Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire sure did not do things half-heartedly. He was known to be a ruthless king, whose early rule is infamous for expanding his kingdom to an unprecedented stretch across South Asia through fierce wars that left hundreds of thousands dead. But then his guilt after the destruction wrought by the Kalinga War made him embrace Buddhism, and he apparently went on to build 84,000 stupas to help propagate the new religion. Unfortunately, very few of these magnificent structures remain standing today, and the oldest among these is the Great Stupa at Sanchi.
Sanchi is a complex of Buddhist monuments, included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, located about 45 km from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Proximity to the city gives Sanchi great access, with the small area in which the monuments are built making it easy to cover most of it over a day trip. Local accommodation options are very limited, and staying in Bhopal, or nearby Vidisha (just 15 min drive away), are safer bets.
Photo by tjollans
Ashoka’s wife, Devi, belonged to the historically important city of Vidisha, and the two are believed to have got married there as well. This made the site a natural choice for Ashoka to establish one of his first stupas here, which he commissioned in 3rd c. BCE. Improvements and additions to the original structure were made under the Shungas (especially Agnimitra), in the 1st c. BCE, and the Satavahanas, between 1st c. BCE and 2nd c. CE. At least one major temple at the site has been dated to the 5th century rule of the Gupta dynasty, and minor additions kept being made to the complex right up to the 9th century. Sanchi remained important till Buddhism flourished in the region, but by the12th century the religion had seen significant decline and the stupa gradually fell into disuse.
After remaining forgotten for centuries, it was rediscovered by a British army officer in 1818. Treasure hunters and amateur explorers wreaked havoc on this ancient site for many decades before diligent restoration was started in 1881. There are about fifty monuments of varying importance on the Sanchi hill today, which include three stupas, a number of temples, monolithic pillars and palaces.
Photo by Suyash Dwivedi
Places to Visit
Stupas – Many people who haven’t been to Sanchi don’t realize that there are actually three prominent stupas here, which house relics of Buddhist monks, and even the Buddha himself by some accounts. The Great Stupa, or Stupa I, was commissioned by Ashoka in 3rd century BCE, then vandalized in 2nd century BCE and rebuilt soon after to a size much larger than the original. The balustrade was also added by the Shungas. The semi-circular dome of the main stupa has stairs on the southern side to climb up and do a circumambulation. The other two smaller stupas (Stupa II and Stupa III) were built during the Shunga period.
Photo by dalbera
Gateways – Four highly decorated gateways, or toranas, stand around the Great Stupa, one in each cardinal direction. The detailed carvings on these tall gateways mainly depict scenes from the life of Buddha. According to the inscriptions found here, these were added during the age of the Satavahanas. The carvings on each Gateway are very distinct, but equally spellbinding. The Southern Gateway has the famous Ashokan motif of the lions joined at their backs as well as the Ashoka dharmachakra. The Northen Gateway is, however, the best preserved of the four.
Photo by Nagarjun Kandukuru
Temples – Several large and small temples are spread around the complex, each numbered for easy reference. Prominent among these are Temples 17 and 18, which have noticeable elements of classical Greek architecture, and might point to the influence of Greek donors. Temples 40 and 45 (the last temple to be built here, in the 9th century) are other important ones.
Archaeological Museum – Maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, the museum houses the many relics found in and around Sanchi. The museum has been instrumental in saving many important artifacts from being lost forever, like the Ashokan Pillar, which had supposedly been taken away by a local landlord for use as a sugarcane press!
Photo by Aditya Maurya
Chetiyagiri Vihara – This Buddhist temple built in 1952, and maintained by the Mahaboddhi Society of Sri Lanka, houses the bone relics of Moggallana and Sariputta, the two chief disciples of Gautam Buddha. These had been taken to England by the British, then spent some time in Sri Lanka, before getting back home.
Others – The Sanchi complex has many other options for exploration, including the Great Bowl, a large receptacle carved out of stone that was used to serve food to monks hundreds of years ago.
Near Sanchi – There are a number of sites close to Sanchi too that could interest some travelers. The most accessible among these are Sonari and Satdhara, both of which can be reached by a short drive followed by a quick trek. Each location has stupas and monasteries in differing architectural styles, but not as well-maintained as the ones in Sanchi.
Photo by Asitjain
If you are here, you should not miss the ancient city of Vidisha either. About 8 km from Sanchi, towards Vidisha, is the Heliodorus Pillar (also known as Khamba Baba), erected by the Greek ambassador Heliodorus in 113 BCE. The pillar was topped by a Garuda sculpture, which has been defaced now. 13 km from Sanchi and 4 km from Vidisha are the Udayagiri Caves, a major archaeological site with cave temples from the Gupta period. The most famous attraction here is the sculpture of Vishnu in the Varaha (boar) Avatar. Vidisha itself, of course, is worth a whole article on its own.
Featured Photo by Pooja Arya