Heritage · India · Photography

The Stupas of Sanchi on a rainy day


If I could have made a bigger mistake than visiting Sanchi on a rainy day, it was to time it on a Friday. In my hubris, I had assumed that like all other archaeological museums in the country, the Sanchi museum would also be closed on a Monday. After the assumption was shattered, a mixture of dejection, fallen leaves and mud was splashed on my person as I got out of the auto rickshaw at the entrance of the Sanchi complex, off Bhopal, India.

The saving grace was this was still Sanchi, a UNESCO world heritage site and there was plenty to see and understand. For a start, these four modern pieces of sculpture stand atop a pillar each at the entrance. There was a ‘garuda’ bird (eagle), a lion, a deer and an elephant. The base of each pillar shows what the animal symbolizes. For example, the deer symbolizes mercy or compassion – a quality of the Buddha.

A short drive took us to the top of the hill that is the site for the many stupas of sanchi. Indeed, unlike the title given ‘Sanchi stupa’ implies, there’s actually more than one stupa in Sanchi. I walked into the complex a bit hurriedly, umbrella in hand and camera around my neck, forgot to hire the audio compass guide. I did remember to purchase the ASI world heritage guidebook.

Billed as the oldest stone structure in India, with the present structure dating back possibly to the 2nd cent. BC, the great stupa of Sanchi is an imposing sight. The present day stupa, a stone structure is said to have been built by Agnimitra Sunga, son of Pusyamitra Sunga – the general who overthrew the last Maurya king. The site of course is associated with Asoka, the mauryan king, who not only got married in Sanchi (his wife was from vidisha) but also built the original brick stupa containing the relics of the Buddha in 3rd century BC. That brick stupa either lies inside the stone structure of the present day or was destroyed by the Sungas – we do not know for sure. Still, it is a humbling thought that in sanchi’s heyday, thousands of monks would have walked upon these very paths and circumambulated the stupa that a tourist can visit today with relative ease.

The Great stupa is a plain structure except for the stone balustrade that circles it – it is punctuated by four gateways in four cardinal directions. Each of these gateways is a riot of ornamentation – depicting not only Buddhist symbols but also stories from the life of the Buddha – the Jataka tales. I’m not very familiar with most of the Jataka tales and hence my descriptions will be limited here. I did make sense of this one – it shows buddha’s great departure. Note that Buddha is not shown but in the ratha (chariot) it is evident that his presence is acknowledged. It was believed at the time of the construction of the stupa and later, these toranas that the mortal coil was too confining for the Buddha and hence he is not shown (source: ASI guidebook)

The North gate or Torana was built by the Satvahana dynasty (as were the others) and is a fascinating structure due to the level of detail that the carving shows. A quick look at the ASI guide reveals the secret behind this – at the time of making the toranas, the Satvahana dynasty employed ivory craftsmen to carve stone and the result was a level of finesse never before seen.

A recurring figure in ancient Indian art is that of the sala-bhanjika or tree nymph. It is usually a nubile woman clinging to a tree and I have seen a very evocative depiction at Rajarani temple in Bhubaneswar, Odisha state. Out here, the figure’s not quite as beautiful but the use of the piece as a bracket is certainly innovative. The bottom of either pillar of the Torana depict a dwar-pala (Door keeper). On the whole, the North Torana is a splendid example of ancient Indian art and the state of preservation (post restoration work done by the ASI over last hundred years or so) is excellent.

Facing the great Stupa, I moved anti-clockwise and to my left were the fallen Ashokan pillar – labeled pillar 10. The pillar was a massive structure and the stone, weighing over fifty tonnes was brought from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, a distance of 800 kilometers, by laborers working on the orders of the mauryan emperor. How they accomplished it over two millennia ago in the absence of any powered transport defies imagination and yet it was there, at Sanchi. In its heyday, the top of the pillar bore the Ashokan emblem (lion capital) that now lies in the sanchi museum. Astonishingly, a local zamindar, ignoring the historical value of this piece, chose to break up this pillar and use it as a sugarcane press (Source: ASI guidebook).

Near these pillars stands temple number 17, one of the oldest temples anywhere in the country. It doesn’t look like an Indian temple at first glance but rather something European but for the size of the structure. The veranda out front is a four pillared structure, the main body shows a flat roof (no shikhara or rising tower is present) and very little ornamentation.

I moved back towards the stupa and shortly before the east Torana stood a structure so incongruous from the entire site, it could well have been in Greece or Rome. It is called temple 18 and is described thus by the ASI ‘ Dated seventh century AD, this is an apsidal shrine with an apse, a central nave and side-aisles standing on the foundations of an earlier apsidal hall of mauryan or sunga period. The carved motifs on its tapering pillars are found in the caves of the Maharashtra also (here, the possible reference is to Ajanta caves). The temple was restored in the tenth or eleventh century AD, when the richly carved door-jambs were added’. I looked at the structure several times just to try and imagine how it would have looked in its heyday but my eyes were wet (I wasn’t terribly emotional at the moment but the rain just wouldn’t stop!). This minor site reminiscent of the film ‘300’ doesn’t have much else to see – there’s not even a roof.

Continuing east, I reached a flight of stairs, down that was a large excavation in the rocky ground. This pit was most likely water storage – I however confused it with the description of the large stone bowl that was used for storing alms collected by the monks. I walked onwards towards the monastery – known as monastery 51 (general view in first photo below with the water reservoir in the second photo below) and walked inside the walls of the enclosures that would have housed monks two millennia ago. It was a surreal experience. Thanks to the rain, there were no tourists around – and the wind was cool. It makes for dull photographs but the weather was very pleasant now with the rain reduced to a drizzle. I’ve only seen photos of the Indus valley civilization (mohen jo daro) and somehow I imagine the ruins to be like this – symmetrical rooms lined along a courtyard. I climbed atop one of the corners and got this photo (third below). What a place! It’s like a giant playpen – made of Lego bricks.

Walked back up top, to the level of the great stupa and after spending a few minutes at the south torana, walked out towards stupa 3. This stupa bears the sign from ASI that about a hundred years ago, Cunningham obtained from inside this stupa the remains of Sariputra and Maudgliyan – two of buddhas’s principle disciples. These very remains, after being taken to Britain, were returned to India and then went on a tour of the subcontinent. More details are in the wiki article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relics_…Mahamoggallana

Today these remains are enshrined at the modern çhetyagiri vihara at Sanchi near the entrance of the complex. I gave it a cursory look and left the site.

It was pouring by then.

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