Sanchi (Buddhist Pilgrimages )
History - Sanchi is a town best known for the Sanchi stupa, which is one of the best preserved examples of Buddhist stupas, and the second largest one in the world. What makes the site even more noteworthy is the fact that the structure of the complex found today on the hill of Sanchi, actually came to be as a result of many, many years of collaborative efforts and the contributions of very contrasting powers in the course of its expansion from a rather humble structure to a grand monument, one that has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1989. The beginning of the construction of a major monument at the site was in the 3rd century BCE, with Ashoka, and the concluding parts of the grand-scale embellishment of the structure came about in the 12th century AD, with the last major installments being the building of the forty-fifth temple and a wall enclosing the entire complex.
Geographical Information - Sanchi is located in Madhya Pradesh, India, approximately 40 km to north of Bhopal. The use of Hindi is widespread throughout the state, and apart from English, there exist some regional languages, including Marathi, Malvi, and Bundeli. The area has a subtropical climate, which receives a hot and dry summer season between April and June. The winters last from November till February, and may get a little chilly in the evenings, though the days remain pleasant. The monsoon season occurs between June and September, and fluctuates erratically between slow drizzle and torrential rains, and although this adds an indisputable value to the scenic beauty of the landscape, it may disrupt vacationing ease. Since the biggest motivation to visit the town is the great stupa and the complex it’s within, that is to say, outdoor exploration, the best time to visit would be between November and March.
Buddhism in Sanchi - The first important entity to put Sanchi on the map was the emperor Ashoka. It was the site where he got married to Devi, who later went on to oversee the task of building a stupa here, since Sanchi also happened to be her birthplace. The original structure built at Ashoka’s command consisted of a brick structure at its centre to commemorate the relics of the Buddha. It was crowned by a parasol like structure symbolic of high rank. The structure also featured one of Ashoka’s famous fine sandstone pillars, featuring inscriptions in Lipi. The pillar is similar to the one found at Sarnath, with four lions at its top facing each of the four directions.
There is a certain amount of controversy around the events that may have transpired at the site of the stupa in the 2nd century BCE. A certain school of thought has put forth the proposition that the Stupa was vandalized at a certain point in the century, possible at the command of the Sunga emperor Pushyamitra Sunga, who had overtaken the Mauryan Empire as a general. It has been proposed that he destroyed the original stupa, and his son Agnimitra had taken it upon himself to have it rebuilt. At any rate, there is little dispute over the actions or attitude of the later Sunga rule, which was responsible for the building of the second and third stupa in the complex, along with the stone casing of the Great stupa and building of the ground balustrade.
The last major influential peoples of ancient India to turn their attention to the Sanchi stupa and its further adornment were the Satavahanas. They added four gateways, one on each side of the stupa, which were largely funded by the donations of the local populations. Three sides of the exterior are rather plain in décor, and the front gate has been decorated with narrative sculptures depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha in the style of everyday situations which make the narrative more relatable to the common folk. This makes sense, and also offers an explanation regarding the repetition of certain scenes several times in the décor, since these appealed to the people of the time the most, and they were, in fact the ones funding all the gilding efforts being undertaken. An interesting fact about the narratives is that nowhere is the Buddha portrayed in human form, only in attribute or implicative reference, since the human form was believed to be limited to depict the Buddha in.
After the Satavahanas, further construction of stupas and other Buddhist monuments were added by miscellaneous devotees all the way up till the 12th century AD. It was also during this period that the forty-fifth temple, believed to be one of the last major additions dating back to ancient India, was constructed, and an enclosing wall to the entire complex was erected. After this point, and with the advent of what was later observed to be the marked decline of Buddhism in the subcontinent, the entire structure fell into undisturbed obscurity for the next few centuries, until British archeologists found a rather well preserved remainder in the early 1800s.
In 1818, General Taylor, of the Bengal Cavalry, brought the Sanchi Stupa into the spotlight as a site of great historical importance. Over the next seven decades, the only attention the Sanchi stupa received was from amateurish archeologists and gold diggers, and it was not until 1881 when an actual restoration effort was undertaken under Sir John Marshall. The restoration was completed by 1913. The bone relics of past Buddhist masters found at the site were claimed as personal trophies by the English archeologists Maisey and Cunningham, and transported back to England. The inscriptions found at the Sanchi stupa 1 have proved vital to the task of deciphering the Brahmi script.
Places of interest near Sanchi:
Khajuraho : the temples of Khajuraho are famous the world over for the erotic sculptures found inside them. These were built by the Chandela rulers, and are also a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Lakshman Temple, in particular stands out from the rest. In the month of March, there is a Khajuraho dance festival held here that witnesses dancers from all over the country pouring in for the ten day festival paying tribute to the gods of these temples. Khajuraho is approximately 300 km away from Sanchi, to the east.
Gwalior :Gwalior has been a prominent city throughout the history of the land, and has been ruled by many of the prominent dynasties in history, including the Tomars, the Lodhis, and the Mughals. The Gwalior Fort, built by Raja Man Singh Tomar, is an epic monument worth visiting. The distance between Gwalior and Sanchi is roughly 400 km, and it lies to the north of Sanchi.
National park : Madhya Pradesh has some great places to witness the splendor of the wild. The Kannha National park is a prime destination for wildlife exploration in the country, and serves very well as a place for the leopard, the spotted deer, the Indian Bison, and at one point of time, the tiger, to be sighted. Another great wildlife reserve is the Bandhavgarh National Park, which houses the tiger, the fox, the Chinkara, the wild boar, Nilgai, and over 170 species of birds in area spanning around 450 sq km. the Kannha National park is located in the Mandla district, which is around 370 km away from Sanchi, and Bandhavgarh National Park is in the Umaria district, around 420 km away from Sanchi, both towards the east.
How to reach Sanchi
Airways - the closest airport is at Bhopal, roughly 40 km away from Sanchi. From here, one has the option of travelling by road or rail to reach Sanchi.
Railways - the closest station to Sanchi is Vidisha, at a distance of approximately 10 km. There is a well maintained railway network between Sanchi and Bhopal, and Bhopal in turn is fairly well connected to all major rail routes in the country.
Roadways - Sanchi is easily accessible by road from Bhopal, lying on the Bhopal – Sagar highway. Bhopal has a good network of functional road routes leading up to it from other prominent locations of the country around it.