Sanchi, a magnificent architectural expression

by Anil Gulati, Merinews, June 15, 2008

Sanchi is now included in the list of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's heritage sites of the world. Emperor Asoka laid the foundation of this religious centre, a remarkable sense of Buddhist art and architecture..

Madhya Pradesh, India -- RAISEN DISTRICT of Madhya Pradesh hosts one of the magnificent stupas of central India, namely the stupa of Sanchi. If one is traveling on a train from Delhi to Bhopal, the Great Stupa is visible from kilometers on a green serene hill overlooking the plain, attracting one’s immediate attention.

<< The great Sanchi stupa

Sanchi has remarkable specimen of Buddhist art and architecture right from the early Mauryan period ie third century BC to 12th century AD. It is now included in the list of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) heritage sites of the world.

Sanchi, has been known as Kakanaya, Kakanava, Kakanadabota and Bota-Sriparvata in ancient times. It was Emperor Asoka who laid the foundations of a religious centre at Sanchi, he might have been fascinated by the location of the hill or because of his queen, Devi who was the daughter of a merchant of Vidisha. He erected the Great Stupa (Stupa 1) here after redistribution of mortal remains of Lord Buddha for erecting several stupas all over the country in order to spread Buddhism.

Archeological Survey of India web site state that it was in year 1818, that General Taylor saw shapeless ruin in the wilderness of Sanchi. Captain Johnson dug out the entire western portion of the stupa in 1822. Alexander Cunningham and Captain FC Maisay (1851) further excavated it in search of relic casket. However the credit for piecing together the scattered fragments of this monument goes to Sir John Marshall during 1912-1919 who was the director general of Archaeological Survey of India.

The monuments of Sanchi

Sanchi’s monuments consists of stupas, monolithic pillars, temples and monasteries and are about 50 in number. Stupas are large hemispherical domes, containing a central chamber, in which the relics of the Buddha were placed and are the most characteristic monument of Buddhist India.
Stupa 1 – This is the principal monument at Sanchi and consists of a gigantic mound of sandstone surrounded by sumptuous porticoes with stone railings. It is known for its extraordinarily rich decorative work on its four monumental gateways (southern, northern, eastern and western gateways) or torana that provide access to the stupa. They are positioned almost exactly in line with the four cardinal points, and these gateways transpose into stone the structure of the wooden gateways. The lush carvings, prodigious creations in bas relief, high relief in the round, are an iconographic treasure trove.

The gateways – of all the gateway all of the first century BC the earliest to be built was the one on the south, which was principal entrance which was successfully followed by north, east and west gateways. Of all toranas or gateways, the best preserved is the northern gateway which enables the visitor to have a complete idea of the appearance of all the gateways.

Each gateway consists of two square pillars crowned by set of four lions, elephants or pot bodied dwarfs supporting a super structure of the three cruciform architraves with spirally rolled ends.

The entire surface of the gateways is covered with relief’s representing scenes and decorations. The subject matter of the carvings on the gateways may be broadly classified as follows:

  1. Scenes from Jatakas – stories of the Jatakas centre round the previous births of Gautama Buddha
  2. Scene from life of Gautama Buddha
  3. Events in the subsequent history of Buddhism
  4. Scene relating to the Manushi Buddhas and
  5. Miscellaneous scenes and decorations

Stupa 3 – Situated about 45 meters to the north east of stupa 1 is stupa 3. Though smaller in dimensions and has one gateway and its hemispherical. It is crowned by single umbrella. The importance of this stupa lies in the fact that the relics if Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, the two foremost disciples of Buddha were found by Cunningham enshrined at the centre of this dome on the level of the terrace.

Stupa 2 – Dates back to the 2nd century BC, stands at the very edge of the hill and its most striking feature is the stone balustrade that surrounds it.

Besides these stupas there are remains of other large number of others stupas on the main, they are monolithic or structural. Immediately behind stupa 3 is stupa 4, which exists in heap of loose stones without the tace of any ground balusttade. Stups no 5 to the stupa 3 is remarkable in its have an image of Budhha (in museum)


None of the free standing pillars, which can be seen at on the main terrace is intact. The earliest one them is pillar number 10, which was erected by Ashoka near south gateway of Stupa 1. The lower part of the same now stands alone with fragments of the shaft packed inside a shed near by. This may have been one of the finest columns by virtue if its magnificent capital. The other prominent pillars are Pillar 25, with octagonal shaft south of stupa 5 probably of Sunga period; Pillar 26 which is kind of imitation of column of Ashoka stands north of pillar 25, broken and Pillar 35, or Vajrapani pillar (pillar with surmounted by the figure of Vajrapani)

Temples of Sanchi

Temple number 18 of seventh century now has nine pillars out of the 12 and pilaster with architraves over them are still intact, stands on the raised platform facing south gateway of the Stupa 1. Temple 17 situated near the north east corner of Temple 18 and standing on the low moulded basement this temple consists of flat roofed square sanctum with a portico supported m four pillars in the front is remarkable piece of Gupta architecture, noted for its structural propriety and symmetry.

In addition to above monastery and temple 45 built during the period of the 7th and 11th centuries, have a more developed styles of architecture. The doorways of this construction are ornamented, with the image of Buddha in an oval Halo.

Sanchi, not only is unique in having the most perfect and well-preserved stupas but also offers a wide information and education to our past. It is about 45 kilometers from Bhopal and is about hour and half drive from Bhopal. But Sanchi lacks number of trained guides. As per media reports it has only eight licensed tourist guides but normally three to four are available rest go missing. And Sanchi with guide is real interesting, the local knowledge of stories, history and culture add a value to the visit.

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