Reminiscences of Emperor Ashoka, Ancient History and Art of the Mauryan period & Buddhist Philosophy
The quiet & peaceful town of Sanchi in Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh, India is synonymous with Buddhist Stupas – a series of 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. Located 48 km from Bhopal, Sanchi is synonymous with Buddhism and gorgeous vistas.
The Stupas here are along the most well preserved monuments in India , primarily they were maintained and reworked by devout Buddhist communities and patroned Monarchs over the centuries. Though it is one of the most visited Buddhist sites in the country,, oddly enough, the site was never directly a part of Buddha’s life or piligrimages. Nevertheless, the monuments offer historians, archaeologists, devotees as well as tourists of all religious persuasions a chance to marvel at some of the finest Buddhist art and architecture in the subcontinent. Compared to giant Buddhist structures in Indonasia and other Soth East Asian countries, the monuments in Sanchi are rather small. However, what they lack in size they make up for in richness of detail.
Moreover, they offer a sense of tranquility and solitude that is quiet incomparable. 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. Apart from archeological value,the Sanchi Stupa’s shows the journey towards enlightenment. These structures also explain how Buddha achieved enlightenment, freeing himself from the cycle of life and death. The Stupa consists of a base bearing a hemispherical dome (anda), symbolizing the dome of heaven enclosing the earth. It is surmounted by a squared rail unit (harmika) representing the world mountain, from which rises a mast (yashti), symbolizing the cosmic axis. The mast bears umbrellas (chatras) that represent the various heavens (devaloka).
A visit to Sanchi will bring alive the awe you felt as a child as you listened to the tales of Ashoka. The Sanchi hill goes up in shelves with Stupa No. 2 situated on a lower shelf, Stupa No. 1, Stupa No. 3, the 5th century Gupta Temple No.17 and the 7th century temple No. 18 are on the intermediate shelf and a later monastery is on the crowning shelf. The balustrade surrounding Stupa No. 2, carved with aniconic representations of the Buddha, was added in the late 2nd century BC under the Satavahanas. The adjacent Gupta temple no.17 was hailed by Sir John Marshall as one of the most rationally organized structures in Indian architecture. Though small, it was a herald of all the principles which went into the engineering of an Indian temple in the early medieval period. The Buddha’s in the perambulatory surrounding Stupa No. 1 are not contemporary with the Stupa but belongs to the Gupta period in the mid-5th century AD. The monastery and the temple with the tall pillars adjacent to Stupa No. 1 and the temple near the monastery on the crowning shelf illustrate the evolution of the architectural form after the 5th century Gupta temple.
Sanchi is about 40 km from Bhopal. Located in the district Raisen, the group of monuments can be spotted high atop a hill well before arriving at the actual site. Even before you enter the archaeological complex, there is the site museum at the bottom of the hill (closed Mondays ), and the Cetiyagiri Vihara, a more modern Buddhist establishment set up by a council of Sri Lankan Buuddhists. Neither requires much time or deliberation,but are necessary stops for a complete visit to the site. There is now a motarable road that leads to the parking lot and entrance to the monuments. The large number of Buddhist structures can be divided into two groups,the primary one on the hill top, and the isolated structures on the western slope of the hill.The later can be accessed by a path that starts at the back of Stupa 1 as you approach from the main gate,or from the West Gateway. This path leads visitors downhill, first to monastery 51 and then further down to Stupa 2. Below Stupa 2 is the ancient road to the structures, which would be advised against following,since it has fallen into complete disuse and there is a good chance of getting lost. At any rate, the ASI security guard at Stupa 2 will politely but firmly lead you back up to the main structures, either via the way you came or through an alternate route that leads to a set of votive stupas close to Monastery 51.
Emperor Ashoka built the great stupa and made the town of Sanchi sacred as well as popular in 3rd century BC. But a British cavalry officer rediscovered and revived the sacredness of the town in 1818. Buddhist influence over the central Indian landscape had declined by the 12th century and the stupas and other monuments slipped into obscurity. As Buddhism recessed, these architectural marvels were no more considered useful, and eventually, were completely forgotten. It was in the year 1818 that British officer General Taylor discovered the site of Sanchi. He set about restoring its glory. Between 1912 and 1919, these beautiful ancient structures were restored to their present condition under the able supervision of Sir John Marshall, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. Today around 50 monuments remain on the hill of Sanchi, narrating the rise and fall of Buddhist art and architecture.
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