Sanchi – More Detail


More Detail about Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi (1989), Madhya Pradesh

Sanchi, the stupa village, is situated 45 km away from Bhopal. The ancient trade route connecting Ujjain with rest of the ancient north India passed through it. In course of time few more stupa villages such as Andher, Murel-Khurd and Sonari sprang in the vicinity of Sanchi.

As one move towards Sanchi either by road or train one can see the main stupa from a distance of 4 km clearly visible amidst lush green landscape. The stupa is located on a hill whose height is 91 m (298.48 ft.) Over this sprawling hill majestically stood the main stupa with a commanding height of 71 ft (21.64 m) from the ground level to the original chatravali.

From the place where the ticket is checked, one can see the main stupa along with many recently conserved and excavated votive stupas. A thrilling experience to remember when one walks over the same place where Devi, wife of Emperor Asoka, and son Mahendra had walked over, several hundreds of years back. Imagine that two thousand three hundred years back thousand of pious monks and nuns might have flocked to this place in saffron robes for spiritual solace. It was considered so pious that many of them wanted to attain salvation here. Then, the whole area, the valley down below and mountains across it might have been reverberating with “Buddham Sharnam Gachhami.” The place was sanctified by the visit of Mahendra, son of Asoka, who came to meet his mother Devi, perhaps living in one of the cells of the monastery located near Stupa 2, clothed in saffron cloths and a begging bowl in hand.

It was from here, Mahendra, embarked on the missionary journey to Ceylon for propagating the message of the Buddha. From Ceylon, Buddhism spread to many countries of South East Asia such as Burma, Java, Sumatra, Thailand and Korea etc. Thus Sanchi is the proud mother of Buddhism to many South East Asian countries.

James Princep, who deciphered Brahmi, the script of ancient India, which was a sealed book till 1837, got his first clue for decipherment of Brahmi from Sanchi inscriptions most of which ending with the word danam (gift). With this clue and insight he was able to read Ashokan Edicts, Pillar inscriptions of Delhi and Allahabad, coins of several kings and hundreds of inscriptions. Had Sanchi not offered him the first clue of Brahmi script much of ancient Indian scripts like that of Harappan script might have been a sealed book for us. For many years Princep worked in the wilderness of Sanchi copying the inscriptions and then every morning wishfully gazing at unknown alphabets which concealed the history of India’s past. The decipherment was a great moment not only in his life but also in the life of the ancient world. But the outstanding scholar died at the young age of forty.

James Princep the man who deciphered Brahmi

One can also imagine Alexander Cunningham and Sir John Marshall wandering through the debris and then piecing together the scattered fragments of this much-ruined stupa.

View of Stupa no 1 from West Gate Before Conservation.

Stupa no 1, During Conservation Between 1912-1919

It was Emperor Asoka (273-236 B.C.) who had constructed a brick stupa, monolithic pillar and monastery. Evidently, as desired by the Great Master the stupa containing his relics had to be placed inside stupas, which were built at the junction of the four cross roads, symbolically represented here by the four paths and gateways.

Brick Stupa and Asokan Pillar built by Emperor Asoka in 3rd century BC.

During the Sunga period (2nd – 1st century B.C.), the original Asokan brick stupa was enlarged, veneered with stone and an addition of balustrades along with staircase and harmika was placed. Apart from this, they also constructed Temple 40 and erected Stupa 2 and 3. The credit for the beautifully carved gateways (torana) should be given to Satavahana rulers who employed ivory workmen of Vidisha. In 4th Century, during the period of Gupta rulers, temples, monasteries and pillars were constructed at Sanchi. The place also witnessed constructional activities, during 7th and 12th centuries A.D. Since the fourteenth century A.D. the site was completely deserted. As there was none to care, the monuments soon disintegrated and fell apart in to many fragments.

In 1818, General Taylor saw shapeless ruin in the wilderness of Sanchi. Captain Johnson dug out the entire western portion of the stupa in 1822. Alexander Cunningham and Captain F.C. Maisay (1851) further excavated it in search of relic casket. However the credit for piecing together the scattered fragments of this monument goes to Sir John Marshall during 1912-1919 who was the Director General of Archaeological Survey of India.

Thus the original stupa made of Mauryan brick by Emperor Asoka (273-236 B.C.) is not the one what one sees today. It was just half of it. What looms large before us is the addition and stone veneering made during the Sunga rule. The railings all around, a staircase, harmika (top railing) and chhatravali (crowning disc like umbrellas) were also added during the same period. Besides this, Stupa 3 on located to the north of Stupa 1 and Stupa 2 on the west of Stupa 1 on a lower terrrace were also the contributions of Sungas. The Stupa 3 located only 45 m to the north-east has terrace railing, chhatravali (umbrella) on top and flight of steps. Constructed in 2nd century B.C. it has a diameter of 15 m and a height of 8.23 m, excluding the umbrella. This yielded a casket containing the relics of Sariputa and Mahamaudgalyayana, the chief disciples of Buddha. Sariputa was a native of Nalanda and part of his remains has been enshrined in Nalanda also.

