Located on a hilltop, around 46 km northeast of Bhopal, the Great Stupa at Sanchi with its four ornamented gateways or toranas, is one of the oldest surviving stone structures in India and a marvellous specimen of Buddhist architecture. The original structure of the Stupa, consisting of a huge hemispherical brick dome covering the relics of Lord Buddha, with an elevated terrace surrounding the base and a stone umbrella on the top, was commissioned by the great Maurya Emperor Ashoka, who reigned over the entire subcontinent between 268 and 232 BC. It is said that Mahendra, son of Ashoka left for Ceylon from this place to spread Buddhism in the outer world. However, the present size and shape of the Stupa were given by Agnimitra Shunga, son of the great Shunga king Pushyamitra, almost a century later. He overlaid the present stone Stupa over the original one and also constructed the peripheral boundary wall around the Stupa.
But it took another century for the erection of the first freestanding gateway of the country, which was complemented by the Satvahana Kings, who succeeded the Shungas as the ruler of the Gangetic plains during the 1st century. The four famous gateways of the Great Stupa of Sanchi at the four cardinal points are the oldest freestanding gateways in the country and the true masterpieces of architecture. The primary idea behind the construction of the gateways was to depict the stories from the life of Buddha.
There are lots of courtesy inscription on the gates, which indicate that the gateways were commissioned by rich Buddhists and without any royal patronage. However, although all the gates were not built at the same time and not built under the royal patronage, the idea must have been initiated by one of the Satvahana Kings. This is evident from an inscription on the southern gate, the oldest among the four, which specifically declared it as a gift of Ananda, the son of Vasithi, the foreman of the artisans of Rajan Siri Satkarni. However, the inscription did not identify the name of the king and many of the Satvahana rulers were indeed called Satkarni.
While the gateways were made of stone, the inscriptions look similar to that on timber. They are covered with extensive narrative sculptures, depicting different events in the life of Lord Buddha, without maintaining any chronological order. This might indicate the involvement of lots of devotees during the construction of the gates, who paid their money for curving their favourite events, as a result of which the same story was repeated for many times. Due to the aniconism in Buddhism, Lord Buddha was represented in the carvings by symbols compatible to the story, and mainly an empty throne, a horse without a rider, or the Bodhi tree was used to symbolise him.
All the gateways of the Sanchi Stupa are made of two strong square pillars with three horizontal architraves. Each of the base columns is capped with an extremely decorative load-bearing column capital. There are four column capitals, known as the Lion Capital, two sets Elephant Capital and the Yaksha Capital, which have decorative figures on four corners and thus creating a circular pattern. The architraves of the gateways are rectangular beams with the wider side display, and both the sides are rounded with a whirl inscribed on the rounded corner. The horizontal column above the capital reduces its size and on top of these columns raises a Buddhist Srivatsa Design.
The Southern Gateway is supposed to be the main one as it was erected in front of the steps by which the terrace was ascended. Carved by the ivory sculptors of Vidisha and depicting the life of Lord Buddha and the Jataka tales, it is the oldest among the four gateways, followed by the Northern, the Eastern and the Western Gateway respectively. The pillar capitals of this gate have four lions, resembling the four lions of Ashoka Pillar, sitting back to back facing the four directions.
The architraves of this gateway have an inscription on Ashoka’s visit to Ramagrama, the story of Chhaddanta Jataka, a previous incarnation of Buddha and about the war over the relics of Buddha upon his death.
The Northern Gateway, the second to be erected after the Southern Gateway, is the best preserved of all the four gateways, which still retains most of its ornamental figures and gives a clear conception about the original appearance of all the gateways. It consists of two square posts crowned with a group of four elephants and two female figures grasping the branch of a tree.
The gateway is completely covered with sculptures depicting various episodes of the life of Buddha, which include, among others, Bodhisattva in vajrasana or diamond throne under a pipal tree, the temptations and threats of Mara, the Satan of Buddhism and the scene depicting Sujata offering him food before his last meditation for attaining enlightenment.
The Eastern Gateway, the third in the chronology, is the richest in terms of the inscriptions relating to the stories from the life of Gautama Buddha and several miracles performed by him. Among many others, it has the image of the great departure of Prince Shakyasimha from his family life and the important scene of Emperor Ashoka visiting the Bodhi tree where Lord Buddha attained his enlightenment. It contains the only surviving relic of the famous Yakshini, placed on top of the capital and under the lower architrave.
The Western Gate, the fourth and the last of the four gateways of Sanchi Stupa, contains scenes from the Siege of Kushinagar, the temptation of Mara, Buddha’s enlightenment, his first sermon and some parts of the story of Chhaddanta Jataka. Most of these stories were depicted in the earlier gates also. The column capitals of the gateway have four Yaksha facing four directions and supporting the architraves above.
The four gateways of Sanchi Stupa are internationally acclaimed for their architectural beauty. It is maintained by many that the Paifang Gateway of China, the Hongsalun gateway of Korea and the Torii Gateway of Japan were inspired by the style of the gateways of SanchI Stupa, and they were constructed with some improved modifications.