Sanchi


The city cum town of the stupas and pillars call for the entire tourist to come and explore this land that was the representation of Buddhism in the ancient India. In the year 1989, this township in Madhya Pradesh was recognized as a world heritage site by the UNESCO. It is a must-stop for the millions of devout Buddhists who come to India, from all corners of the world, every year for pilgrimage.

Buddha himself never came to Sanchi; however in the tranquil stillness of the place he seems closer than in any of the other famous places of religious pilgrimage which still follow Hinayana Buddhism, the original form of the religion or philosophy – whatever you prefer to call it. Sanchi offers a lovely view of the surrounding countryside and sitting under the trees in the bright sunshine, it is easy to understand why so many have gone away so moved and touched by this ancient village. Even if religion isn’t your thing, Sanchi is good place to just unwind and relax, or explore if you should so wish, as comparatively few people venture here.

What drives people to home this destination are the monuments that trace the history since 3rd century BC. Essentially known as the Ashoka’s city, Sanchi is located at a distance of 46 kms from Bhopal and is a Buddhist treasure house. It is from here that the emblem of our country was picked. Once in Sanchi, you can find the influence of Buddhism every where your eyes travel. Come to Sanchi and pay homage to the great emperor of India, Ashoka, who was the founder as well as the fomenter of the small town of Sanchi. There are both buses and trains to Sanchi from Bhopal. 2 km away from San¬chirly station, within walking distance is Buddhist shrine located in a plateau of the Vindhyas Mountains. It remains open from dawn to dusk and on Sundays there is no admission fee.

Sanchi emerges from obscurity to take centre stage as a hub for, first traveling merchants and then, Buddhist pilgrims rather early in India’s history. Sanchi had, even before it caught the eye of a certain king who made it famous, always been a bustling village, or rather traveler’s halt. Because, about 7km away, is Vidisha which had always been a strategic trade centre and a thriving town throughout history.

In fact Sanchi’s ancient name was Vidisha Giri, the hill of Vidisha. In the ancient Indian times, majority of the merchants of Vidisha followed Buddhism. It is easy to see why Buddhism might have appealed to the level-headed businessmen of Vidisha – it was a way of life that was not burdened by caste restrictions and gave to everyone the freedom to attain the respectability which comes with wealth and social mobility. We are told that rich merchants and patrons from Vidisha opened their ample coffers to pour in the money to sustain the religious life and building activity at Sanchi, dated around 2nd century BC to 1st century AD. For the Buddhist monks too the location was ideal. They could live in the calm and peaceful sanctuary of Sanchi (also called Chaitya-Giri, the hill of Chaitya prayer halls) and walk to Vidisha, according to the tenets of Buddhism, to beg for alms and their daily food.

The story behind the making of Sanchi and its stupas is however nothing less than a fairy tale – and it’s a substantiated historical fact. When the merchants of Vidisha decided to convert Sanchi into a Buddhist retreat, they went to famous Mauryan King (then governor of Ujjaini of which Vidisha formed a part) Piyadasi Asoka (215 BC) – before he became the most famous convert to Buddhism – to ask him to grant them the land. Asoka not only agreed, but also decided to take a personal interestin the building activity.

Up to this point Asoka’s interest can be safely put down to a king’s (even a would-be) natural love for building and plain curiosity, but mark the sequel. When he came to Vidisha, the prince fell in love with the beautiful Devi, the daughter of one of the most powerful merchants of Vidisha. The love was returned and it is said that it is because of this connection that Asoka started to take a serious interest in Buddhism. To Honour his ladylove’s faith the prince started playing an active role in the building of Sanchi, giving out generous grants in form of both money and kind.

The love story meanwhile continued against the backdrop of the building of Sanchi during which time Ashoka also succeeded to the throne. Although they had two children, Ashoka and Devi never married as she refused to move to Pataliputra (the king’s capital, now Patna in Bihar), choosing to stay in Vidisha instead. She gave two reasons for this. Firstly because she preferred to stay out of the intricate royal politics of the centre and secondly, Vidisha was where her religious and community work was based and she was reluctant to abandon that. One suspects that the first might have been the real reason, because what with Ashoka already having so many ‘suitable’ queens and Devi being an ‘outsider’; it’s hardly conceivable that she would have been warmly accepted as the chief queen in the capital. Devi was wise to anticipate complex royal intrigue – and wiser still to choose to stay away from it all.

