Sanchi – of Serene and Secluded Stups

The calmness washes over you as you make your way up the wooded hill. Early monsoon rains have cleansed the air and the trees look resplendent in dewy leaves. Moisture makes the air heavy but the breeze makes the morning perfect. What is it with the calmness and Buddhist places? You wonder whether the hill was secluded and calm to begin with which prompted Ashok to build the stups or is it the presence of remains of saints that gives the place the serenity.

Couple of months ago you crossed the Tropic of Cancer in Kutch and the same imaginary line makes it appearance here again. On the right you can see the stups on the hill peeping from above the tree canopies as you drive the short distance from Bhopal to Sanchi. As always you are the first one at the ticket counter.

Sanchi - Path Leading to the Great Stup

Sanchi – Path Leading to the Great Stup



A stone path leads you from the gate to the Great Stup of Mauryan Emperor Ashok. On either side of the path, workers hunch over the immaculate grass beds. Sanchi is an amazingly maintained UNESCO World Heritage Site. The signage is excellent. There are days you feel proud of the ASI – this is one of those days; Chanderi was another. You wish the people who manage MP heritage sites are sent to Red Fort in Delhi to make it less gloomy and bearable.

Sanchi Stupa 1 - View from South East

Sanchi Stupa 1 – View from South East

Sanchi - Stupa 1 with its Gateway, Balustrade, Stairs and Stone encased Dome

Sanchi – Stupa 1 with its Gateway, Balustrade, Stairs and Stone encased Dome

The Great Stup or Stup 1 looms ahead. The hemispherical Great Stup was commissioned by Emperor Ashok (273 – 236 BC) in the 3rd century BC as a brick structure. His wife Devi probably oversaw its construction. The plastered flat dome is crowned with a triple umbrella called chhatravali housed in a box like Harmika. Later during the 2nd century BC, Sung dynasty enlarged the dome and covered the structure with stone thus making it the first stone structure in India. They also added a double stairway leading to circumambulatory path around the core. Balustrades were added at the ground level to provide another path around the structure. Access to the stup is through four gateways that have images of Buddha. The Great Stupa occupies the pride of place in the setup and all other monuments were seemingly built around it.

Sanchi - Monastery 51

Sanchi – Monastery 51

On the west of the Great Stup lie the ruins of Monastery 51. As usual it is a quadrangular structure with monks’ cells arranged around a central open courtyard. The surviving stone walls are faced with bricks. It is believed, the roofs and pillars were made of wood. The monastery was perhaps built in the medieval times.

Stupa 2 at Sanchi

Stupa 2 at Sanchi

Sanchi - Stupa 2

Sanchi – Stupa 2

Just beyond on the western downhill slope is the solitary Stup 2. It has the same design as the Stup 1 but without any gateways or torans. You are on the edge of the hill and can see a train snaking its way down below probably going to Vidisha, Ashok’s in-laws place. This is the most tranquil place of all and few visitors come down here. A small lake next to the stup completes the perfect picture. You are not surprised to see the guard sleeping on the bench. The peace will lull anyone into the sweetest nap.

Sanchi - Temple 17 (foreground) and Temple 18

Sanchi – Temple 17 (foreground) and Temple 18

You huff and puff back to the Stup 1 to see a temple with tall pillars just south of the Great Stup. You have not seen anything like it before. And then the coin drops. The Temple 18 with seventeen feet monolithic pillars seems to have the classical Greek columned architecture. It is possible that some Greek Ambassador in the Mauryan court commissioned this temple. There is an obvious Greek connection to Sanchi since apparent Greek figures can be seen in the lavish carvings of the Stup 1 torans.

Next to it is the Temple 17, a 4th century Gupta period construction considered to be one of the earliest Gupta temple. According to John Marshall, this elegant temple conveys the genius of the people of that time and helps us understand the evolution of Indian temple architecture. The flat roofed temple with sanctum (garbhgriha) and portico (mandap) is known for its symmetry and proportions. This temple heralds the arrival of engineering and artistry that will go into the building of temples from here on.

