Searching Sanchi

Sanchi, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

August 2015

Mention Buddhism in India, and four things that will immediately pop-up are: Ashoka (can be the Shahrukh Khan version), Sanchi, Sarnath and Boddhgaya. When you learn about history of a religion in textbooks, it is a natural habit to try visualise the context beyond the black-and-white grainy image of your books. But when you step on the threshold of history and end up staring for 15 mins before actually exploring it, that’s when you realise how much of the subtexts are lost!

Technically speaking, Buddhist architecture started around 400 CE, even before the death of Buddha. However, it was during the Mauryan period that the architecture started developing images of Buddha. It is the Stupa that holds such great importance within the Buddhist architecture. Legend has it that following the cremation of Buddha, his ashes were divided into 8 parts and distributed among various rulers to be enshrined at special burial mounds. The eight stupas with relics of Buddha were Rajagriha, Vaishali, Kapilavastu, Allakappa, Ramagrama, Pava, Kushinagar and Vethapida. Emperor Ashoka (274-236 BC) is said to have redistributed the relics housed in the original stupa into thousands of stupas throughout India – which includes the ones at Sanchi and Sarnath.

“By a strange coincidence, it happens that the monuments of Sanchi, the noblest of all monuments that early Buddhism has bequeathed to India, are those about which least information is available to the public. Ancient Indian writers scarcely mention them; the Chinese pilgrims who are such a mine of information regarding other Buddhist sites, pass them by in silence”.

Sir John Marshall, in his book ‘A Guide to Sanchi’
Brain child of Emperor Ashoka

Sanchi, variously known as Kakanaya, Kakanava, Kakanadabota and Bota-Sriparvata in ancient times, has a singular distinction of having remarkable specimen of stupas, monolithic Asokan pillar, temples, monasteries and sculptural wealth – basically all things that can be considered as Buddhist art and architecture, right from the early Mauryan period (c. third century BC to twelfth century AD). The Sanchi stupa is a known example of the oldest Indian stone structures found in the country.

“The original Stupa, which was probably built by Asoka at the same time as the column was erected, was a structure of brick about half the diameter of the present Stupa, and it was not until about a century later that this original Stupa was encased in stone and brought to its present dimensions, and that the balustrade was built around its base, while it was not until the latter part of the first century before the Christian era that the four gateways were erected”

Sir John Marshall

While the hemi-spherical dome stands in its simplicity guarding over the relics of Buddha, representing the cosmic mountain, enclosed within a circular stone railing or stone balustrade, its the dramatic toranas (gates) places in four directions, that will immediately capture you attention and keep you engrossed for hours. For example, do you see the toran below and how the fat guys have been carved to appear as if they are supporting the weight of the toran? They are called as yakshas or dwarfs. Evidently, although the weight is same on all the yakshas it is their disposition towards life and responsibilities, that makes some of them sad or angry, while others with a more sunnier look on their face. The concept of the laughing Buddha has been adopted from here.

Carvings of yakshas or dwarfs on the Western Gate, the last gate that was built.

Each toran is an architecture marvel, with detailed stone carvings depicting Buddhist motifs, symbols, historical and religious scenes 

Circumambulating the Stupa was considered as a spiritual journey of the mind, and the heart, as a means of communicating with noblest of souls who had walked the earth centuries ago and whose relics lay inside the imposing stone walls of the Stupa. The circumambulatory path also provides panoramic views of the Sanchi site as well as a closer view of the exquisite Toran gates and their detailed carvings from the inner side.

The stair case that enables circumabulation

Along with the main dome of the stupa, the ballustrade is split into four quadrants at the cardinal points where the four gates are placed, marked by statues of Buddha in his classic pose.

Beyond the exquisite carvings of the gateways depicting various aspects of Buddhism, the main highlights of Sanchi are:

  • Gautam Buddha never visited Sanchi in his lifetime.
  • The stone carvings of the Sanchi gates are believed to be the first of their kind in the world.
  • Inscription of the first Indian written language.
  • The design of the dome of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi is inspired by the Sanchi Stupa.
  • Remnants of the original Ashoka Pillar from 3rd century near the souther gate
  • The Southern gates holds the most unique aspects of the Great stupa, perhaps because it is the oldest of the four gates. First and foremost is the Ashoka Chakra that has been adopted as part of the national emblem of India. The Ashoka Chakra is a depiction of the Dharmachakra; a wheel represented with 24 spokes in Buddhism as well as Hinduism and Jainism. Last would be the Ashoka Lions, seated back to back and facing the four cardinal directions
  • Few Indian currency notes like Rs 200, Rs 50, and some earlier notes use the Sanchi stupa to signify the country’s cultural heritage.

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

Madhya Pradesh

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