be erected in Sanchi in the third century BC, along with several other Buddhist stupas, monolithic Asokan pillar, temples, monasteries, displaying Buddhist art and architecture right from the early Mauryan period. Sanchi was a major Buddhist centre in India from the 3rd century BC, until the 12th century AD, but although it is related to Buddhism, it is more related to Emperor Ashoka, rather than the life of Buddha.

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His reign in the 3rd century BC is considered instrumental in spreading Buddhism throughout the Indian subcontinent and he transformed Sanchi as a sacred centre of Buddhism. With the erection of the Great Stupa (Stupa 1) and the monolithic Ashoka Pillar (stambha), bearing a highly elaborate capital, he distinguished Sanchi as a site of great importance for the Buddhists.

sanchi madhya pradesh

It is considered that the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka selected the Sanchi hilltop for the establishment of Buddhist monuments due to its ideal atmosphere for meditation and other spiritual activities. However, it might be also due to its nearness to the city of Vidisha, erstwhile capital of ancient Eastern Malwa and also the hometown of his Queen Devi, who was the daughter of a merchant of the rich trading city, as well as the venue of their wedding.

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He erected the Great Stupa (Stupa 1), the oldest structure in the area, which is a hemispherical brick structure built over a part of the mortal remains of Lord Buddha, with a raised terrace encompassing its base, and a railing and stone umbrella on the summit, the chhatri, a stone structure resembling a parasol. During the later period, the Great Stupa, adorned with one of the Pillars of Ashoka, served as a nucleus for the huge Buddhist establishment.

sanchi madhya pradesh

During the following centuries, especially under the Shungas and the Satabahanas, the Great Stupa, originally a low structure of brick, was enlarged and faced with stones, augmented with circumambulatory paths and staircases with ornate balustrades, four toranas or gateways and a harmika, a square fence-like enclosure on the top of the mound to hold the triple umbrella, which represents the three jewels of Buddhism, namely the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

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Apart from that, several edifices were also raised in the vicinity, which include the Stupa No 2 and Stupa No 3. Followed by several other empires, like the Kushana and the Kshatrapa, Sanchi came under the control of the Gupta dynasty, when some temples were built and sculptures were added displaying the classic grace and simplicity of the era, along with the statues of Lord Buddha seated in the canopies, facing the four entrances of the Great Stupa. It is evident from the inscriptions found at the site that Sanchi remained an important seat of Buddhism, until the 13th century.

sanchi madhya pradesh
sanchi madhya pradesh
The Left and Right Capital of Sanchi Stupa 1 Northern Gateway

The Great Stupa of Sanchi, with its dome measuring more than 50 feet (16 m) high and 118 feet (36 m) in diameter, has four gateways, built by the Satavahanas in the 1st century BC in four cardinal directions, famous for the beauty of their intricate carvings, displaying in details the significant episodes and miracles from life and events of Lord Buddha, as depicted in the Jataka stories, as well as events after his death, particularly the War of the Relics and the efforts of emperor Ashoka to spread the Buddhist faith. Although each of the gateways, popularly known as toranas, has two square pillars with a set of four lions, elephants or dwarf goblins, supporting a large grid with three architraves and figures of horsemen and elephants between the architraves, each was carved by different craftspeople at different times, with a slight variation of styles.

sanchi madhya pradesh
The Southern Gateway

The Southern Gateway, the main entrance to the Great Stupa in Sanchi, is thought to be the oldest of the four, followed chronologically by the Northern, the Eastern and the Western, displaying prominence of the symbolic relics of Lord Buddha, along with the important role of Ashoka in spreading the teachings of Lord Budda. Unfortunately, a few of the surfaces were lost over the next two thousand years and it is one of the two gateways that were reconstructed by Major Cole in 1882-1883, and the whole of the right jamb and half of the left are new and blank, along with the west end of the lowest architrave, the six vertical uprights between the architraves and also the east end of the middle architrave. However, the southern gateway displays an image of the Ramagrama Stupa, the only intact and original stupa containing relics of Buddha, referred to as Mukut-Bandhan Chaitya or Mukta-Bandhan Vihara in the ancient Buddhist texts. One of the finest examples of the Ashokan pillar stands close to the Southern Gateway, known for its aesthetic proportions and exquisite structural balance.

sanchi madhya pradesh
The Northern gateway

The Northern Gateway of Stupa No 1(the Great Stupa), the second to be erected, is the best preserved of all the four richly carved gateways, enriched with numerous panels relating to the various events of the life of the Buddha, and still retains most of its ornamental figures and gives a good idea of the original appearance of all the gateways. It contains panels depicting Sujata, a farmer’s wife, bringing the meal for Gautama before he began his meditation prior to his enlightenment, Gautama withstanding the temptations and threats of Mara, and many more.

sanchi madhya pradesh
The Eastern Gateway

The Eastern Gateway of the Great Stupa in Sanchi depicts the images of Buddha leaving his home at Kapilavastu to begin his journey to enlightenment, as well as several miracles performed by the Buddha, along with a scene of Emperor Ashoka visiting the Bodhi tree, where Buddha attained the enlightenment. It is the third of the four gateways to have been built at least a hundred years after the erection of the Great Stupa and an important tribute to both Lord Buddha and the emperor, who passionately embraced his teachings.

sanchi madhya pradesh
The carvings on the western gateway

The western gateway, the last constructed gateway of the four, displays a scene from the Siege of Kushinagar, a part of the story of Chhaddanta Jataka and also has carvings depicting Buddha’s first sermon and his enlightenment. However, although its architraves are all almost intact, there is almost no trace of any decoration around or on the top of the lintels.

sanchi madhya pradesh
Stupa No 2
sanchi madhya pradesh
Stupa No 3

Apart from the Stupa No 1(the Great Stupa), Sanchi also contains the Stupa No 2. Stupa No 3, several temples and monasteries that are worth visiting. While Stupa No 2, strikingly featuring the stone balustrade around it, stands at the very edge of the hill and is believed to have been built during the 2nd century BC, the Stupa No 3, located close to the Great Stupa, dates back to the middle of the second century BC and contains the relics of Sariputta and Mahamogallena, the two earliest disciples of Lord Buddha in its inmost chamber.

sanchi madhya pradesh
Temple 17 on the main terrace at Sanchi

Unfortunately, since the 14th century Sanchi remained deserted and uncared for till 1818 when General Henry Taylor rediscovered the site. Although Sir Herbert Maddock clumsily breached the Great Stupa in 1822, he failed to reach its centre, while amateur archaeologists and treasure hunters started to ravage the site. During the 19th century, the Europeans, especially the French wanted to take away the eastern gateway to France, while the English, who had by that time established themselves in India, were also interested to carry it to England for a museum. However, ultimately they became satisfied with plaster-cast copies and the original remained at the site. Nevertheless, proper restoration of the structures of the site began in 1912 and the project was completed in 1919, under the supervision of Sir John Marshall, the then Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, when a small museum was established on the hilltop, which was later shifted to a building in the foothills of Sanchi in 1966. Interestingly, since 1989, around fifty monuments on the hill of Sanchi, including three main stupas and several temples, have been listed among other famous monuments in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Vaishali, Bihar
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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