Sanchi monuments span a period of thirteen hundred years from third century BC to the 12th century traversing the entire lineage of Buddhism in India. It is highly unlikely for anyone or a place to owe its place under the sun to the in-laws. But it turned true for Sanchi. Vidisha, which is a little distance from Sanchi, was the sasural (in-laws home) of the great Emperor Ashok. The queen Devi was the daughter of a merchant in Vidisha. Ashok, then a Governor, probably saw the secluded hill on his way to Ujjain and decided to build stup and install a pillar. Sanchi then went on to become one of the most revered Buddhist sites. This is surprising since Lord Buddha never set His foot on this hill. Even Hiuen Tsang and Fa-Hien, who visited most of the Buddhist sites in India, do not mention Sanchi in their travelogues.

The reason for Sanchi’s continuous popularity for more than thousand years could owe to the presence of rich trader community of Vidisha, presence of two rivers Betwa and Bes and the trade routes. Sanchi declined after the 13th century for some unknown reasons and vegetation took over the hill. In 1818 the site was discovered by an English army man. The vegetation was removed to reveal an extraordinary archaeological trove of fifty monuments. Subsequent to various perfect and not so perfect preservation exercises, Sir John Marshall, the Director General of Archaeology, took up a large scale repair work during 1912-1919. He also set up the nearby Sanchi Museum. Before this in 1851 Alexander Cunningham, the founder of Archaeological Survey of India, undertook massive study of the monuments and is known to be the authority on Buddhist sites of India. It was Cunningham who gave the different monuments identification numbers that are still used.

Stups are earthen burial mounds of Buddhist saints. It is said when Lord Budhha died, He was cremated and the ashes buried in eight stups. None of these stups are said to be identified. Stups at Sanchi and Sarnath take this tradition forward. Though Sanchi was never visited by Buddha, it is an important Buddhist site as it houses the most spectacular stups anywhere.

Sanchi - Stups of All Sizes

Sanchi – Stups of All Sizes

And just like Bidar in Karnataka is a necropolis of Bahmani Sultans dotted with graves, Sanchi has innumerable stups of all sizes. While stups 1, 2 and 3 are big complete structures, other stups are quite tiny and some just comprise of a few stones. Most of these are found on the east of Stup 1. The stups mostly housed relics of Buddhist teachers, disciples and Masters.

Sanchi - Pillar 10 at South Gateway of Stupa 1

Sanchi – Pillar 10 at South Gateway of Stupa 1

Sanchi - Pillar 10

Sanchi – Pillar 10

Among these stups are some pillars probably installed during Ashok’s reign. The pillars are made of the polished golden sandstone quarried from Chunar near Varanasi. You have seen similar Ashok Pillars with the proverbial Mauryan polish in Feroz Shah Kotla and opposite Bara Hindu Rao hospital in Delhi. The largest pillar in Sanchi was the Pillar 10 of presumably 40 feet in length. Now just few pieces remain. Imagine transporting a monolithic pillar of about 40 tons from Varanasi to Sanchi and then to the top of the hill. Of course rivers played an important role in the transportation. The base of the pillar is in-situ at the south gate of Stup 1. Two pieces are housed under a shed. It is believed a local zamindar broke the pillar to use the pieces as sugarcane crusher! No wonder, zamindari system was abolished. The crowning glory of the pillar is the Lion Capital of Ashok that is today exhibited in the nearby Sanchi Museum. In architecture terms, capital means the topmost member of pillar or column. On top of the capital is the round abacus that supports the four lions seated back to back.

Sanchi - Temple 45 and remains of Monastery

Sanchi – Temple 45 and remains of Monastery

Sanchi - Statue of Buddha in Temple 45

Sanchi – Statue of Buddha in Temple 45

Just beyond to the East is the towering Temple 45 and the remains of a monastery. It is a medieval temple possibly built over an earlier monastery. The temple has lost much of its original splendour but there is presence of Ganga and Jumuna on the door jambs. The southern wing has a statue of Lord Buddha.

