Sanchi is a small close to Bhopal in the Vidisha district in Madhya Pradesh. Vidhisha, known as Besnagar, was a popular business center in ancient India. Sanchi is best known for Buddhist Stupas found on a hilltop here popularly known as Sanchi Stupa.
The biggest one is Sanchi Stupa, often referred to as Great Stupa.
Who Built Sanchi Stupa?
Ashoka built many stupas across India where the relics of Buddha were buried. Sanchi stupa is one of the most preserved of them. So, we can say that the foundations of this stupa were laid by Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. It was constantly enhanced by various kings down the line in size, by adding balustrades and sculptures.
Ashoka was married to Devi, the daughter of a merchant of Vidhisha, who continued to stay in Vidhisha even after marriage. Ashoka also erected one of these stone pillars here, which is unfortunately lost. The Association of Ashoka is also reinforced by the presence of Chunar stone and Mauryan Polish like the one we see at Barabar Caves.
7th CE Chinese traveler Huan Tsang incidentally does not mention this stupa. Did he miss visiting it or had it fallen out of practice by then?
The smaller Stupas carry the relics of disciples of Buddha or other Buddhist monks and teachers. There are temples and monasteries around the Stupa. Indicating that it was probably a place of learning or practicing Buddhism some 2000-odd years ago. Buddha himself though never visited this place or this region.
Sanchi Stupa was lost in history from the 14th to 19th CE. In 1818 CE, General Taylor found the ruins of Stupa 1,2, and 3. For the next 100 years, different excavations and restorations were carried out at the site. Temples, monasteries, votive stupas, wall enclosures, and residential quarters were discovered and restored. Potteries, coins, utensils, etc were found in plenty.
Monuments at Sanchi Hill
Broadly there are two categories of monuments – one on top of the hill like the Great Stupa and others on the western slope of the hill.
On top of the hill, an oblong plateau roughly 400 meters by 200 meters, enclosed within a wall contains most monuments. There is an old path to reach the top via Chikani Ghati.
British officers built a stone pathway to go up. Now we have a motorable road that takes us to the top.
Monuments on the slope can be accessed from a path going down close to Stupa 1.
Great Stupa or Stupa 1 at Sanchi
The Sanchi Stupa or Great Stupa is huge, a semi-circular dome that stands out with its sheer size. It has steps on its southern side to climb and take a parikrama. 4 Torans or gateways in all 4 directions form a boundary around the Stupa.
There is a Chhatravalli or crown with triple umbrellas at the top of the Stupa. They symbolize the three tenets of Buddhism i.e. Buddham Sharanam Gachhami, Dhammam Sharanam Ghachhami, and Sangham Sharnam Gachhami.
Stupa 1 measures 36.6 meters in diameter and is 16.46 meters high without counting the Chhatravalli.
Balustrades or cross bars forming the circumambulatory path have stones that were donated by donors from across the country. These donor inscriptions are a great source of information about those times.
The original stupa was made of terracotta and is hidden inside the present-day Stupa. During its restoration, a layer of bricks and lime mortar was added on top of the original stupa. The lime layer has started to come off and gives an interesting character to the whole structure.
Stone encasing, terrace, balustrades, Harmika, and railing around Chhatravalli were added as part of the restoration.
Torans of Sanchi Stupa 1
Decorated Torans on the four sides are the highlight of this site. These were built in 1st BCE during the rule of Satvahanas as indicated by an inscription on southern Toran.
Each Toran is made of three horizontal panels placed on two pillars and joined together with smaller vertical stones. Both 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 Gandharvas. Expressions of the Gandharvas on western Toran are worth noticing with various emotions of carrying the weight depicted. The horizontal panels carry a spiral on both sides.
Cross bars create 8 squares that have horse or elephant riders. Shalbhanjikas can be seen on the projections joining the pillar and the end of the horizontal panel. On top of the toran is Dharma Chakra flanked by Chamara bearers and decorated Tri-Ratna.
Builders of these torans were ivory carvers. Their hand is evident in the fine work of carvings.
The carvings on the Torans include
- Symbols of Buddhism like lotus, chakras, and stupas
- Scenes from the life of Buddha like his birth through Maya’s dream, enlightenment depicted by the Bodhi tree, first sermon depicted through chakra or wheel, and death depicted through Stupa. Yes, Buddha is depicted through his symbols rather than his human form. Other scenes include his departure from Kapilavastu, Sujata’s offering, war with Maras, etc.
