The town of Sanchi is synonymous with Buddhist Stupas – hemispherical structures typically containing relics of the Buddha or his followers. The Stupas of Sanchi were constructed on the orders of Emperor Ashoka to preserve and spread the Buddhist philosophy. Sanchi has been protecting these beautiful and sacred architectural wonders, just the way these wonders have been safeguarding ancient history and art of the Mauryan period.
The numerous stupas, temples, monasteries and an Ashokan pillar have been the focus of interest and awe for global audiences as well. In fact, UNESCO has given the status of ‘World Heritage Site’ to the Mahastupa.
The historical evidence of the Stupas and Monasteries in Sanchi, located atop a hill, record the birth, growth and decay of Buddhist art and architecture, starting from the 3rd century BCE all the way to the 12th century CE, covering the entire Buddhist period in ancient and medieval Indian history.
The foundation of the religious structures at Sanchi are believed to have been led by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka,who built a Stupa and erected a monolithic pillar here. His marriage to a merchants daughter from Vidisha has been cited as the prime reason why this spot was chosen as the building site of the Stupa.
Additionally, the hilltop provided an ideal place for a monastery, with a serene atmosphere of seclusion,something visitors can experience for themselves, specially if they get here early. With the patronage of the prosperous merchants of Vidisha, Sanchi grew to be a prominent Buddhist establishment. It close vicinity to Vidisha, and strategic location at the confluence of the Betwa and Bes rivers, as well as on important trade routes, resulted in a great amazing of wealth in the community.
Historical facts point out that this went a long way in the continued prosperity of Sanchi even as the Mauryan Empire diminished and became a thing of the past.There was a lot of building activity during the Sunga period, around 2nd century BCE, which resulted in the stone and casing and enlargement of the Stupa originally built in the Ashokan period, the reconstruction of Temple 40, and the construction of Stupas 2 and 3.
The construction continued in the Satavahana period, when the famous elaborately carved gateways of Stupas 1 and 3 were added .
In the following centuries, the so-called Kushana period ( circa 1st & 2nd centuries CE ), there was a slackening of structural activity. Then, during the reign of the Gupta Dynasty, there was a period of peace and prosperity that allowed for the flourishing of artistic pursuits. Historians agree that the Gupta period ushered in a new era in the history of temple architecture in the subcontinents, which in turn resulted in a flurry of Temple building at Sanchi. Temple 17, for example, is one of the earliest Gupta temples in the complex and is undoubted a stunning structure, despite the simplicity of ornamentation.
The next phase of prosperity for Buddhist communities in the subcontinent was during the time of Harshwardhana ( r. 606 – 647 CE ). There are many Buddhist images at Sanchi executed in the late Gupta sculptural tradition,though they are considered by the specialist to be rather mundane and lifeless. Sanchi was largely unaffected by the political turmoil that seemed to constantly shake the Indian subcontinent. In the early medieval period, many spectacular temples and monastery structures continue to be built. Archaeologists and historians have yet to figure out clearly what led to the end of Sanchi’s monastic establishment.
While there are sculptural remains of Brahmanical Gods such as Vishnu,Ganesha and Durga dating to around the 13th century CE ( now located in the Sanchi site museum ) no contemporaneous Buddhist monuments or sculptures have been found. It is therefore not clear if there was a period of mutual existence of people of different religious persuasions ( perhaps a pipe dream then as much as it sometimes seems to be now ), or if the Buddhist community perhaps deserted the site either suddenly or slowly, over time. There was, to be sure, a resurgence of Brahmanism starting all the way back in the Gupta period, and its affects may eventually have led to the decline of the ones thriving Buddhist community that made Sanchi an essential stop on the devout’s as well as tourist trail.
Do not miss the museum which further showcases the rich history of the Sanchi Stupas.