Spectacular Sanchi is recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its archaeological and historical value. The Sanchi hill teems with stupas, monasteries, temples and pillars and is the largest site of Buddhist remains in India. However, it is not directly connected with the life of Lord Buddha as other Buddhist pilgrim centres. The history of Sanchi dates back to Emperor Ashoka’s reign in the 3rd century BC and continues up to the 11th century AD. It is one of the most revered centres of Buddhist art in the world. Its architectural forms and sculpture display the Jataka tales in cinematographic continuity.
EXPLORING THE BUDDHIST COMPLEX AT SANCHI
Now a deserted site resembling an X-Files set, the monuments of Sanchi have not only
survived despite nearly 2,000 years of neglect, but the stupa at Sanchi is considered
India’s finest and most evocative example of ancient Buddhist architecture. The Mauryan
emperor Ashoka—famous for converting to Buddhism during a personal spiritual
crisis after massacring thousands during his military campaigns in Orissa—was
responsible for laying the foundations in the 3rd century B.C. Set upon a squat hill
affording lovely views of the surrounding countryside, the complex of stupas (fat,
domelike monuments housing Buddhist relics), monasteries, and temples probably
owes its location as much to the serenity of the site as it does to its proximity to the
once-prosperous city of Vidisha, where Ashoka’s devoted Buddhist wife, Mahadevi,
lived. Located at the confluence of the Bes and the Betwa rivers and two important
trade routes, the Buddhist complex elicited the patronage of Vidisha’s wealthy merchant
communities. Even during the invasions of the Hun, life at Sanchi appears to
have gone undisturbed, and is believed to have continued until the 13th century A.D.,
when a resurgence of Hinduism and an increasingly militant Islamic movement led to
a decline of Buddhism in India. The site was deserted for more than 500 years before
its rediscovery—again by a British military adventurer-type—in 1818. Today, aside
from the attractive complex of ruins, Sanchi is little more than a railway station, a few
guesthouses, snack stands, a museum, a restaurant, and a shop.
During the excavation that has taken place over the last century, the ruins of around
55 temples, pillars, monasteries, stupas, and other structures have been unearthed. It
appears that Sanchi is unique in that its monuments cover the gamut of Buddhist
architectural structures—dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D.
The star attraction is Ashoka’s large hemispherical stupa, which rises from the
ground like a massive stone-carved alien craft. Around the middle of the 2nd century
B.C., a balustrade was erected around the stupa, and the mound was covered in stone
by the rulers of the Sunga dynasty. Facing the cardinal directions and contributing to
the mystical appearance of the main stupa are the four intricately carved gateways,
erected around 25 B.C. under the later Satvahana rulers. These striking entranceways
feature finely detailed panels depicting incidents from the life of the Buddha and tales
from the Jatakas. At that time, the current depiction of the Buddha in human form
had not yet emerged, and instead he is symbolically depicted as a bodhi tree, lotus,
wheel, pair of feet, or stupa.
The Sanchi monasteries consist of a central courtyard surrounded by cells that
served as the sleeping quarters for the nuns or monks. Of these, the best is Monastery
51, which was first excavated in the 19th century.
Sanchi is located at 23.29°N and 77.44°E. The city is about 46km from Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh.
The climate is extreme with hot summers and cold winters. The maximum temperature during the summer months can reach as high as 46°C, while in the winter in the winters, it can go down to below 5°C.
The foundation of the great religious establishment at Sanchi destined to have a glorious career as an important centre of Buddhism for many centuries to come, was probably laid by the great Maurya Emperor, Ashoka (circa 273-236 B.C.), when he built a stupa and erected a monolithic pillar here. In addition to his marriage with a lady of Vidisha, the reason for his selection of this particular spot may be due to the fact that the hilltop served an ideal place for giving a concrete shape to the newly aroused zeal for Buddhism in the emperor. Sanchi fulfilled all the conditions required for an ideal Buddhist monastic life. The dedicatory inscriptions at Sanchi unmistakably show that the prosperity of the Buddhist establishment here was, to a great extent, due to the piety of the rich mercantile community of Vidisha.
