Backpacking Sanchi

Backpacking Sanchi – A World Heritage

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.

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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.

Sanchi Stupas

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.

Toranas

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.

Temples

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!

Transport

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.

Sleep

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!


Have you been to this World Heritage Site? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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29 thoughts on “Backpacking Sanchi – A World Heritage

  1. Really nice to go through this article. It takes a lot to visit these places and get in touch with what has written by our historians in the past. Congratulations Kamal Kant Maurya

  2. A very informative blog post! With awesome storytelling. I want to go to India, and I am hoping to maybe early next year. I want to check this place out 🙂

  3. I never thought about Sanshi until now. I love historical places and monuments they have their. Really worth placing on a bucket list for sure! Thanks for sharing

  4. India is too huge to explore and theres so much to discover. I was able to visit Kerala three years ago and I really cant wait to explore other places in India!

  5. I love historical places and Bhopal is definitely well known. Now I know it for its cultural history not the environmental disaster that I learnt in school. Isn’t there a cement factory in Ashoka? Something rings a bell in my head.

  6. I have been to India a couple of times and have travel to may parts of the country, but never made it to Sanchi – I love the architecture of these temples – I guess I’ll just have visit again 😉

  7. I’ve never been to India, but I’m fascinated by its history and religion. I love to explore Buddhist temples on my travels around Asia. There’s just something peaceful and calming about them. So, Sanchi is up my alley! Great informative post!

  8. Our incredible India! It always give me goosebumps whenever I read something from our Indian history. These historical places always been the main attraction of the Country. Loved all the details about Sanchi Stupa mentioned in this post. Definitely, would visit this soon.

  9. I had no idea that Sanchi had so many wonders. I always considered it as a quick getaway from Bhopal but it seems that I’ll have to spend a day or two here.

  10. Lovely post with interesting historical context and beautiful pics! I love the carvings and plan to visit Sanchi next time I visit my brother in Bhopal!

  11. We haven’t been to India yet, but it’s definitely high on my list. This will definitely come in handy for deciding where to go when it comes time to plan. This looks like such a wonderful place to visit!

    1. Thank you Michelle. We hope you travel to India soon. Yes indeed, Sanchi is a beautiful visit and a very unique experience. Check out our other posts to get more ideas for your travel plans.

  12. The information and the pictures of the carved gateways and monuments make regret my decision of not visiting this place despite passing by it. Thanks to you I shall soon be making a travel plan .

  13. I have never been to India but these places are definitely in my bucket list! I love the arts and even if I haven’t studied Indian art and I am unable to fully appreciate the meaning of all the decoration, I would love to admire these artworks in person. Thanks for all the info

    1. Totally agree with you Federica. There are many things and places we have seen that we do not know about and still love to admire and appreciate them! Hope you get to see Sanchi in person soon.

  14. Sanchi looks extremely fascinating and the rich history associated with it makes it a must-visit destination. I didn’t know the place is related to Buddhism and Emperor Ashoka. I loved reading all the details and historical facts you’ve mentioned in the post. Very interesting and a great insight into a bygone era!

  15. I love exploring the history of places so I really enjoyed this absorbing article! Such fascinating insights into the historical context of Sanchi. I hope I can visit one day.

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