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The Great Stupa at Sanchi

Take your pick when visiting Madhya Pradesh. This state is exceptionally rich in its heritage, religious destinations, wildlife, architecture, and scenic landscape. The great Stupa at Sanchi sits on a hilltop in Raisen District, a historical monument that draws thousands of visitors to its Buddhist complex.

But what’s unique about the setting is the calm and completeness that engulfs the visitor, once you step inside, even though the complex itself is not vast.

It is said that this peaceful setting is why Emperor Ashoka chose this location to build these stupas where Buddhist monks could lead their monastic lives.

The picture shows the beautiful dome of the Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh (Photo courtesy; Suman Bajpai)
The beautiful dome of the Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh (Photo courtesy; Suman Bajpai)

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Today the great stupa at Sanchi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates from the 3rd century BC to the 12th century AD and comprises monasteries, temples, and magnificent pillars.

The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka originally built the Great Stupa or Stupa, when he devoted his life to life to Buddhism. It has remained the center of Buddhist faith in the region. The remains of smaller stupas, monasteries, and temples surrounded a grand structure at the top of the hill.

Later, in the 1st century BC, intricately Carved they added intricately carved gateways to depict the history of Buddhism and stories of the Buddha and his 39 lives. These offer the best examples of early traditional art, which formed the base for Indian art.

The picture shows a sculpture of the Buddha at the Great Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh ( Photo courtesy ; Suman Bajpai)
A sculpture of the Buddha at the Great Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh ( Photo courtesy; Suman Bajpai)

Intricately carved gateways

Surrounding the Great Stupa are four gateways (Toranas), considered the finest of all Buddhist Toranas. They display intriguing Greek features on several exquisite carvings, including that of the Buddha. A brochure produced by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board describes the intensity and imagination of the carvings that counterbalance the massive solidity of the encircle.

It adds, ‘The Buddha here is portrayed only in symbols. Like the lotus representing his figure, the tree represents his enlightenment, the wheel is derived from the title of his first sermon, and the footprints and throne are the symbols of his presence.’

The picture shows the buildings of the complex at the Great Stupa in Madhya Pradesh (Photo courtesy/Suman Bajpai)
The building complex at the Great Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh (Photo courtesy/Suman Bajpai)

The Four Gateways

Each of the four gateways has a story that dates back to the time of Buddha. The Eastern Gateway depicts young prince Gautama leaving his father’s palace on his journey towards enlightenment, and the dream his mother had before his birth. The Western Gateway has seven incarnations of the Buddha. A wheel of law adorns the Northern Gateway and portrays the miracles connected with the Buddha, as told in the Jatakas. The Southern Gateway reveals the birth of Gautama Buddha in a series of dramatically rich carvings. One of the finest examples of the Ashoka Pillar lies close to the southern gateway with its aesthetic proportions and exquisite structural balance.

It depicts two poignant stories. The first is of Prince Vessantara, who gave away his wealth, his wife, and his children out of charity and compassion, and the second, is of Buddha, as the monkey king, who sacrificed his life to save his companions.

The inscriptions on the gateways mention donors from all over northern India and mention the ivory workers of Vidisha, who sculpted the stone with the precision of jewelers.

The picture shows the Western Gateway at the great Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh (Photo courtesy/ Suman Bajpai
The Western Gateway at the Great Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh (Photo courtesy/ Suman Bajpai.)

The teachings of the Buddha

Shelves divide the Sanchi hill, with Stupa 2 on the lowest shelf, Stupa 1, Stupa 3, the 5th-century Gupta temple No. 17, the 7th-century temple No. 18, and a later monastery on the highest shelf. The railing with symbols surrounding Stupa 2, carved with no idol or image of the Buddha, was added by Shungas in the late 2nd century BC. The rulers of Satavahanas constructed the four gateways of Stupa 1.

Sir John Marshall hailed the adjacent Gupta temple No. 17 as one of the most rationally organized structures in Indian architecture. The temple is not spacious, but it has followed all the elements and engineering of building a temple with precision.

Further down the complex, below the hill, the Archaeological Survey of India Museum is also a must-see place. It has some stone sculptures from the 3rd to the 1st century BC.

Every stupa here is a representation of the teachings of the Buddha. The main body of the Great Stupa is a symbol of the cosmic mountain, which holds a triple umbrella. Three umbrellas represent the three essences of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

One interesting aspect of all the stupas is the depiction of Buddha as a symbol in the carvings instead of as a human. A Chunar sandstone pillar fragment lies near Stupa 1 and carries the famous edict of Ashoka, warning against schism in the Buddhist community. Stupa 1 has no sculpture, and adjacent Stupa 3, has relics of the two disciples of Buddha, that the British may have taken to England.

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Suman Bajpai

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 17 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from...