A destructive war in the 3rd century BCE, that claimed about 200,000 lives, to conquer a state governed by the principles of parliamentary democracy in an era of Rajdharma, transformed Ashoka the Great, to convert to Buddhism. His first wife, Mahadevi Sakyakumari or Queen Devi, a Buddhist herself, was a resident of central India. Their two children – son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra – credited with the spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, were born in this region too. After the war, Ashoka commissioned the construction of The Great Stupa at Sanchi (Raisen District), less than 50 Kms from Bhopal, capital of the present day state of Madhya Pradesh. Kamal Maurya urges readers to go backpacking Sanchi – a World Heritage Site of immense significance.
My train, Bhopal Express, chugged in to Vidisha railway station at dawn. Vidisha, a nearby railhead to Sanchi, a relatively small town with significant historical heritage, is an important landmark for Indian Railways – almost all trains halt here. I was traveling from New Delhi to Bhopal but the urge to visit the ‘Great Stupa’ at Sanchi, a 12 Kms auto-ride from here, forced me to break my journey.
Sanchi Stupa Complex: A World Heritage Site
I found toranas or gateways to the stupas as the most fascinating aspect of the complex, but more on that later. Lets get chronological! Starting from Maurya Empire, the Shunga dynasty, the Satvahanas, the Gupta era, a period of abandonement, to the western world’s ‘discovery’ of these stupas, Sanchi’s construction, expansion, and its continuum makes for one of the most interesting preservation stories in India’s history.
The hemispherical structure of Stupa Number 1 over the relics of Buddha, made of bricks, was commissioned by Ashoka The Great. Later, in 2nd century BCE, it is said to have been extended to double its original size by the rulers of Shunga Empire that succeeded the Mauryans. The earlier brick structure was recast in stone and that is what we see today.
Stupa Numbers 2 and 3 are believed to be constructed later in the 1st century BCE. While Stupa Number 2 is a short walk from the main structure, Stupa Number 3 lies in the vicinity. Here’s an interesting tidbit about Stupa Number 2: it is considered to be the birthplace of Buddhist Jataka illustrations! In case you do not know, Jataka tales are an extensive body of Indian literature revolving around the biographies of Lord Buddha.
Sometime in the 1st century BCE, during the Satvahana Empire’s rule, the complex received Stupa Numbers 2 and 3, and intricately designed toranas (or gateways) to this beautiful hilltop complex. I found these finely sculpted toranas akin to painted canvases, with lots of interesting stories and anecdotes.
The Southern Gateway: War of the Relics
Gautama Buddha chose to breathe His last in present day Kushinagar, about 50 Kms from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Kusinara, as it was then called, was ruled by the powerful Malla clan. But, their sole claim to Buddha’s ashes, attracted conflict. The competing kingdoms besieged Kusinara and forced an agreement to divide the relics amongst eight royal families and few of His disciples. Centuries later, during Ashoka’s reign, these relics were removed from the guardian kingdoms and distributed across 84,000 stupas – Sanchi is one of these. The southern gateway (torana), considered as the main and oldest entrance, to Stupa Number 1 depicts the siege of Kusinara by seven kings.
The Northern Gateway: Buddha’s Life
The episodes from Gautama Buddha’s life has and continue to inspire millions. From his renunciation of Kapilavastu’s palatial life, to his search for knowledge, his encounter with the demonic Mara, attaining enlightenment, teaching his disciples, and to his eventual death – all the key events from his life are depicted on The north gateway (torana) to Stupa Number 1. It is the best preserved torana and, since it is also the most decorated one, it gives visitors a good perspective of how all the other toranas or gateways must have been.
Between the 2nd to 4th centuries CE, during the reign of Guptas, Sanchi Stupa Complex received four statues of Lord Buddha seated in canopies – one for each toran / gateway. Besides, the Gupta era also witnessed construction of temples inside the complex. The site continued to flourish until 12th century CE and displayed harmonious co-existence of Hindu and Buddhist practitioners.
Sanchi Archaeological Museum
For about five to six hundred years, the Great Stupa and Sanchi remained largely abandoned and unkempt, until it was re-discovered by a British General and restoration work was initiated. After World War I ended, the colonial power established a museum and it continues to serve visitors till date. Without a doubt, the main attraction of this museum are the remains of one of the original Lion Capitals of Ashoka – India’s national emblem. While the stupa complex is open from sunrise to sunset, the museum attracts visitors between 9 AM to 5 PM.
Sanchi – A Central Indian Legacy
Since Sanchi managed to be under the radar, it has remained intact and not too many of its artifacts were taken overseas. Today, the hilltop is home to a variety of monuments including the three stupas, few temples and some ruins. There are remains of a Buddhist monastery and a pond behind the main stupa, where you can also see the popular ‘great bowl’ of stone!
Food and Drinks
Sanchi attracts a large number of foreign pilgrims and tourists. As such, there are a variety of restaurants to choose from. If you happen to visit the town during the summer season, try the sugarcane juice – just make sure you buy it from a hygiene-conscious vendor!
The Sanchi stupa complex lies at a mere 400 meters from the Vidisha-Bhopal highway and any bus from Bhopal (Nadara Bus stand) going in Sanchi’s direction can drop you in the vicinity. Sanchi is also well connected via the national train network. While some local trains connect Bhopal with Sanchi, Vidisha remains its more popular railhead. Just hire an auto from Vidisha to Sanchi Stupa. The heritage complex is exactly opposite Sanchi railway station.
Though I feel it is better to stay overnight in the state capital Bhopal, about 50 Kms away, should you prefer to sleep in the relative quietness of Sanchi and visit the nearby (less than 10 Kms) Udayagiri rock-cut caves from 5th century CE, you may try Vandana Niketan managed by Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi or few other guest houses within walking distance of the stupa complex. Madhya Pradesh Tourism also runs a facility for budget travelers / backpackers. Dormitory beds at INR 300 per night may be booked online at Sanchi Gateway Retreat Annex. Just click on Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation (MPSTDC) and choose Sanchi as your destination!
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