For well over a decade I have wanted to visit the monuments at Sanchi, and finally in 2018 I fulfilled that ambition. Sanchi is unique in having the most perfect and well preserved stupas anywhere in India, with monuments spanning from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D.
Being both an archaeologist and photographer, a site like Sanchi poses some problems for me when it comes to documenting my visit. Having spent over 5 hours at the site yielding more than 600 photographs, I have decided to break down my account into a number of blog posts :
- Introduction to Sanchi
- Sanchi – Stupa 1 (this post)
- Sanchi – Stupa 2
- Sanchi – Stupa 3
- Sanchi – Remaining Monuments
With a diameter of 36m and a height in excess of 16m, Stupa 1 at Sanchi is of course the highlight of any visit to the site. The almost hemispherical dome is the largest of any of the stupas to be found here, complemented by four hugely impressive gateways (toranas), covered in detailed carvings, located at the cardinal points.
The stupa you see today encases a much earlier smaller stupa that was built from mud mortar and bricks, together with an inscribed pillar it is believed this earlier stupa was erected by Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. Previous excavations here have also uncovered fragments of an umbrella with typical Mauryan polish that is strongly associated with the monuments erected by Ashoka right across India.
After the death of the Buddha, his relics were originally divided into eight portions and shared between eight princes. Each prince constructed a stupa at or near his capital city, within which the respective portions of the ashes were enshrined. These eight stupas were erected at Kapilavastu, Rajagriha, Vaisali, Pava, Allakappa, Ramagrama, Vothadvipa, and Kusinara.
Two centuries later, in order to spread the Buddhist faith, Ashoka endeavored to gather the eight shares of the relics to divide them up. His aim was to distribute them among 84,000 stupas, which he himself erected all across India. However, he only obtained seven of these portions. Resistance from the Nagas at Ramagrama resulted in Ashoka failing to secure those relics.
By the middle of the 2nd century B.C. it appears that his original stupa was in a state of disrepair and was then rebuilt. At the same time new additions were incorporated into the structure, with a stone encasing, a terrace, stairs, balustrades, and pathways all made from locally quarried sandstone.
The balustrades are architecturally interesting as their construction seems to follow a process that would have occurred if they were made from wood rather than stone. This has led many experts to believe that the use of stone as a building material was relatively new for the builders who incorporated these additions to Stupa 1
Devotees from all over India sponsored the construction of the balustrades and pavements, you can still see their names inscribed on various stones set within the monument. These inscriptions are sometimes highlighted by white paint on the pavement, which probably helps reduce wear from the many thousands of visitors each year.
In the 1st century B.C the four gateways were erected, the earliest being the south gateway which is assumed to be the original principal entrance.
Finally, shortly before 450 A.D. the final addition was made to Stupa 1 after five centuries of modifications. Four images of Buddha, each seated under a pillared canopy, were placed against the walls of the stupa facing the four entranceways.
Interestingly, unlike other stupas at Sanchi and nearby, no relics have ever been uncovered within Stupa 1. Excavations by Captain Johnson in 1822 and Alexander Cunningham in 1851 yielded no caskets, and by all accounts their attempts at excavation were both extensive, widespread and unfortunately often destructive in nature. It is thanks to the work of Major Cole in 1881 that Stupa 1’s decline in fortunes was finally reversed, with vegetation cleared, the dome finally repaired, gateways reconstructed, and the balustrades pieced back together.
Whilst the dome of Stupa 1 is in itself an impressive monument, it is of course the gateways that draw the eye of any visitor, and rightly so. The carvings on these gateways is simply stunning, the intricate detail is almost beyond belief. Each one of these gateways is an open art gallery in its own right, and demands an extended period of time to really examine them in detail.
All the gateways were built during the 1st century B.C. With Ashoka’s pillar located by the South gateway, it is believed that this was the original main entrance to Stupa 1. The North, East and West gateways were subsequently built, possibly as much as 40 years after the South gateway was erected.
For anyone wanting a full account of all the carvings that can be seen on the gateways, I suggest you refer to the excellent Wikipedia articles on Sanchi.
What follows are some of the highlights from my perspective. Clicking on each image will give you a larger view, and some explanation as to what the carvings are depicting.
With more than 50 separate relief carvings, this is the best preserved of all the gateways and still retains most of its ornamental figures. It was the second to be constructed after the South Gateway, with the carvings depicting scenes from various events in the life of the Buddha.
The Buddha was never depicted at this stage in the development of Buddhism, and instead he is represented by an empty throne or Bodhi tree.
Unlike the South and West Gateways, the North Gateway did not need to be reconstructed by archaeologists, and retains the astonishing detail on the top part of the structure.
The South Gateway is the most damaged, with a few of the surfaces either lost or left undecorated. An inscription on the west pillar of this gateway attributes the decoration to ivory workers of Vidisha, which has led experts to believe that all the gateways were carved by workers whose primary medium was either ivory, wood, or metal.
The scenes carved on this gateway concentrate largely on the relics of Buddha and his attempts to spread the Buddhist faith, which is panother indicator that this was the first gateway to be erected.
When the South Gateway was restored by Major Cole in 1882, he found the entire gateway lying on the ground in pieces. Some of the lintels appear now to have been reversed by mistake, as some of the more important scenes no longer face outwards but instead face the stupa.
The third gateway to be erected, here the carvings depict historical events during the life of Buddha in addition to many miracles he is said to have performed.
The elephant capitals of the East Gateway show the full form of the animal, whereas the similar elephant capitals on the North Gateway are only the front half of the animal.
The last of the four gateways to be erected, famous for the pillar capitals consisting of groups of four Yakshas (pot-bellied dwarfs) all seemingly struggling to burdon the weight of the structure.
In the mornings, the rear face of the West Gateway this by far the easiest of the four to photograph in detail.
Stupa 1 at Sanchi is reason enough to make the effort to visit this World Heritage Monument. But there is far more to explore and discover at the site, which I will cover over the next few days. It really demands a full day to see everything in-depth, but on my visit I was destined for Udayagiri Caves in the afternoon (it’s very close by).
It pays to arrive at Sanchi in the early morning. After an 90 minute drive from Bhopal, I arrived at 8:30am and had the entire site to myself for at least an hour. Note however that unlike most A.S.I museums, the one at Sanchi is closed on Fridays (not Mondays). So that’s something I missed out on, or perhaps I’ve just found a very good excuse to return here one day 🙂
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