Sanchi is a small village, 35 km’s north of Bhopal. Very close to Vidisha, a district in Madhya Pradesh. Which was once upon a time business center in ancient India called Besnagar. Sanchi is known for Buddhist Stupas. Many of which have been found on top of a hill here. The biggest one is Sanchi Stupa, often referred to as Great Stupa. It is believed that the relics of Lord Buddha were buried inside this Stupa by King Ashoka, who was related to this region by marriage. He married the daughter of a businessman from Vidisha. The smaller Stupas are supposed to be carrying relics of disciples of Buddha or other Buddhist monks and teachers. There are temples and monasteries around the Sanchi stupa. Indicating that it was probably a place of learning or practicing Buddhism some 2000 odd years ago. Buddha himself though never visited Sanchi or this region.
Sanchi Stupa, Heliodorus Pillar, Beejamandal Temple & Udaigiri Caves
Sanchi Stupa – UNESCO World Heritage Site in Madhya Pradesh
The Sanchi Stupa or great stupa is huge, a semi-circular dome, with stairs on its southern side to climb and take a parikrama. 4 Torans or doorways in all 4 directions, to enter the boundary around the Stupa. The original stupa is supposed to be made of terracotta and is hidden inside the present day Stupa. During its restoration, a layer of bricks and lime mortar were added on top of the original stupa. The lime layer has started to come off and gives an interesting character to the whole structure. There is a Chhatravalli or crown with triple umbrellas at the top of the Stupa. Symbolizing the three tenets of Buddhism i.e Buddham Sharanam Gachhami, Dhammam Sharanam Ghachhami, and Sangham Sharnam Gachhami.
Decorated Torans of Sanchi Stupa
Decorated Torans make the whole Stupa look interesting. The southern Toran seems to be more important. As it leads to the stairs that take you to the top of the Stupa. And also carries the Ashoka symbol of four loins. Ashoka pillar also stood next to this Toran. The original structure was built in 3rd century BC. But the place kept getting constant enhancements from various kings down the line. It was enhanced in size, the balustrades were added, and images imported from Mathura were added.
Continued Enhancements at Sanchi
Various temples around the stupa were built or enhanced at various times indicating that the monument was living. And was being maintained by the ruling kings till about 7-8th century AD. After that, this was lost in the jungles. And a lot of damages were done to it by the local people who removed anything that they could use from the place. Like they broke the Ashoka pillar and used it to extract sugarcane juice.
Torans of Sanchi Stupa
Each Toran is made of three horizontal panels. Which are placed on two pillars and joined together with smaller vertical stones. And filled with well-sculpted figures. Each Toran and its pillars are intricately carved on all sides. The upper part of the toran is depicted as being carried by elephants, lions, or by humans. The horizontal panels carry a spiral on both sides. The carvings carry the symbols of Buddhism. Like lotus and stupas, scenes from the life of Buddha and his disciples, jataka tales. And scenes from everyday life of a Buddhist. Ashoka chakra and the four lions also repeated at a lot of places. There are tiny stupas like structures scattered around the big stupa. Which we were told were put by the people whose wishes were fulfilled after praying at the Stupa.
Sanchi Stupa’s Galore
Apart from Stupa 1, Stupa 3 is the only well-preserved monument. All others are in various stages of ruins. On the west of the Stupa 1, the stairs take you down to a plain area, with slanted wall. Which has a huge water tank and the ruins of a monastery? The monastery is almost square in shape with rooms all around and a central courtyard. This part has been discovered during very recent excavations. Another set of stairs would take you down to Stupa 2. And on the way, you would see a huge begging bowl. There are lots of small stupas in the south and east of Stupa 1. It is believed that they belong to the disciples of Buddha. Some of these stupas have a square base. Indicating that they are from the Gupta period, by virtue of the architecture.
Around the Sanchi Stupa
The stones on the floor and along the circular boundary wall of Sanchi stupa have various inscriptions in Brahmi or Pali script. Guide told us these are the names of the donors who donated that particular stone. Guess how old is this tradition of advertising your name for eternity through a small donation. Like most world heritage sites, this place is also well maintained. There are lawns around the Sanchi Stupa. Each and every stupa and temple is well numbered. You can refer to the guidebook to read a detailed description.
Tourist guides are available who would take you around and tell you the stories of the place. We were lucky to get a guide who was a student of archaeology and could explain many things. Though I would recommend the world heritage series guides by ASI as the best bets to get the correct and detailed information on the monuments.
Local Knowledge & Stories
But as they say, there is more power in stories and never underestimate the power of local knowledge. So do speak to people around and they would always surprise you with some interesting and unknown information. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to visit the place, not only to escape the heat of Indian planes. But also to see Sanchi Stupa with sun rays falling on it, almost giving a feeling of being made of sandalwood instead of stone. For photo enthusiasts, it is a good time to capture good pictures. There is a certain serenity that you would feel during mornings and evenings. If you are lucky you will get to see a lot of peacocks in the mornings.
