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Sanchi Stupa – A Poetry In Stone

A world heritage site near Bhopal and one of the oldest and biggest stone structures, the Sanchi Stupa stands testimony to two millennia. Built by the great King Ashoka in the third century BC, the Stupa has seen vandalism, expansions, abandonment, discovery and restoration.

Stupa means a dome-shaped structure in Buddhist shrines. It is not one structure but a complex of many shrines. It was meant for the Buddhist monks to stay and meditate and learn and teach the Bodhimarga- the way of Buddhists. The one that stands out as a gem of Stupas is the first great  Stupa.

Sanchi Stupa photo
Dwarfs uphold the Pillar by Anandajoti Bhikkhu under CC BY 2.0

When Buddha left his earthly body, his relics were distributed among eight kings. Each one of them built Stupas for the relics in his own capital. King Ashoka was keen on spreading the Buddhism far and wide and tried getting all the relics back together in Sanchi Stupa. There were fights over the relics. Later he was killed by his own Army General who took his kingdom and tried destroying the Stupa. His successors reconstructed and expanded it over the next few centuries.

The result is a magnificent example of stonework that leaves you speechless. The credit for discovery and restoration of the Stupa goes to British in the early 19th century.

At the entrance, there are gateways called Toran. There are four of them, one on each side. They are also meant to represent love, courage, peace, and trust. Each one is highly decorated and intricately carved. The carvings are so detailed and perfect that they look more like wood carvings. They depict scenes from Buddha’s life. These age-old tablets tell the stories of the miracles Buddha performed, like walking on the water of the Ganges and in the air. The temptations Buddha faced with steadfastness and reached enlightenment. One of the temptations was Mara. A series of sculptures depict Mara’s army fleeing after their defeat. One of the most famous carvings is the one showing the Bodhi tree under which Buddha was enlightened. There are tablets depicting Him teaching his disciples in heaven and on earth and also representing Buddha as the Dharma Chakra (Law of the universe) and Bodhi tree.

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Sanchi Stupa photo
Sanchi Stupa by travelling slacker under CC BY 2.0

Stories from Buddha’s earlier incarnations, called Jatakas are also carved out. When Buddha was born as a monkey, he was a king of monkeys and helped them cross a stream by being the bridge across. The stories and the carvings both are equally fascinating.

Sanchi Stupa photo
Yaksini byAnandajoti Bhikkhu under CC BY 2.0

Other stories from Ashoka’s life and the Stupa’s life, are also depicted. The joy of Nagas on Buddha’s enlightenment, the fight over the relics of Buddha. One can spend hours listening to each story and marveling at each sculpture.

Each carving has inscriptions in Brahmi script, giving the details of the person who donated that tablet. It seems like the Stupa was built with the devotees’ donations and did not really depend on the royal patronage.

The Stupa itself is huge dome- 54 feet in radius but it is relatively less ornate and consists of a platform over which the relics are placed and a parasol like a dome that signifies the highest status of the relics. It is the feeling of cool, tranquil power in the Stupa that transports you to another dimension. Every whisper reverberates due to the dome shape and you can hear the silence.

The great Sanchi Stupa is also well-known for its well-adorned pillars. The most famous being the Ashoka pillar. This highly polished sandstone pillar had a 40 feet tall monolithic column atop which were four lions facing four directions.

Even today the crown of this pillar (four lions) is the emblem of India and the Dharma Chakra is a part of the Indian flag.

Featured Photo: Sanchi, Stupa 1, western gateway by Arian Zwegers under CC BY 2.0

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