- Jataka tales that tell us stories of Bodhisattvas like
- Events in the History of Buddhism
- Scenes from the everyday life of a Buddhist
- Ashoka chakra and the four lions
- Decorative Motifs
The southern Toran is the primary Toran and was the first erected. It leads to the stairs that take you to the top of the Stupa. It carries the Ashoka symbol of four loins. Ashoka Pillar also stood next to this Toran. Only its lower part remains in situ. It is also the most damaged one, while the north one is best preserved.
Buddha Images at Sanchi Stupa
As you enter through any of the four openings or torans, you see a large Buddha image sitting beneath a canopy, exuberating calm. These images belong to the Gupta period and were added around 450 CE. He seems to be sitting against the stupa wall meditating in Dhyan Mudra with elaborate halos behind them.
Later Enhancements to the heritage monument
Various temples around the stupa were built or enhanced at various times. This indicates that the monument was living till about the 7-8th century CE. After that, this was lost in the jungles. A lot of damage was done to it by people who removed anything that they could use found from the place. They broke the Ashoka pillar and used it to extract sugarcane juice.
Around the heritage monument
The stones on the floor and along the circular boundary wall of the Stupa have various inscriptions in Brahmi or Pali script. They carry the names of the donors who donated to them. Guess how old is this tradition of advertising your name for eternity through a small donation.
Other Stupas at Sanchi
There are tiny stupas-like structures scattered around the big stupa. These are votive stupas installed by the people whose wishes were fulfilled after praying at the Stupa.
Apart from Stupa 1, Stupa 3 is the only well-preserved stupa. It is a smaller version of the Great Stupa, smaller in height and radius but following the same design. It has similar balustrades going around the stupa. In fact, an inscription says that both the balustrades were sponsored by the same person.
Stupa 3 has one Toran or gateway. It is believed that bone relics of Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, students of Gautam Buddha are buried here.
It has been dated to the 2nd BCE.
On the west of Stupa 1, the stairs take you down to a plain area, with a slanted wall. There is a huge water tank and the ruins of a monastery. Monastery 51 is almost square in shape with rooms all around and a central courtyard.
Numbered 46 and 47, these two monasteries were discovered during very recent excavations.
Ruins of many other structures including temples can be seen around these monasteries.
Another set of stairs would take you down to Stupa 2. It is similar to Stupa 3 and has 4 entrances but without any decorative Toran. Its balustrades are well preserved though.
On the way, you would see a huge begging bowl.
There are lots of small stupas in the south and east of Stupa 1. 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.
Stupa 5 has an image of Buddha in Dhyan Mudra or meditation pose.
Earliest Temples at the complex
The heritage complex has some of the earliest known temple structures dating back to the Gupta and Mauryan periods. These are the earliest seeds of the North Indian temple architecture style.
Temple 18 is a 7th CE apsidal-shaped temple that would have stood on 12 pillars and a raised platform. You can see glimpses of Chaitya Griha seen at Ajanta caves or Ellora.
Temple 17 has a square sanctum with a flat roof and a portico. Portico pillars have a lion capital. Doorjambs have floral decorative patterns. I have seen similar patterns at the same-era temples at Ramtek in Maharashtra. This has elements of Gupta Architecture.
Temple 9 is similar to Temple 17.
The 31st temple is an oblong temple with pillars and a flat roof with a Buddha image that does not seem to belong there.
Temple 40 has elements of three different periods from the 3rd BCE to the 8th CE.
Like most UNESCO world heritage sites, this place is also well maintained with green lawns. Each and every stupa and temple are well numbered.
Tourist guides are available. We were lucky to get a guide who was a student of archaeology and could explain many things. I recommend the world heritage series guides by ASI as the best for detailed information on the monuments.
Gateway Retreat, the MP Tourism hotel is within walking distance. You can easily go for a morning walk to the stupa from here.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times to visit the place. It helps you escape the heat of Indian planes. You can also admire 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 the 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 Stupa on your left. Just keep an eye out for it after you pass the Vidisha station.
Bhopal is the closest airport and a well-connected hub of rail and road transport.