The first gateway (torana) one encounters is the Northern one. According to an inscription on the southern gate it has been carved by ivory carvers of Vidisha. There are four such carved gateways in four cardinal directions, depicting life scenes of Buddha and Jataka stories. These toranas (gateways) became so popular outside the country that it would be interesting to note that in Japan ornamental gateways are still known as ‘tors’. Although, all these railings belong to 1st century B.C., the southern one is the earliest. The load bearing elephants of the gateways are quite interesting. In place of elephant tusks what we find is a circular hole at present. Few know that during Asokan period real elephant tusks were fixed in those holes. Near the elephants one can also see a salabhanjika, a beautiful lady standing under a tree holding its branches. In 5th / 6th Century A.D. four Buddha images were installed near the gate.

The stupa measures 36.8 m (120.70 ft) in diameter and 16.46m (54 ft) height excluding the railing and chattra. The stupa being the biggest in Sanchi might have enshrined the relics of Buddha. However, while the excavations of other two smaller stupas did yield relics, the bigger stupa did not. Perhaps the relic casket in it might have been removed by religious authorities before the desertion of the site for its proper security. The top of the North Gate in its pristine state had on the top a central chakra figure that is now represented by an arc only. To its side are the figures of fly whisk bearers of which only one is extant now. Another important aspect, namely the triratna of Buddhism is represented on top corners of the gate way as one faces the stupa.

Although there are many scenes including of the Manushi Buddha, life of Gautama Buddha, historical scenes, the ones showing the Great sage going up and returning from the heavens, miracle of Vaishali, foreigners worshipping the stupa on the west pillar of the north gateway are important. One should also see the figure of Mara troubling the Sakya Muni before his enlightenment as depicted on the middle architrave of this gate, when one is on the pradikshana patha of the medhi. The depiction of Sujatha bringing in payasam (a sweet dish) for Gautama Buddha is a well-known scene.

Moving along the berm or the railing towards east one comes across the East Gateway. One of the most important figure on this gateway is the dramatic depiction of the attempt by Gautam Buddha’s father to convince him on the pomp and glory of worldly ways. To which Gautama Buddha responds by walking in the air, to the envious awe of mere mortals immersed in desires. Other scenes include Asoka paying respect to the Boddhi Tree, etc.

As one moves further, the southern gateway is encountered along with a broken Asokan pillar to its east. Two other broken pieces of the same pillar is kept under a shade. The broken standing pillar has a Prakrit inscription, which says that those monks and nuns attempting to create schism in the sanghha (Buddhism) would be excommunicated. One can admire from a distance the Mauryan mirror like polish of the pillar, which can be compared with similar Asokan pillars erected at Lauriya Nandangarh, Lauriya Araraj etc. in Bihar and Sarnath in U.P. The magnificent lion capital of this pillar is now preserved in the Sanchi museum at the foothill.

When one sees the pillar it may be difficult to understand the fact that how a single stone measuring 42 ft and weighing nearly 50 tons was carried from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh to Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh over a distance of 800 km. The load a normal truck carries on modern tar road is from 12 to 15 tons. This Herculean task of transporting a pillar weighing 50 tons was accomplished 2300 years ago when there were no cranes and modern roads. Thousands of labourers might have worked day and night to bring this huge pillar, haul it to the top of the hill and then raise it to bring it to upright position. But what a strange irony of fate it was that a local Zamindar broke it to pieces to use it as a sugarcane press.

From the South Gate as one move along the right side the West Gate is encountered. Just beneath the architraves one sees the yaksha figures as bharvahakas (load bearers) showing different expressions of emotions. Evidently, although the weight is same on all the yakshas it is their different mental dispositions that make some of them sad or angry, while others take the responsibilities with a grin. The south pillar again shows the themes of responsibilities of a king as depicted in the Mahakapi Jataka scene, wherein Boddhisattva as the leader of monkey sermonises on the duties of the king. The middle architrave of this gate shows the scene of the Deer Park Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon. Further ahead to the west on the lower terrace one can see the Monastery no 51 built by Queen Devi. Significantly, a large stone bowl, nearby, was used by the monks to store all the alms obtained by them and it was redistributed amidst themselves equally. As one treads further down the Stupa 2 is seen with its gateways and railings. A closer look at the railings reveals one of the earliest art at Sanchi. This stupa yielded a relic casket with the name of the 10 monks, some of whom were contemporary to Asoka.

Relic Casket of 10 Buddhist monks enshrined in the Stupa 2

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