Sanchi: An emperor's penance, a disciple's homage

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Ministry of Tourism, Government of India

Suffused with serenity and spirituality, Sanchi is a treasure trove of stone edifices surrounded by hills of rolling green. A prominent site in the Buddhist circuit, Sanchi has been bestowed with a rich legacy of Buddhist monuments, from the Sanchi Stupa to the Ashoka Pillar.

Walking through the many edifices, one can’t help but be taken back to the times when saffron-clad Buddhist monks must have thronged Sanchi, perhaps chanting "Buddham Sharanam Gacchami".

The intricate carvings adorning Sanchi’s numerous monuments document the many teachings of Lord Buddha.

The tranquil beauty of Sanchi is a testament to the power of one man - Emperor Ashoka of the mighty Mauryan dynasty. True to its purpose, Sanchi has been silent yet a patient witness to the rise and fall of empires, quietly assured of its place in history and mythology.

It is said that Emperor Ashoka, in a turn of events, transformed from a violent warrior to a benevolent ruler. This change of heart is said to have come about after the vicious battle of Kalinga that took many lives. The immense bloodshed is said to have filled Emperor Ashoka with guilt.

The experience changed Emperor Ashoka and he ordered the building of stupas to safeguard the many Buddhist relics and to propagate Buddhism. He ardently believed that the philosophy of Buddhism held the potential of positive transformation that the world needed.

It is believed that the hill on which Sanchi’s Great Stupa stands might have inspired Emperor Ashoka to choose this as the site of the religious centre he established.

The earliest Buddhist architecture of Sanchi has been dated to the early Mauryan period in the 3rd Century BC and the most recent is attributed to 12th Century AD.

The Shunga dynasty also contributed to the expansion of this village of stupas. Several new edifices were raised during their time and the Great Stupa was decorated with balustrades, a staircase and a harmika. The Andhra-Satavahanas added elaborate gateways to Stupa No. 1 in the 1st Century BC.

The Gupta period, in turn, saw the construction of many temples and sculptures in their characteristic style. It was also during this time that four statues of Lord Buddha, sitting serenely under canopies, were erected in front of the four entrances of the Great Stupa. Sanchi prospered greatly between the 7th and 12th Centuries CE.

Stupa 3 at Sanchi is a miniature reflection of the Great Stupa. It is also noted for its single and elaborate gateway. Dating back to the 2nd century, the stupa once housed relics of Sariputta and Moggallana, two of the most important disciples of Lord Buddha.

Perched on a hillside, Stupa 2 is the oldest of the three stupas that date back to the Shunga period. It is cut flat on the top and is punctuated by intriguing reliefs like medallions carved on encircling Vedica posts.

Stupa 2 at Sanchi is built in red brick and a circular wall made with finely carved pillars runs around it.

Temple 18 is a chaitya, or prayer hall, and bears a striking resemblance to classical Greek columned buildings. Dating back to the 7th century, the temple originally had 12 pillars, of which 9 still stand. The temple lies on a raised platform immediately facing the southern gateway of the Sanchi Stupa.

An open area enclosed by stone walls, outside Monastery 45, houses ancient stone columns and pillars that have intricate carvings on them. A large number of stone columns of varied shapes and sizes, featuring distinguished designs bear testimony to the rich architecture of Sanchi’s bygone eras.

Smaller votive stupas are strewn around Sanchi’s Great Stupa that is fringed by neat and well-manicured lawns. Built in stone, the smaller stupas vary in size. While the bigger ones rest on a square platform, the smaller ones are just round in shape.

Almost perfectly preserved, Monastery 51 is a vast quadrangular structure, noted for its stone walls veneered with bricks.

Monastery 51 is one of the seven viharas or monasteries in the Sanchi complex and lies downhill from the Great Stupa. As you gaze at the ruins of a vast open courtyard, surrounded by the monks cells, you can almost picture the grand monastery replete with now-lost wooden pillars and roofs.

Credits: Story

Virtual Tour courtesy Archaeological Survey of India

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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