Sanchi Stupa (Madhya Pradesh)
Sanchi (in Madhya Pradesh, India) is famous for its stupas. The bodies of the Buddha and of other sages were cremated on pyres of sweet-smelling sandalwood. The bones were later recovered and taken to various places of pilgrimage where they were interred in stupas.
Great Stupa: From the rest house on the north-west, the visitor may proceed on foot by the flight of steps through the enclosure wall to the west gate of the Great Stupa, the most gigantic monument as Sanchi. It is approximately 106 feet in diameter and 42 feet high and was begun by Ashoka but completed by his successors in the first or second century B.C.
The ground balustrade encompassing the Great Stupa has four gateways (toranas) at the four cardinal points. The toranas are elaborately carved and are among the finest specimens of early Buddhist art. They are enriched with bas reliefs illustrating Buddhist legends, known as Jatakas and events in Ashoka’s life. The colossal Buddhas behind them date back to the 5th century A.D.
West Gateway: The front face of the top architrave of the West Gateway shows seven incarnations of the Buddha, four of which are represented by trees and the rest by stupas.
The middle architrave shows the Buddha preaching his First Sermon in the deer park at Sarnath.
The lowest architrave illustrates a colorful legend about Bodhisattva, which literally means – ‘a being whose characteristic (sattva) and aim are enlightenment (Bodhi)’.
In the centre is the temple of Bodh-Gaya with the peepal tree (Ficus religiosa) and the throne.
South Gallery: The front of the top architrave depicts the nativity scene of the Buddha. Maya, the mother of Gautama, stands on a full-blown lotus, with elephants on the right and left, pouring water over her head. In the lowest architrave, dwarf-like figures, known as kichakas, are holding garlands in their hands and spouting forth the Lotus Tree (of Life and fortune) from their mouths. The back of the middle architrave is again illustrated with stories from the Chaddanta Jataka.
East Gateway: The front face of the middle architrave shows Gautama departing from his father’s palace at Kapilavastu to begin his search for truth. The second panel of the inner face of the right pillar illustrates the dream which Maya, the mother of Gautama, had at the time he was conceived. She dreamt of the moon with an elephant standing on it. The miracle of the Buddha walking on water is depicted on three panels on the left pillar.
North Gateway: This is the best preserved of the four gateways. Above the top architrave is a Buddhist Wheel of Law.
The top panel of the left pillar (front face) shows the Buddha performing another miracle.
The second panel of the inner face of the right pillar shows a monkey king offering a bowl of honey to the Buddha (represented by a throne).
Stupa No. 3 and the New Vihara: Fifty yards to the north-east of the Great Stupa stands Stupa No. 3 (150-140 B.C.) this is a smaller edition of the former (50 feet in diameter and 27 feet high). The Stupa was in a dilapidated condition in 1851 it was excavated and two stone boxes containing the relics of Sariputta and Maha-Moggallana, the two chief disciples of the Buddha, were discovered. The Stupa was rebuilt between 1912 and 1917.
The Chaitya Hall (7th Century A.D.): This shrine stands directly opposite the south Gateway of the Great Stupa. The columns of the nave are similar to the pillared aisles of Paestum or Athens. The rounded apses resemble early Christian churches. The Chaitya Hall (hall of prayer) arose out of the particular demands of the Buddhist religion. In its early days, prayers were held in the open. Later, when stone buildings were erected or cave-like excavations made on the sides of hills as places of worship, it became the fashion to set apart a part of the building, with a domical roof, to house a stupa containing the relics of some holy personage.
Another temple of this type is the Gupta Temple or Temple No. 17, east of the Chaitya Hall. Other noteworthy buildings are Temple Nos. 40 and 45 and the nunnery built by Devi, Ashoka’s queen, in front of the West Gateway.
Stupa No. 2: Further down on a ledge is Stupa No. 2 (circa 150 B.C.). It is approximately 39 feet in diameter and 22½ feet in height. The Stupa is surrounded by a finely preserved balustrade. The reliefs on the balustrade are full of vitality and show female deities and a great variety of real and mythological animals including winged lions, horse-headed and fish-headed humans, elephants, snakes and bulls. Some horsemen are shown riding with stirrups. This is the earliest known example of the use of stirrups in any part of the world and dates back to a period five centuries before stirrups are recorded in literature.
Within a radius of ten miles from Sanchi lie several other interesting Buddhist and Hindu shrines.