Sanchi - Stupa 3

Sanchi – Stupa 3

Sanchi - Nagi Statue in front of Temple 31 Stup 3 in background

Sanchi – Nagi Statue in front of Temple 31 Stup 3 in background

On the north-east of the Stup 1 is the Stup 3. Stups 2 & 3 were built during the Sung dynasty in second century BC, a little after Stup 1. Stup 3 has one gateway in the South and looking at old photos, has been extensively rebuilt. Cunningham found relics of Buddh’s two foremost disciples here that were taken to London but subsequently returned to India. Behind is the ruined Stup 4 with no gateway or balustrade.

Sanchi Stupa 1 - Rear View of Northern Gateway

Sanchi Stupa 1 – Rear View of Northern Gateway

After wandering around the hill, you are drawn back to the crown jewel that is the Stup 1. The four magnificent gateways with their exquisite carvings are the main attraction of Sanchi and its trademark. The stup was embellished with the eye-popping carved torans in the 1st century BC by the Satavahans. Satavahans were the right people with the right credentials for the job. They gave us the glorious Ajanta temples. You are just relieved that the torans have survived for over two thousand years in almost pristine condition. Of course credit goes to Cunningham and Marshall for the restoration efforts.

The four gateways are installed at four cardinal directions of the stup. They have a common design – two square pillars with capitals and surmounted by three parallel architraves. All sides of the columns and the rear and front of the architraves are profusely carved. You could mistake the carved panels for wood or ivory. A lot of carving is overlapping and would require highly skilled workers. Reportedly, the workers were ivory carvers of Vidisha.

Great Stupa of Sanchi - Front View of North Torana

Great Stupa of Sanchi – Front View of North Torana

The North Gateway is the most preserved gateway. The capitals have elephants flanked by voluptuous salabhanjikas or celestial nymphs. The top architrave is crowned with the Dharma Chakra, Tri-Ratna and Yakshis.

The panels on the gateways depict Jataka tales. Jataka tales are sacred Buddist literature comprising of anecdotes and stories of earlier incarnations as Bodhisattvas of the being who would later become Siddharth Gautam. As a Bodhisattva, He took births as man, animal and bird. After accumulating enough virtues, He attained Nirvana in his final birth as Prince Siddharth. It is said most of the stories are set in Varanasi. It was here at nearby Sarnath where Buddh taught the Dharm – His first sermon.

Sanchi - Lord Buddh at Eastern Gateway of Great Stup

Sanchi – Lord Buddh at Eastern Gateway of Great Stup

Also, depicted are the incidents from the life of Buddh – but no where the Buddh is represented in human form. However, four images of Buddh are placed at the four gateways probably brought from Mathura. The panels also carry scenes from later history of Buddhism, miscellaneous events and decorations.

Sanchi Great Stupa - South Torana with Four Lions

Sanchi Great Stupa – South Torana with Four Lions

The South Gateway perhaps was the principal entrance to the stup since the Ashok Pillar 10 was installed here. The gateway is damaged and the columns have capitals of four lions.

Sanchi - Eastern Torana with Salabhanjika

Sanchi – Eastern Torana with Salabhanjika

Sanchi - West Gate of Stupa 1 with Pot bellied Dwarves

Sanchi – West Gate of Stupa 1 with Pot bellied Dwarves

Together, the gateways are a profusion of carvings of motifs and human figures that seems to be spilling down from the different members of the gateways. You can just gape at them with overwhelming sense of what people could create two millenniums ago.

On the way back you stopover at the museum housing excavated antiques. It has a nice collection of old photos when the site was pretty much in ruins. Today the hill is as calm and pretty as it would have been before Ashok found it. The relics of the Buddhist Masters only add to the serenity of the place. The breeze seems to whisper prayers in your ears as you make your way down into this world again.

Getting There: Sanchi is a comfortable distance of about 50 kms from Bhopal. It will take about three hours to completely view the hill housing the stups, temple and monastery ruins. You can combine your visit to Sanchi with Udaigiri Caves in Vidisha, about 10 kms away from Sanchi. If you are feeling brave then visit the group of stups at Satdhaara about an hour drive from Sanchi; and if you want to complete the Buddhist circuit then visit Sonar and Andher too.

