The Great Stupa at Sanchi

28 Feb, 2017 - Madhurima Chaudhuri

The small town of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh welcomes a fresh batch of tourists nearly everyday. Its quiet lanes enliven with an eclectic crowd of backpackers, students, families and devotees. Sanchi is a picturesque town with ample green fields and contrasting grey hillocks. However, its popularity lies in the ancient Great Stupa containing the relics of Buddha. It dates back to the time of the Mauryan King, Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. The sacredness attached to this site ensured the expansion of the Stupa with contributions made by several dynasties. Placed at the top of a steep hillock, the Stupa now has been given the status of a ‘World Heritage Site.’ The site is also dotted by smaller stupas, temples and remnants of monasteries all placed within the boundaries of manicured lawns. A Stupa refers to a hemispherical-shaped Buddhist shrine. The initial idea behind these structures was to not only provide permanence to the Buddhist philosophy but create a meditative atmosphere for devotees.  

A view of the Stupa through a decorative 'torana' or gateway

The Great Stupa in its earliest stage patronised by Ashoka consisted of a simple brick dome surrounded by carved wooden gateways and railings. But during the succeeding reigns of the Shunga and Satavahanas, the Stupa came to be extended. The brick dome or ‘unda’ was enlarged in sandstone with the addition of a passage for circumambulation at a higher level. The parasol found at the apex symbolise the place where the relics are kept below. While the new gateways placed in each cardinal direction connected by railings forged in sandstone create a second passageway. 

Detailed narratives found on the architraves of the gateway

The most enchanting aspect of the structure are the narrative reliefs found on the  pillars and architraves of the gateway. Detailed and animated scenes, figural representations, motifs and complex ideas were skilfully rendered by artisans showcasing the life events of Gautama Buddha and the jataka tales. Interestingly, Buddha is showcased in his aniconic perhaps to maintain his view against idol worship. Thus, in art, ‘the enlightened one’ came to be represented by footprints, parasols and the Bodhi tree. The depiction of  numerous stories is more than the Buddhist philosophy but instead creates a window into the material culture of that period. 

Narrative pillars part of the gateways

As you walk into the complex, the sandstone glistening in sunlight will surely leave you awestruck. That coupled with a calming silence will guide you to a transformative path even if its just for few hours. 

Topic: Art