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.
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.
Elsewhere around the enclosure
Elsewhere around the enclosure
Of the dozens of other numbered ruins around the 400m enclosure, only a handful are of more than passing interest. The smaller, plainer but immaculately restored Stupa 3, immediately northeast of Stupa 1, is upstaged by its slightly older cousin in every way but one. In 1851, a pair of priceless reliquaries was discovered deep in the middle of the mound. The caskets were found to contain relics belonging to two of Buddha’s closest disciples. In one, fragments of bone were encased with beads made from pearls, crystal, amethyst, lapis lazuli and gypsum, while on the lid, the initial of the saint they are thought to have belonged to, Sariputra, was painted in ink. Previously kept in London’s British Museum, both are now in the new Buddhist temple outside the stupa enclosure and are brought out for public view for one day in late November.
The eastern edge
From Stupa 3, pick your way through the clutter of pillars, small stupas and exposed temple floors nearby to the large complex of interconnecting raised terraces at the far eastern edge of the site. The most intact monastery of the bunch, Vihara 45, dates from the ninth and tenth centuries and has the usual layout of cells ranged around a central courtyard. Originally, a colossal, richly decorated sanctuary tower soared high above the complex, but this collapsed, leaving the inner sanctum exposed. The river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna number among the skilfully sculpted figures flanking the entrance to the shrine itself. Inside, Buddha still reigns supreme.
The enclosure’s tenth-century eastern boundary wall is the best place from which to enjoy Sanchi’s serene views. To the northeast, a huge, sheer-sided rock rises from the midst of Vidisha, near the site of the ancient city that sponsored the monasteries here (traces of the pilgrimage trail between Besnagar and Sanchi can still be seen crossing the hillside below). South from the hill, a wide expanse of well-watered wheat-fields stretches off towards the angular sandstone ridges of the Raisen escarpment.
The southern area
The southern area of the enclosure harbours some of Sanchi’s most interesting temples. Pieces of burnt wood dug from the foundations of Temple 40 prove that the present apsidal-ended chaitya was built on top of an earlier structure contemporaneous with the Mauryan Stupa 1. Temple 17 is a fine example of early Gupta architecture and the precursor of the classical Hindu design developed later in Orissa and Khajuraho.
Before leaving the enclosure, hunt out the stump of Ashoka’s Pillar on the right of Stupa 1’s southern torana. The Mauryan emperor erected columns like this all over the empire to mark sacred sites and pilgrims’ trails. Its finely polished shaft was originally crowned with the magnificent lion capital now housed in the site museum. The inscription etched around its base is in the Brahmi script, recording Ashoka’s edicts in Pali, the early Buddhist language and forerunner of Sanskrit.
The western slope
A flight of steps beside Stupa 1 leads down the western slope of Sanchi hill to the village, passing two notable monuments. The bottom portions of the thick stone walls of Vihara 51 have been carefully restored to show its floorplan of 22 cells around a paved central courtyard. Further down, the second-century BC Stupa 2 stands on an artificial ledge, well below the main enclosure – probably because its relics were less important than those of stupas 1 and 3. The ornamental railings and gateways around it are certainly no match for those up the hill, although the carvings of lotus medallions and mythical beasts that decorate them are worth close scrutiny. The straps dangling from some of the horseriders’ saddles are believed to mark the first appearance in India of stirrups.