31 Comments

  • Vipin says:

    A marvelous post adorned with eye catching visuals! A part of the description was a bit heavy for me…but enjoyed it thoroughly. Did you get to see the Buddha inside the temple 45? We saw a small enclosure with some cute ducks, rabbits, squirrels etc which were just representing the message of peace & calmness along with these magnificent stupas…if you got to see it…a photo must have added a bit of charm to this already charming tale….Thank you for taking us back in time, Nirdesh bhai!

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Vipin,

      The writeup in the post was more about understanding Buddh which I was trying for the first time.

      The site is amazingly well maintained so photo taking was a breeze.

      Temple 45 with its shikhar almost ready to topple was rightfully screened of – that is why I have included Buddh’s image from its right wing. I will try getting the photo in my next trip!

      http://puratattva.in/2012/03/29/sanchi-buddham-dhammam-sangham-9-1535.html – you can see the photo here.

      Thanks for the appreciation and as always still waiting for your next post!

  • AJAY SHARMA says:

    Dear Nirdesh,
    An extensive and educative post with outstanding photographs and documented in rich vocabulary. Wish to visit the site soon. Thanks for sharing.

    Keep traveling
    Ajay

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Ajay,

      Yes, if you are looking for some solitude and a calming outing, then Sanchi is the place.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Venkat says:

    A very informative post with splendidly captured pictures, Nirdesh ji.

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Venkat,

    When are you next taking us to Karnataka’s ancient temples?

    Thanks for reading!

  • Ashok Sharma says:

    beautiful post with marvelous photographs.

  • Naturebuff says:

    Hi Nirdesh,

    Absolute pleasure to read your posts! They read like archaeology lessons but infinitely more interesting. Next door to Bhopal, I’ve been wanting to visit Sanchi but it is yet to be! Hopefully next year…

    Stunning pics and riveting post. Thanks for sharing!

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Kranti,

    Thanks for the appreciation!

    I think you should visit the lesser known places – Satdhara, Sonar and Andher. They involve walking through jungle trails – who knows what birds you gonna run into!

    Thanks again!

  • Very Beautiful photos and perfect narrative. Enjoyed reading.

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Manisha,

      I had read your Sanchi post. But to me it seemed you were not carrying your camera that day! And I knew Sanchi has more than the main Stup.

      Yes I share your feelings about why we go to these old sites – it is to connect to our heritage, our past, our ancestors. And like you said it is quest of ourselves – putting a meaning to our lives in this continuum.

      Thanks for reading.

      • Yes, You are right. Not only Sanchi, but for entire trip of Khajuraho, my camera did not work properly and hence could take very little snaps.

        Also I remember we were told that iron pillar in Kutub Minar campus was originally standing just outside Udaygiri caves marking the tropic of cancer.

        Hope to read more of your posts !

        • Nirdesh Singh says:

          Hi Manisha,

          I did know about the Iron Pillar at Qutb that has been taken from Udaigiri but did not know that it marked the Tropic of Cancer. It was probably taken by the Tomars who ruled Delhi in the second half of 10th century.

          Next post will be totally devoid of any history.

          Thanks!

  • Avtar Singh says:

    Hi Nirdesh ji

    Its great to read about Budha on Ghumakkar and that too from Nirdesh Singh.

    After Chanderi, it is one more, very extensive and detailed post supported with amazingly beautiful pics.

    The life of Budha and Ashoka were always been interesting for the vivid readers, and this post has penalty to offer.

    I have read it but the content is so rich and expensive, I have to read again for understanding all the details.

    Thanx for writing one more master piece.

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Avtarji,

    A single tomb or monument has so much history. So you can imagine Sanchi with a building history of more than 1000 years would have so much to offer. Of course I have not covered everything.

    We have all been fascinated with Emperor Ashok’s life and his stups, rock edicts, rock pillars. Sanchi is that perfect blend of Ashok and Lord Buddh. It is a must see for every history lover.

    Thanks for the appreciation!

  • AUROJIT says:

    Hi Nirdesh,

    The post is an impeccable piece of travelogue where history and story is synthesised so effectively !! Heartening to learn that there are places within ASI’s bounds, which could act as directional beacons to ASI itself.