Many years later it was her children, Mahindra and Sanghamitta, who led the famous royal embassy that Ashoka sent to the island of Sri lanka to carry the message of the Buddha.

As the centuries rolled on, Buddhism was gradually absorbed back into Hinduism. and so for many years the site decayed and was eventually completely forgotten. In 1818 General Taylor, a British officer accidentally rediscovered the site – the year before Ajanta Caves were found. However this proved to be almost its undoing, for in the following years amateur archaeologists and greedy treasure seekers did immense damage to Sanchi. A proper restoration was carried out in 1881 and finally, between 1912 and 1919, the structures were carefully repaired and restored to their present condition by Sir John Marshall – the hero of the Indus Valley civilization.

Finding your feet in Sanchi is not a difficult task. Bhopal which is the nearest town around 46 kms away, serves the purpose of airport. From Bhopal Airport several domestic airlines operate flights on a regular basis. Sanchi also is in possession of the best rail links that allows one to ply from one part of the state to other in short time. Bhopal is again the nearest rail head. Sanchi stn lies on the Delhi-Bombay and Delhi-Madras line. Reaching Sanchi via road is also very convenient as it connected with well laid roads from Bhopal (46km), Vidisha (10km) and Indore (232kms). Like the other cities and towns of the state, the time period from October to March is the best time to visit the town as then the weather is the most suitable. You must visit the cultural and heritage full land of this world heritage site or you will be left behind. Come to enjoy Sanchi that goes beyond the heritage and enjoy the nonpareil rural life of the town.

STUPAS: Sanchi has been famous for the Stupas which were built on the top of a hill. The purpose of these stupas was mostly religious. The most likely use of the stupas has been said to keep the relics. Some of these stupas have been found containing relics of disciples of Buddha. The stupas date as early as the 3rd century and are built in brick made of stone. Though most of the stupas are in ruins now three remain intact and are of great archaeological value. The designs and the carvings on the walls and gates of these stupas spell a heavenly grace and are very tastefully done.

The Four Gate Ways - The Four gateways constructed in 35 BC are the best from of Buddhist expression one can find any where in the world. Gateways or Torans as they are called are covered with explicit carving which depicts scenes from the life Buddha and Jatakas, the stories relating to Buddha and his earlier births. At this stage Buddha was not represented directly but symbols were used to portray him-- The lotus represents his birth, the tree his enlightenment, the wheel, derived from the title of his first sermon, the footprints and throw symbolizing his presence. The carvings on the Torans are done with inspired imagery which in harmony with the surrounding figures balance the solidity of massive stupas.

The Ashoka Pillar - The Ashoka pillars is one many pillars which are scattered in the area some of these are in broken and some in shape. The Ashoka pillar is on the southern entrance. Today here only the shaft stands and the crown is kept in the museum. The crown is the famous four lions which stand back to back. This figure was adopted as the national Emblem of India. The Ashoka pillars are an excellent example of he Greco-Buddhist style and is known for the aesthetic proportions and the exquisite structural balance.

The Buddhist Vihara - The earlier monasteries were made from wood which was exquisitely carved and tastefully decorated. The present monasteries are not even the shadow of what they were in the past. A few kms from Sanchi are the relics of the Satdhara Stupa. The relics are kept in glass casket which is placed on the inner sanctum of the modern monastery.

The Great Bowl - Sanchi had a huge bowl carved out of single rock. Grain was stored in this bowl and it was distributed among the monks in Sanchi.

The Gupta Temple - This temple is now in ruins. But what ever is left tells a saga of greatness and a temple which had no match during its times. The temple was built in 5 the century and is an excellent example of ancient temple architecture in India.

The Museum - The archaeological survey of India maintains a museum which house many items which were discovered during the excavation of Sanchi area. Most prized possession of the museum is the lion crown from Ashoka pillar. The museum has a sizeable collection of utensils and other items used by the monks who lived here.

Vidisha - Just 10 km from Sanchi this place showcases one of the most attractive landscapes around Sanchi. The Heliodor’s Pillar is a must visit, built in 5 AD, it commemorated with the conversion of Taxsila into Hinduism. A museum is also in the city that houses some important artifacts.