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.
Floating serenely above a vast expanse of open plains, Sanchi’s ruins have preserved the tranquillity that attracted the original occupants. Most visitors find a couple of hours sufficient to explore the site, though you could easily spend several days poring over the four exquisite gateways, or toranas, surrounding the Great Stupa. Paved walkways and steps lead around the hilltop enclosure, dotted with interpretive panels and shady trees.