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.