Recommendations : Hire a guide, usually available at the entrance. They usually charge INR 475 – 500 for a group of 5. At MPT Gateway Retreat (M.P. Tourism Hotel), you can buy handcrafted statues of Lord Buddha, Sanchi Stupa, etc in marble, stone, wood and other materials at Alankar Handicrafts.
At a distance of 10 kms is Vidisha, anciently known as Besnagar. Ashoka’s wife Devi was the daughter of a merchant of Vidisha. A must visit is the Heliodorus pillar, a stone column build between 140 – 119 BC erected by the Indo greek ambassador of the Indo greek King Antialcidas in Taxila (now in Punjab, Pakistan). Heliodorus was the ambassador to the royal court of King Bhagabhadra. This pillar was erected by Heliodorus on his subsequent conversion to Vaishnavism (Hinduism).
Locals called it the Khamba Baba or Khambaba.
The Great Stupa,as this monument is sometimes called, has a history of construction and repair that makes ASI restorations seem puny in comparison. The Stupa as it stands today, encases an older structure, which was half its current size, made of burnt bricks and mud mortar. This structure, attributed to the Ashokan period, is estimated to have been damaged around the 2nd century BCE, after which it was completely reconstructed. Keep in mind that the Stupas where originally build as funerary buildings, containing the relics of first the Buddha and later the Bodhisattvas ( Buddha’s followers who have attained Nirvana ).
The structure consists of a hemispherical dome, crowned with a chattravali or triple umbrella.A high circular terrace on the structure can be approached via a double stairway on the south. This terrace is the Pradakshina path and is meant to be circumambulated. Another procession part is accessible through the four exquisitely carved gateways, built during the Satavahana reign in the 1st century BCE. The names of the donors have been included in the structure.South gateway is the earliest and the most damaged, while the one to the north has retained most of its original decorations, and gives the best idea of the splendor that these four gateways are provided together formerly.
Each gateway comprises two square pillars crowned by a set of lions, elephants or plump dwarves supporting the architraves. The details in the sculptures, specially in the facial expressions of the dwarfs,is particularly remarkable. Some seem to be laboring under the weight , while others seem quite content with their Sisyphean task.
The gateways also include beautifully carved elephants, horses, and, contrary to Buddhist ideals, even amorous couples. Most important though are the very many scenes depicted in rich detail, from Buddha’s life, the Jatakas and scenes from the subsequent history of Buddhism.T here is a board near the Stupa with a pictorial display that illustrates the stories depicted in each gateway. Notice how the Buddha is never represented in his human form in the scenes from his life, but rather as a caparisoned horse with an umbrella, a throne, the Dharmachakra or a promenade.
The last additions were made to the Stupa around 450 CE, in the Gupta period, these include the four images of the Buddha,each under a pillored canopy, facing the four entrances. The Buddha statues are shown to be in the Dhyana Mudra ( meditation posture ).
Devotees from all over the subcontinent are said to have sponsored the construction of the balustrades and pavements hear, which have their names inscribed on them. The names carved on the pavement are now worse for wear due to heavy footfall.look out for them as you circumambulate the Stupa.
On the same terrace, to the left or north east of Stupa 1,is Stupa 3, much smaller in size and clearly modelled after Stupa 1. It has a single gateway and a single umbrella at its crown and was built along with the stairway and railings in the 2nd century BCE, soon after the reconstruction of Stupa 1, according to archaeologists. There is also evidence that suggests that the Stupa was built on the patronage of a single donar. This Stupa is considered important in the realm of Buddhism since it is said to have contained the relics of Maudgalyayana and Sariputra, two of the Buddha’s main disciples. The lids of the relic caskets found inside the Stupa by British archaeologist Alexender Cunningham can now be seen at the site museum.
Other than these two,there are several other smaller stupas in the main section of the complex. These are either monolithic or structural, but only the plinths have survived.
There are also several partially intact, free standing pillars in the complex. The earliest, and most notable, is Pillar 10, erected by Ashoka, located near the southern gateway of Stupa 1. Only the lower part stands intact, with fragments of the shaft placed in a shed,and its capital in the site museum. Have a look at the fragments to observe a damaged inscription that records Ashoka’s threat to excommunicate any monk or nun who tries to create divisions within the Buddhist Sangha.
There are also a series of temples scattered around the complex. The most important and noticable,is Temple 18, standing on a raised platform behind Stupa 1. Built around the 7th century CE, it is a stunning monument, which originally had 12 pillars, but only nine of them have survived.
Temple 17 is situated near Temple 18 and stands on a low base.A flat roofed square structure having a portico supported on four pillars, it is an excellent example of typical Gupta architecture,boasting structural propriety, symmetry, proportions as well as restrained ornamentation.
To the east of Stupa 5, Temple 31 is a flat roofed pillared shrine, standing on a high platform that can be approached by a flight of steps. The temple contains an image of the Buddha seated on a lotus, with a wonderfully carved halo around his head. The temple has been dated to the 6th or 7th century CE and was reconstructed in the 10th or 11th century.
Before heading to the eastern sections of monuments, walk down the modern flight of steps for a breathtaking view of monastery 51. This compact monastary is well preserved and is fantastic to walk around and explore, additionally the views of Stupa 1 from the monastery are stunning and must have surely inspired monks for generations.
The monastary has been associated with Devi, a queen married to Ashoka. Its layout out is typical, with an open central courtyard, an enclosing verandah and a range of cells. There was a system to carry water from the courtyard through a drain.
To the south-west is an old quarry, which was subsequently turned into a tank.Near the path that leads to Stupa 2, there is a giant bowl formed by scooping out a large stone boulder.
Walk down the modern path to reach Stupa 2, which is similar to 3 in terms of size and contour, but lacks a gateaway and is shorn of its crowning members and stairway, because of which it seems especially bare. But the relatively well preserved and decorated railing on the ground makes up for this. Take a walk around and admire the fascinating carvings, which include floral and plan designs, real and mythological animals, and human and yaksha figures.
Look out for the representations of horses equipped with stirrups, the earliest such representation in the Indian subcontinent.
Head back up and to the east of Stupa 1 for a set of monasteries and small temples construct on a raised terrace and spread across a wide area. Don’t miss the image of the Buddha in a verandah of Temple 45. These structures, specially the temples, havefascinating carvings.
Before you head back to Bhopal or onto the next site on your list, go to the site museum at the foot of the hill and have a look at all the objects discovered during excavations in the colonial period. The museum was first set up in 1919 but the current site of the museum was chosen in 1966. It houses artefacts from Sanchi as well as neighbouring sites including Vidisha and Gyaraspur. The highlight of the visit would certainly be the Ashokan lion capital from pillar 10.