The SANCHI STUPA

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Located in the heart of India, 46-km from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, Sanchi Stupa is a place of acquired interest and exploration. Besides admiring the fine display of Buddhist Art and Architecture here, the visitors to this ancient site must know how and when it was built, explore the place in detail and give it undivided attention that it truly deserves. We help you admire the place beyond the obvious. 

 

To begin with, it is important to know- what a Stupa is.

The stupa is an architectural structure which symbolises the remains, containing relics or religious objects of Buddha. It is the structural emblem or the most important Buddhist Monument which is used as a place of meditation.

Stupas have a distinct shape, constructed in semi-spherical design, enclosed in a fence. To describe its appearance simply, a stupa is made of stone, with its basic shape (like a dome representing the Buddha’s posture as he meditated (to attain alignment) on the earth. It has a square base which represents Buddha seated in a cross-legged position. Its middle section is known as the hemisphere or mound and represents the structure of the Buddha’s body. The top conical spire is symbolic of the Buddha’s spine or central channel (avadhuti).

The religious significance and value of a stupa

According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (an ancient Buddhist text describing the last days of the Buddha), when Buddha passed away, his cremated remains were divided into eight parts by his followers (his disciples). Each of the eight kings then built a stupa to commemorate Buddha’s remains, containing one portion of the relics too, buried inside the stupa. 

When visiting a stupa, practitioners move around it in a clockwise direction to practice meditation. During the meditation time, practitioners focus deeply on the endless cycle of rebirth (samsara). They walk the path of enlightenment seeking ultimate freedom from suffering. The meditation practice has been followed in the early Buddhist tradition by clergy and laity, who worshipped stupas including the relics buried in them, to attain spiritual merit. It was the same reason, of Buddhist relic-cult and its popularity, which gives stupas much of its symbolic merit.

 

It grew manifold in popularity during the reign of Emperor Ashoka. Today, stupas are not a just enormous symbol of Buddhist philosophy and concepts of life but also, a standout for its architectural brilliance, expansion and strength.

Why Sanchi stupa was built

The Great Stupa in Sanchi, India, is said to be the earliest known stupa, commissioned in the third century BCE. A qualified Buddhist teacher is required to build a stupa, and Sanchi Stupa was built by none other than Emperor Ashoka, who entrusted himself with the task of spreading the philosophy of Buddhist teachings after the horrific war of Kalinga.

King Ashoka has been instrumental in building Stupas to expand the Buddhist world. Quoting Buddhist scriptures, a posting on www.nangchen.org said: “With the wish of spreading the teachings of the Buddha, King Ashoka of India divided the relics of Lord Buddha and constructed 84,000 stupas to enshrine these precious objects of devotion.”

 

Origin and development of Sanchi stupa including major details on its architectural finery and design aesthetic 

Its original dimension was a hemispherical some, about a height of 54 feet. Like any other stupa built, it also contains a central chamber consisting of the relics of Lord Buddha. Surrounding the stupa are four ornamental gateways in four different directions.

Sanchi Stupa has undergone many transformations under different dynasty rules. Built under the supervision of the Mauryan Empire (under the patronage of King Ashoka from about 250 BCE), the stupa went changes during the Shunga dynasty. During the Shunga dynasty (around 187 to 78 BCE after the fall of Mauryan Empire), the stupa went through an expansion, almost double its original size. The dome was more flattened. Stone slabs were used to flatter the dome otherwise made of brick. Also, the umbrella-like structure was built to crown the dome. It symbolised the Wheel of Dharma. This rounded drum was used to cover the sacred dome. 

Today, this hemispherical edifice is double in diameter size of the original construction initiated by King Ashoka.  There are four intricately decorated torans or the four gateways as we call it, facing in all four directions. Stunning designs and motifs adorn the railing and the gates of the stupa. The torans sculptures share beautifully carvings from the life of Lord Buddha as described in the Jataka tales. There are depictions of trees, figurative illustrations of Thrones, wheels, all-encompassing the life of Buddha, starting from the time he left his Kingdom to follow the path of meditation, setting Buddhism as a practice in Bodh Gaya, to his life’s illustration from here on. 

What to expect during a visit

It is a world-famous site recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1989. Sanchi Stupa is regarded as the best-conserved site among the ancient stupas of India.

During a visit here, a visitor can expect the following spectacles:

The Four Gate Ways- these were built in 35 BC which showcase the Buddhist expression in enormity, unlike anywhere else. The four gateways or torans bring to life the Gautam Buddha life snippets. It is a complete walkthrough through the life of Lord Buddha and his earlier births.

The Ashoka Pillar- scattered in the area are some broken Ashoka Pillars which hold a lot of symbolic value. The Ashoka Pillars were used by the King as edicts to impart knowledge about Buddhist scriptures and teachings. The Sanchi Pillar of Ashoka is at the epitome of Greco-Buddhist style, identified for its aesthetic value and perfect structural balance built. While the lower portion of the pillar is firmly grounded, its upper portion is under a canopy. It still has ornate spiral Brahmi characters embedded on it. They were inscribed during the Gupta period and the script resembled conch shells shape or described as ‘shell-script’ by scholars. The crown of these pillars has four lion’s depictions, adopted as the National Emblem of India.

Stupas – Sanchi Stupas were built on a hill-top for worship and religious purposes. It contained the relics of disciples of Buddha. These stupas have beautifully adorned wall designs and carvings.

The Museum- is maintained by the archaeological survey of India. It has preserved excavations of Sanchi area. There are utensils used by the monks who spent time in Sanchi. Its most prized possession is the lion crown (from Ashoka Pillar).

Also see pictures

1 Sanchi Stupa 

2 Bodhgaya Temple 

3 Stupa Anuradhapura Sri Lanka 

4 Emerald Buddha Temple Bangkok 

5 UNESCO World Heritage sites on eSamskriti 

6 How to reach Sanchi