    Sun and law; I never knew the link of Ashoka to Vidisha, despite having spent a part of my life in the then undivided MP.

    The imaginary line of ‘ToC’ – they have a very visible line (or signboard) of Arctic Circle in a place called Rovaniemi in Finland, with a celebrated signpost indicating that you are crossing into Arctic C (as I guess there are other similar marks elsewhere on that part of the globe). The place has gained extensive prominence being billeted as ‘the home of Santa Clause’. ASI is probably listening (or reading) this.

    Thanks for the great article,

    Auro.

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Auro,

      Long Time!

      Thanks for reading!

      Yes, Sanchi is a site which ASI will be proud of itself. KK Muhammad was instrumental in getting lot of good work done. You will read about him in one of the posts I am writing now! And yes Ashok’s wife and in-laws belonged to Vidisha making him the sun and law!

      Yes the ToC has a sign here too on the road to Sanchi with a painted line drawn across the road. I had included ToC sign photo in my Kutch post.

      Santa Clause should be back home by now washing himself after all those slides down sooty chimney stacks.

      Thanks again and for the Arctic C trivia.
      Every site

  • Somyata says:

    Nirdesh,this is mind blowing post. Superb pics . Your post encourages me to visit these places.
    Great work !!
    Happy travelling

  • simar says:

    nice and well written

  • One more Gem from Nirdesh’s Diaries . I am surprised how I missed it for 10 days.
    Thanks for sharing with us. ..Happy New Year..

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Naresh,

    Happy New Year to you too!

    Thanks for reading! And yes the gem Sanchi is a must visit.

  • Munesh Mishra says:

    Hi Nirdesh!

    Happy New Year!

    Read your post about Sanchi Stupa of Madhya Pradesh. Whole post is quite interesting. One cannot stop reading it until read it full. Specially pictures you provided are very useful to know more about the stupas and great cultural views of sanchi.

    It encourage readers to visit Sanchi and other places of Madhya Pradesh once.

    Regards
    Munesh Mishra

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Munesh,

      Happy New Year to you too!

      Madhya Pradesh has lot of surprises and Sanchi is one of the better known destinations.

      Thanks for the appreciation and I am sure you will be visiting Sanchi and other MP sites soon.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    After you read this post, you wonder whether you really went there. Not only a few hour trip, we actually stayed at MPTDC hotel, since we didn’t want to rush things up, with a young kid. The RedEye-Overnighter-Train from Delhi has a stop at Vidisha and if you chose to stay there then as Nirdesh says you can do Udaigiri Caves and meet a young batch of foreigners on bicycle.

    The description is spectacular, and suddenly the whole place has come out alive. 2 decades ago, I did a play on a make-shit stage on ‘Kalinga War’, where the Emperor decides to call it quits and do better things in life. Sanchi is marvellous and Nirdesh’s log has made it priceless. If I ever find myself in Bhopal, I would do another drive to Sanchi, would be a better informed one. Thank you.

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Nandan,

      Vidisha is a dusty town and I would recommend staying in Bhopal. No I did not meet any young foreigners on bicycles at Udaigiri caves! I missed seeing the pillar in the middle of Vidisha town which Manisha has mentioned in her Udaigiri post.

      Sanchi is indeed pretty with lot of history. Of course all this came out while writing. In the couple of hours I was there I was just too busy clicking. I too had no idea about the place and its importance in the Buddhist and Ashok’s scheme of things.

      Thanks for all the appreciation!

  • jaishree says:

    Hi Nirdesh,

    Liked the post but you have the potential to make it more fluid.

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Jaishree,

      Thanks for reading and the feedback.

      Yes, I know but the post with its research was taking a lot of time. And I wanted to cover most of the important structures here in a single post. And then sifting through the photos and labelling them correctly with temple/stup/pillar nos – phew! I jut wanted to send it away.

      Thanks again!

  • jaishree says:

    Yes you are right. Sometimes it takes too long and too much that in the end you try to finish it and push. Manish and I also felt like that when he wrote on temple architecture. I did not understand it before but when I read your reply I felt what it might have been like.

    Good that you pushed it.

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