Historic sites have always intrigued me most, due to their subtle reminder of a time that is lost, their sole presence indicates a culture that is forgotten. In this context, Sanchi indeed seems to be a pearl in the ocean of time, rejuvenating so many centuries within it. What makes Sanchi special is its connections to so many regimes and monarchs, who contributed to making Sanchi an important Buddhist center of its time, and a link to several hundred years of history, art and culture. What Sanchi gives us today is the glimpse of a glorious past, of the epitome of human skills and ambitions.
As I climbed the stairs towards the Stupa Complex of Sanchi, whose every stone seems to have some distant memory stored within it, I had to strip down my own prejudices first in order to see through the history the way it is. As Sanchi is not an ordinary historical site, it is the cumulation of art and culture for almost a thousand years, of the kingdoms over thousands of kilometers apart, of monarchs contributing to this Buddhist monument irrespective of their own faith. It is one of the earliest examples of greatest Buddhist monuments, significantly affecting the course of Buddhist culture and traditions over the period of almost two thousand years. So as I was moving towards this mound of stones, I could sense the gravity of its importance, and I knew that my journey had just begun.
Where is it?
Vidisha: 8.4 km
Bhopal: 48 km
How to reach:
Nearest Bus and Rail Head: Vidisha 8.4 km
Frequent buses, shared taxis and private cabs are available at Vidisha and can be booked directly on railway station or bus stand.
Nearest Airport: Bhopal (48 km).
It is better to drop down at Bhopal via flight, train or bus as it is connected to the majority of cities of the country and private cabs and tours are more easily available.
For public transport, take a bus from Bhopal to Vidisha and drop down at Sanchi that comes along the way, just before Vidisha. Frequent buses run from Nadra Bus stand of Bhopal, 1 km from railway station.
A brief history of Sanchi
On a hill overlooking the plain and about 40 km from Bhopal, the site of Sanchi comprises a group of Buddhist monuments (monolithic pillars, palaces, temples, and monasteries) all in different states of conservation most of which date back to the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. It is the oldest Buddhist sanctuary in existence and was a major Buddhist center in India until the 12th century A.D.
The foundations of Sanchi were laid during Mauryan period by Ashoka the Great around 3rd century BC. He built the Great Stupa which was further enlarged by the Shungas. Shungas also built two more stupas at around 2nd to 1st century BC. Further, the highly decorated gateways were constructed by Satvahanas at around 1st to 2nd century AD. The stupa complex then came under the rule of Gupta dynasty who also built several monasteries and temples at Sanchi along with erecting pillars. Sanchi also has inscription depicting the victory of king Chandragupta 2 in the year 412-413 AD. The town of Sanchi flourished as a major center of Buddhist art and culture until about 10th-12th century AD with slowly forgotten by the people. Until it was found by British soldiers in 1818 and restored in 1918-1919 by Sir John Marshall.
sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanchi, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/524/
The Treasures of Time
While walking around the Stupa complex, I could simply feel the subtle spirituality of the place. With the Grand Stupa (Stupa No 1) being the center of attraction of the whole complex. And as I discovered, there are numerous remnants of the past beside The Grand Stupa, in form of broken parts of old temples and monasteries, columns and walls lost into pieces, and even standalone pillars dating back to Mauryan Period. Since these elements of the history belong to a large variety of time periods and cultures, it seems that Sanchi holds some kind of treasure of Time, where some may find precious gems, but only if they have eyes for it.
The Great Stupa commissioned by Ashoka the Great in 3rd century BC, and further expanded by Shunga and Satvahana kings.
Stupa No 2 was built by Shunga Rulers in around 115 BC, but not the highly decorated gateways which were later built by the Satvahanas.
Stupa No 3 is situated at a lower part of the hill and was also built by the Shungas around 1st Century BC.
The Stupas of Sanchi, being the center of attraction of the whole complex, are the oldest structures in the whole complex. While entering into the stupa through its highly decorated gateway, it seemed as if I was entering into a whole new world. The carvings on the gateways, balustrades imitating the traditional wooden structures and the circular staircases raising up to the circumambulation path around the stupa, for a few moments I found myself startled, awed, trying to absorb the significance of my surroundings. And even after so many years, I could feel a little bit of peace, while circumambulating the Great Stupa, feeling the textures of bricks of its dome, peering to the nearby monuments below and the distant past long gone.
Various small Stupas dedicated to Buddhist preachers and monks.
Temple 18: An apsidal temple of Mauryan period, which was rebuilt in around 7th century AD.
Temple 45: The last Buddhist temple built at Sanchi at around 9th century AD.
The complex of Sanchi is scattered with the ruins of small stupas, Buddhist temples, shrines, and monasteries. The long range of architectural style of these structures proves that they were built over a long period of time, with different dynasties of rulers and influences. The Sanchi had at least seven monasteries with plans showing spaces for monk's cells, hence must have been a great center of Buddhist education and arts. As for the shrines and temples, there are several of them around the structure of the Great Stupa. But they are also located on other parts of the hilltop, probably built during a later period, showing much architectural resemblance with respective Hindu temples of the time. All of these structures are living examples of the glory of Sanchi, and the vital role it played in this ancient Indian civilization.
A monastery (vihara) located on the hill about 7m below the Great Stupa,
Cultural Influences of Sanchi
For almost a thousand years, Sanchi (and nearby Vidisha town) was the center of Buddhist art and culture of ancient India. Sanchi finds its relations with several dynasties ruling over it across these years, and also to the Indo-Greek kingdom of that period and later to the Gandhara period. The inscriptions found in Sanchi are mainly in ancient Brahmi Script, and some are in Shankha script (an ornated version of Brahmi). But one special relief shows the text in Kharoshti script, the script used in the ancient Gandhara period, hence forming the link of Sanchi to the ancient Gandhara. Moreover, the art of Sanchi, although incorporated Gandhara craftsmen, predated the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara which later flourished till the 4th century AD and further influenced the Kushan Empire and spread over Central-East Asia. The pillars found at Sanchi also indicates at this ancient link, as they are often influenced from the Classical Greek Orders, and are called as Quasi-Ionic Pillars.
The Great Stupa at Sanchi was one of the very first ancient Buddhist Centers established by Emperor Ashoka. As he expanded the Buddhism all over the Northern and Eastern India, the influence of Sanchi too on several art forms and cultures of that time can be seen. And as Buddhism further develops in Central and then in Eastern Asia, Sanchi still was an important Buddhist pilgrimage. And after the Buddhism slowly disappeared from Indian lands after the 9th Century AD, Sanchi too was forgotten and vanished into ruins. But the influence of Sanchi on ancient Buddhist art and Culture cannot be forgotten, and this very reason signifies its effect on every person visits it today.
Text in Brahmi script
Carvings at the one of the four decorated gateways to the Great Stupa.
The ASI Museum at Sanchi
Generally, I don't give much attention to museums, as I believe history cannot be taught in modern confined spaces but only with the addition of context and essence of a place and time. But, saying that, the ASI Museum at Sanchi did do a marvelous job at expanding my historical reach. At first, I was astonished by the sheer amount of art pieces placed in the museum, showing the rich art and culture of Sanchi. But the most important piece at museum must be the Ashoka Pillar found at Sanchi, with iconic four lions as the crown on capital.
The museum also contains the house in which Sir John Marshall, one of the earliest and greatest archeologists of British India, lived while excavating the ruins at Sanchi. It certainly does not seem to be significantly important, being dwarf in front of the Great Sanchi Stupa, but is indeed a beautiful woodwork and should not be neglected.