Sanchi

Although the Buddha himself never came to Sanchi, this peaceful hill crowned by a group of stupas and abandoned monasteries is one of the most important Buddhist sites in India. It has a quiet stillness now, lost at many of the other famous places of religious pilgrimage, yet in keeping with the Buddhist faith. It was included on the World Heritage list in 1989. The imposing hilltop site has commanding views. Sitting under the trees in the bright sunshine, it is easy to be moved by the surroundings. Comparatively few people venture here so it is a good place to relax, unwind and explore the countryside.

Background

The first
stupa
was built during
Asoka's
reign in the third century BC, using bricks and mud mortar. Just over a century later it was doubled in size; a balcony/walkway and a railing were added. The gateways were built 75 years later. Finally in AD 450 four images of the Buddha (belonging to the later period), were placed facing each of the gateways. The entrances are staggered because it was commonly believed that evil spirits could only travel in a straight line. The wall was built for the same purpose. The
Great Stupa
, one of the
largest in India (37 m in diameter, 16 m high), does not compare with the one at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. Indian
stupas
evolved to be taller in proportion to their bases with the great
stupas
surrounded by lesser ones, often containing the ashes of monks famous for their piety and learning, plus an attendant complex of monasteries, dining rooms, shrine- rooms, preaching halls and rest-houses for pilgrims. These can all be seen at Sanchi.

From t
he 14th century Sanchi lay half buried, virtually forgotten and deserted until 'rediscovered' by General Taylor in 1818, the year before the Ajanta caves were found. Amateur archaeologists and treasure hunters caused considerable damage. Some say a local landholder, others say General Taylor, used the Asoka Pillar to build a sugarcane press, breaking it up in the process. Sir John Marshall, Director General of Archaeology from 1912-1919, ordered the jungle to be cut back and extensive restoration to be effected, restoring it to its present condition.

Originally, the brick and mortar domes were plastered and shone brilliant white in the tropical sun. The earliest decorative carving was done on wood and ivory but the craftsmen at Sanchi readily transferred their skills to the yellow sandstone here, which lends itself to intricate carving. The
carvings
illustrate scenes from the life of Buddha, events in the history of Buddhism and the
Jataka
stories (legends about the Buddha's previous lives).

The site

The Gateways

The basic model consists of two pillars joined by three architraves (cross beams), sculpted as if they actually passed through the upright posts. They are regarded as the finest of all Buddhist
toranas
. The
East Gate
shows the young prince Siddhartha Gautama, leaving his father's palace and setting off on his journey towards enlightenment, and the dream his mother had before Gautama's birth. The
West Gate
portrays the seven incarnations of the Buddha. The
North Gate
, crowned by a wheel of law, illustrates the miracles associated with the Buddha as told in the
Jatakas
. The
South Gate
reveals the birth of Gautama in a series of dramatically rich carvings. Just to the right of the south gate is the stump of the pillar erected by Asoka in the third century BC. The capital, with its four lion heads, is in the local museum. It recalls the one in the Sarnath Museum, of superior workmanship, that was adopted as the national symbol of Independent India.

Monastery 51

This is reached by steps opposite the west gateway of the Great Stupa. It is well preserved with thick stone walls faced with flat bricks and is typical in plan. A raised, pillared veranda with 22 monastic cells behind, surrounds a brick-paved courtyard. The discovery of charred wood suggested that roofs and pillars may have been constructed with wood. There was possibly a chapel at the centre of the west side; the massive 'bowl' beyond the west gate was caused by removal of a large boulder which you can see on your way to Stupa 2.

Stupa 2

This
stupa
stands on a terrace down the slope. The original balustrade has been dated to the second century BC with later additions. The decoration, though interesting, is much simpler than on Stupa 1, especially when dealing with the human form. The relic chamber of the
stupa
contained valuable relics of 10 saints belonging to three generations after the Buddha's immediate disciples, which may explain the choice of this site, below the main terrace.

The Gupta Temple

Constructed in the fifth century, this is one of the early structural temples of India, built of stone slabs with a flat roof. It has a square sanctuary and a pillared portico and shows the sombre decoration and symmetry typical of Gupta style.

Temple 18

Built in the seventh century on the site of an earlier apsidal temple, this has only nine of its 12 pillars still standing. They resemble those found in the Buddhist cave temples of Western India.

Monastery and Temple 45

On the eastern edge, built in seventh-11th centuries, this shows a more developed style of a North Indian temple. The monastery is built around a courtyard with a ruined temple of which only the core of the carved spire remains. The ornamental doorway and the Buddha image in the sanctuary, with a decorative oval halo, are still visible.

The
Archaeological Museum
 is near the entrance to monument. Exhibits include finds from the site (caskets, pottery, parts of gateway, images), dating from the Asokan period. Archaeological Survey guide books to the site and museum are available.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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