As you stand on the hill, you can hear and see the trains going past the hill. If you are going from Delhi to Bhopal, you can see the Sanchi stupa on your left. Just keep an eye out for it after you pass the Vidisha station.
Heliodorus pillar is a spot between Vidisha and Udaigiri caves. It’s a small spot and many locals would not know about its exact location. But they may tell you about it if you ask for ‘Khamb baba’. Heliodorus pillar is actually a garuda stambh i.e a pillar carrying the Garuda symbol, which is a carrier of Lord Vishnu. The legend is that the pillar was erected by a Greek scholar named Heliodorus, who had adopted Hinduism. The pillar dates back to 150 BC and has inscriptions in Brahmi. What you see there and what you read on the ASI boards is only this much. The pillar seems to be standing all alone in an enclosed ground. But when we spoke to the people around the area, we heard some interesting stories.
Stories on Heliodorus Pillar
There is no way to validate these stories, but one person told us that the pillar is as much inside the ground as you see outside. And this piece of land is continuously going inside. They also believe that there is a temple made of gold beneath the pillar. And the place can not be excavated. Whenever there has been an attempt to excavate the place, the place was filled with Snakes and Scorpios, making it impossible to excavate.
There is a mysterious tree close to the pillar. If you notice closely, there are a lot of nails that are stuck in the trunk. A villager told us that the place is used for a lot of Tantrik rituals. There are at least a ton of nails inside the tree. The bark keeps covering the nails and people keep putting the nails there.
There were stone sculptures depicting the Sati. For the first time, I saw the significance of Agni or fire in the marital relationship. The sculpture depicted that it’s the fire in which the couple commits to each other. And it is in the fire that they leave the world together. There can be many questions around it, but an interesting perspective.
Beejamandal Temple Complex
Beejamandal is a temple complex right in the town of Vidisha. But again not many people know about it. And there are no boards guiding you this ancient site. It was constructed as a temple dedicated to Charchika Devi, an avatar of Durga. By Parmar King Navbarman in the 11th century. Aurangzeb destroyed it and converted it into a mosque. After independence, it was taken over by ASI. It is just a monument since then. It’s a temple built on a huge platform like the one at Bhojpur. The broken sculptures have Hindu deities on them. Some erotica figures prominent in them is Kirti Mukha of Mahadeva. The remains of the temple are lying around the platform, broken and disfigured, thousands of them.
There is a stepped well and a Bawdi near the temple which is said to be dating back to 8th century. Two pillars near the Bawdi depict Krishna Leela or the stories from Lord Krishna’s life. The Bawdi is supposed to have a water source beneath it and is said to maintain a constant level of water. The site has pathetic state both inside and outside the monument. Strangely while we were trying to locate the place, everyone said the people here are not nice. They would never answer anything, and this sentence came to us from almost everyone we spoke to. We as visitors, of course, can not comment on people, but why this downplaying of people.
Museum at Vidisha houses a lot of artifacts and sculptures. Which has been found at various excavation sites in and around Vidisha? There is a huge statue of Kuber. And another one of a Yakshi. There are pieces scattered all over the museum. Which also sells the plaster of paris versions of the sculptures along with few books.
Udaigiri Caves are cave temples, built sometime in the 4-5th century by Chandragupta Maurya. Cave temples are first temples that used to exist before the temples were built on the land. On raised platforms, and later various styles of temple architectures came into being. There are about 20 Hindu and few Jain cave temples on the hill. But the only piece of work that you may take notice of is a sculpture of Vishnu’s Varaha Avatar on the wall of cave 5. Apart from that, there are temples devoted to more or less all Hindu deities, most of which have been destroyed.
Here again, you would notice that the features on all figures are very Greek. So either there was a lot of Greek influence in India at that point in time. Or the artists were Greek so the influence. It is also possible that these were the general features and our current day features have evolved from there. On top of the hill are ruins of a temple which it appears is from the Gupta period. Again a huge pillar was found there, similar to the Ashoka pillar at Sanchi. On your way down you can see a rest house which was built by the king of Gwalior about 100 years ago.
Gateway Retreat is an MP tourism hotel, which is quite well maintained and managed. It is at walking distance from the monument. You can go for an early morning walk around the Stupa from here. I am quite impressed with most MP tourism properties, and their hospitality. They are giving good competition to the private players. I am sure most other state tourism boards in India can take few lessons from MP tourism. Sanchi attracts only about 1 lakh tourists a year. Most of it is school children or Buddhist from Sri Lanka. This figure can definitely be improved, probably not many people know about this place.
Tropic Of Cancer
Tropic of Cancer is a virtual line that divides the northern hemisphere into two parts. It passes through North of Bhopal. You can cross it as you travel between Vidisha and Bhopal. I want to see equator also sometime.
Visiting Sanchi is like visiting a piece of history. Which thrived at some point in time, was lost in another. Only to be rediscovered by later generations, looking for their heritage.
Recommend you to read following travel blog posts on Madhya Pradesh Tourist Places.