From a distance, the smooth-sided hemispherical object that appears on a hillock overlooking the main train line at SANCHI, 46km northeast of Bhopal, has the surreal air of an upturned satellite dish. In fact, the giant stone mound stands as testimony to a much older means of communing with the cosmos. Quite apart from being India’s finest Buddhist monument, the Great Stupa is one of the earliest religious structures in the Subcontinent. It presides over a complex of ruined temples and monasteries that collectively provide a rich and unbroken record of the development of Buddhist art and architecture from the faith’s first emergence in central India during the third century BC, until it was eventually squeezed out by the resurgence of Brahmanism during the medieval era.
Unlike other famous Buddhist centres in eastern India and Nepal, Sanchi has no known connection with Buddha himself. It first became a place of pilgrimage when the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who married a woman from nearby Besnagar, erected a polished stone pillar and brick-and-mortar stupa here midway through the third century BC. The complex was enlarged by successive dynasties, but after the eclipse of Buddhism, Sanchi lay deserted and overgrown until its rediscovery in 1818 by General Taylor of the Bengal Cavalry. In the following years a swarm of heavy-handed treasure hunters invaded the site, yet the explorer Sir Alexander Cunningham was the only one to find anything more than rubble; in 1851, he unearthed two soapstone relic boxes, containing bone fragments and bearing the names of two of Buddha’s most noted followers, Sariputra and Maha-Mogalanasa. Historians equated the discovery with “finding the graves of Saints Peter and Paul”. The find transformed Sanchi, for centuries neglected, into a Buddhist place of pilgrimage once again. (The caskets themselves are displayed once a year, in late November, in the Sri Lankan temple).
By the 1880s, amateur archeologists had left the ruins in a sorry state. Deep gouges gaped from the sides of stupas 1 and 2, a couple of ceremonial gateways had completely collapsed and much of the masonry was plundered by local villagers. Restoration work made little impact until 1912, when the jungle was hacked away, the main stupas and temples rebuilt, lawns and trees planted and a museum erected to house what sculpture had not been shipped off to Delhi or London.
The hemispherical mounds known as stupas have been central to Buddhist worship since the sixth century BC, when Buddha himself modelled the first prototype. Asked by one of his disciples for a symbol to help disseminate his teachings after his death, Buddha took his begging bowl, teaching staff and a length of cloth – his only worldly possessions – and arranged them into the form of a stupa, using the cloth as a base, the upturned bowl as the dome and the stick as the projecting finial, or spire.
Originally, stupas were simple burial mounds, but as the religion spread, the basic components multiplied and became imbued with symbolic significance. The main dome, or anda – representing the “divine axis” linking heaven and earth – grew larger, while the wooden railings, or vedikas, surrounding it were replaced by massive stone ones. A raised ambulatory terrace, or medhi, was added to the vertical sides of the drum, along with two flights of stairs and four ceremonial entrances, carefully aligned with the cardinal points. Finally, crowning the tip of the stupa, the single spike evolved into a three-tiered umbrella, or chhattra, standing for the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Law and the community of monks.
The chhattra, usually enclosed within a low square stone railing, or harmika, formed the topmost point of the axis, directly above the reliquary in the heart of the stupa. Ranging from bits of bone wrapped in cloth to fine caskets of precious metals, crystal and carved stone, the reliquaries were the “seeds” and their protective mounds the “egg”. Excavations of the 84,000 stupas scattered around the Subcontinent have shown that the solid interiors were also sometimes built as elaborate mandalas – symbolic patterns that exerted a beneficial influence over the stupa and those who walked around it. The ritual of circumambulation, or pradhakshina, which enabled the worshipper to tap into cosmic energy and be transported from the mundane to the divine realms, was always carried out in a clockwise direction from the east, imitating the sun’s passage across the heavens.
Of the half-dozen or so giant stupa sites dotted around ancient India, only Sanchi still survives. To see one being used, however, you have to head southwards to Sri Lanka, northwards to the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, or across the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia, where, as dagobas, chortens and chedis, stupas are still revered as repositories of sacred energy.