Sanchi, Central India (1 of 2)

In the middle of Central India’s Madhya Pradesh state, 70 km north of the modern industrial city of Bhopal and its tragic recent history of disaster, stands a wonderful oasis of peaceful tranquility and great historical significance.

The great Buddhist stupa of Sanchi, and its attendant monasteries and temples, stands atop a small hill rising above the Indian plains. Started by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, the whole complex presents a cross-section of Indian Buddhist history, from early popularity to eventual loss of identity and absorption into Hinduism.

The modern village of Sanchi is tiny, but not so small as to lack that most important of features to the traveller in India: a railway station. It is small enough, however, to lack the hotel touts, auto-rickshaw drivers, would-be guides and other annoyances that mar so many of India’s more popular historical sites. A stroll up the main street of the village from the Sri Lanka Mahabodhi Society guest house to the stupa is an experience that leaves the Western tourist feeling deliciously anonymous.

Sanchi’s visible history begins with Ashoka, who ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from 273 to 236 BC. He was married to a woman from Vidisha, 10 km north. After his conversion to Buddhism, Ashoka opened seven of the eight original Buddhist stupas, which housed various relics of the Buddha, such as some of his teeth or hair, or his shoulder bones. Ashoka distributed the relics around a number of new stupas scattered across the length and breadth of his empire.

One of the sites chosen was Sanchi. Through a combination of good luck and proximity to a prosperous and pious community of Buddhist merchants at Vidisha, Sanchi survived numerous changes of political masters to remain a vital centre of Indian Buddhism, until the entire religion vanished from the subcontinent in the 13th century AD.

The most impressive monument is Ashoka’s stupa, built of burnt mud bricks in the third century BC. It was damaged soon afterwards, during political upheavals and wars as Ashoka’s Mauryan empire broke up.

In the middle of the second century BC, the stupa was rebuilt in its present, larger form, and was given a stone facade and surrounded by an elaborately carved railing. It is this reconstructed, 16-metre-high stupa – a slightly flattened hemisphere with a round base, small flat-top and crowned by a stone umbrella – that is Sanchi’s main attraction today.

The stone railing around the stupa’s base is the most interesting sight at Sanchi. Its four gateways, each surmounted by three horizontal beams or architraves, are covered in detailed carvings depicting legends of the life of Gautama Buddha and the lives of his previous incarnations (the Jataka Bodhisattvas and the Manushi Buddhas).

With the aid of the Archaeological Survey of India’s excellent and cheap guidebook (12 rupees, about 35 US cents), visitors can learn a great deal of the lore of Buddhist mythology. In addition to the subject material, the carving itself deserves attention for its artistic merits, including its fresh style and its freedom from the conventionality that was so stifling in later Buddhist and Hindu art in India.