Sanchi Tourism Information
Sanchi is a small village in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It is located at 46km north-east of Bhopal, in the central part of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Sanchi is known for its stupas, monasteries, temples and pillars dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D.
The Eastern Gateway
This depicts the young prince, Siddhartha leaving his father's palace on his journey towards enlightenment and the dream has mother had before his birth, before becoming Gautama Buddha, or the enlightened one. The Western Gateway depicts the seven incarnations of the Buddha. The Northern Gateway crowned by a wheel-of-law, depicts the miracles associated with the Buddha as told in the Jakatas. The Southern Gateway has inscriptions of the birth of Gautama, and his revealed in a series of dramatically rich carvings.
The Great Stupa (No. 1)
The world renowned stupa was originally built by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka and is an icon of India’s cultural heritage. The present stupa is a superstructure over the original brick stupa and comprises a hemispherical dome. This is the oldest stone structure in India, about 35.5m in diameter and 16.4m high, with a massive the hemispherical dome. The stupa stands in external majesty, the paved procession path around it worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims.
Toranas or Gateways
The reliefs on the toranas depict the Jataka tales of Buddha’s incarnations and the main events associated with his life.
Stupa No. 2
The 2nd BC stupa lies on the edge of the Sanchi hill. This stupa stands at the very edge of the hill, and its most striking feature is the stone balustrade that rings it.
Stupa No 3
This stupa was built during 150 – 140 BC. The relics of Sariputta and Mahamogallan, two of Buddhas chief disciples were found in this stupa. These relics are at present housed in the Sri Lankan Vihara here. It is situated close to the great stupa. The hemispherical dome is crowned as a mark of its special religious significance, with an umbrella of polished stone. The relics of Sariputta and Mahamogallena, two of the Buddha's earliest disciples, were found in its inmost chamber
The fragments of the Asokan Pillar dating back to the 3rd century BC lie near Stupa 1. The Chunar sandstone pillar is known for its polished surface and carries emperor Ashoka’s edicts to his people. This lies close to the Southern Gateway of the Great Stupa, and is one of the finest examples of Ashokan Pillars. It is known for its aesthetic proportions and exquisite structural balance.
This must visit site exhibits the antiquities recovered from excavations of Sanchi hill and few sculptures form Gyaraspur. The Archaeological Survey of India maintains a site museum at Sanchi. Noteworthy antiquities on display include the lion capital of the Ashokan Pillar and metal objects used by the monks, discovered during excavations at Sanchi.
Sanchi Tour Information
Besnagar (Vidisha) (13km)
The remains of ancient city of Vidisha are located 3km from the modern township. The inscription on Heliodorous Pillar (2nd century BC) refers to the conversion of a Greek ambassador to Vaishnavism. The Vidisha Museum is worth visiting.
It is known for the monuments dating back to medieval Hindu period. Notable among them are Maladevi Temple, Vajra Matha, Atha Khamba and Hindola Torana etc.
It is famous rock cut caves built during the ‘Golden Age’ of the Guptas between 4th – 5th century Ad are 4km from Vidisha. The exquisite sculptures in the caves are noted for their unique vitality, vigour and richness of expression.
The Great Bowl
Carved out of one block of stone, this mammoth bowl contained the food that was distributed among the monks of Sanchi.
The Gupta Temple
In ruins now, this 5th century AD temple is one of the earliest known examples of temple architecture in India.
The Buddhist Vihara
The sacred relics of the Satdhara Stupa, a few kilometers away from Sanchi, have been enshrined in a glass casket on a platform in the inner sanctum of the modern monastery.
The Chethiyagiri Vihara Festival
The Chethiyagiri Vihara Festival is a good time to see throngs of Buddhist monks and pilgrims who gather to see the relics of Buddha's two earliest disciples.
Sanchi Distance Guide