Rediscovering Sanchi



It is said that when Bimbisara (born c. 543 – died 491 BCE), the king of Magadha, was contemplating where he could offer the Buddha and his followers a place to rest, he thought aloud that the place should be ‘not too far from the town and not too near. Suitable for going and coming and easily accessible to all people by day. But by night, not exposed to noise and alarm. Clean of the smell of people, well fitted for a retired life.’ Sir John Marshall (Director-General of ASI from 1902-28) opens his book Monuments of Sanchi (still the most authoritative book on Sanchi) with this anecdote. He wanted to underline how this idea that Bimbisara had articulated went on to determine the location of all ancient Buddhist stupas and monastery complexes, from Sarnath to Sanchi.

The Sanchi complex hill
The Sanchi complex hill|LHI

Walking up the hill towards Sanchi’s Great Stupa and the complex around it, you can’t help but think of how logical this would have been. The hill affords a certain quietude even with teeming tourists around. It is close to the town below but not too close, and at night it has an ethereal, spiritual quality that transports you to a different plane.

Located around 50 km from Bhopal, the Great Stupa at Sanchi is today an iconic symbol of Buddhism. No matter how many times you have seen its picture, it will leave you spellbound when you first see it. Not only is it exquisitely designed, it also sits bang in the heart of a large complex of over 50 monuments built over a period of 1,400 years, starting in the 3rd century BCE. Here, you will see the history of Buddhism and the far-reaching patronage it received in the subcontinent.

Plan of the monuments of the hill of Sanchi, numbered 1 to 50  
Plan of the monuments of the hill of Sanchi, numbered 1 to 50  |Wikimedia Commons

Zoom out of the Sanchi complex itself and you will realise that this vast complex was just a small part of a larger whole. Archaeological excavations around Sanchi have shown that there were as many as 145 ancient settlements in and around the complex, and just 11 km away was the ancient city of Besnagar/Vidisha.

Sadly, much of this has been lost through time. In fact, as unbelievable as it may sound, this massive complex in Sanchi itself was ‘lost’ for nearly 700 years after the last monk lived here.

Stupa mound before restoration
Stupa mound before restoration|British Library

Though Sanchi is considered one of the most holy (and popular) sites of Buddhist pilgrimage – in the league of Bodh Gaya and Sarnath – the Great Stupa is not linked to the Buddha himself. Instead, it represents the legacy of his greatest ambassador, Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (c. 269 – c. 232 BCE). While legend has it that Ashoka built 84,000 stupas to ‘redistribute’ the relics of the Buddha, Sanchi was perhaps closest to his heart.

The story goes that he chose this site to build the stupa because it was in Vidisha that he met his wife, Devi, who was the daughter of a prominent Mahajan or banker from here. At that time, Ashoka was a Prince and Viceroy of Avanti (an ancient Mahajanapada roughly corresponding to the present-day region of Malwa). Vidisha was en route to Ujjain, the capital of Avanti.

While we don’t know if the selection of this site had a ‘romantic’ connection for Ashoka, we do know that Devi, who was a Buddhist herself, played an important role in influencing Ashoka. In fact, Mahendra and his sister Sanghamitra, who are credited with taking Buddhism south to Sri Lanka, were her children. Mahendra is said to have visited the Sanchi Stupa to bid adieu to his mother before sailing to Lanka.

Interestingly, there is no reference to the name Sanchi itself in early texts or inscriptions. The earliest literary sources refer to the site as Kakanava, Kakanaya or Kakinadabota.

 General view of the Stupas at Sanchi by F C Maisey, 1851
General view of the Stupas at Sanchi by F C Maisey, 1851|Wikimedia Commons

The Many Layers at Sanchi

In 1912-19, John Marshall did the most comprehensive survey of Sanchi (he even moved here for a year in 1912), creating a classification of the many monuments in the complex and the layers of history they represented. But while he did this, he also gave a chilling account of the damage that had been done after the ‘rediscovery’ of Sanchi.

Great Stupa, Eastern Gateway, in 1875
Great Stupa, Eastern Gateway, in 1875|Wikimedia Commons

The Great Stupa of Sanchi and the complex were actually found quite by chance. They were discovered by a British officer, General Taylor, who was here on a military exercise, chasing an army of Pindaris (bands of mercenaries) in 1818, during the Pindari War (1817-1818).

According to Marshall, records from that period showed that Taylor found the Great Stupa with part of the balustrade or railing on top. Three of its four gateways were still standing while one, the Southern Gateway, had fallen in situ. That apart, the complex also had Stupas 2 & 3 and eight minor stupas. Sadly, there is little in the form of a record from that period.

Ruins of the Southern Gateway, Sanchi in 1875
Ruins of the Southern Gateway, Sanchi in 1875|Wikimedia Commons

In Monuments of Sanchi, Marshall goes on to describe the terrible destruction the newly discovered site saw in the following years. He writes, ‘The site quickly became the hunting ground for treasure seekers and amateur archaeologists.’ In 1822, for instance, a Captain Johnson, who was the Assistant Political Agent of the state of Bhopal, under which the site fell, actually opened up the stupa from top to bottom on one side, and left a deep breach in it. This, writes Marshall, ‘led to so much damage to the body of the structure that soon even the Western Gateway collapsed.’ Johnson, Marshall believes, was also responsible for the partial destruction of Stupas 2 and 3, which had stood intact until then.

Around 30 years later, Major Alexander Cunningham (later General Cunningham, who went on to found the ASI) and F C Maisey, a fellow officer and archaeology enthusiast, reached the site, and as Marshall says, ‘together contributed to the general spoliation of the site by hasty excavations of several of the monuments’. Their focus seemed to be trying to find relic caskets, which they did, from Stupas 2 and 3. But to find these caskets, they stripped much of the stupas, as old pictures of the time show.

Cover of the book ‘The Bhilsa Topes’
Cover of the book ‘The Bhilsa Topes’

Though Cunningham did go on to write his classic book The Bhilsa Topes - Buddhist Monuments of Central India, a survey of Sanchi and the four other stupas around it (still the go-to book because all the findings from the stupas are now scattered across museums), it took another 60 years for Marshall to reach the spot and do a thorough study.

The earliest layer of the Great Stupa is a brick core, which was probably half its present size. This forms the original structure from Ashoka’s time. That apart, there is an Ashokan pillar to the right of the Southern Gateway, which is now in three pieces, and its lion capital is at the Sanchi Museum not far away.

Stupas and monasteries at Sanchi, drawn by art historian Percy Brown (1900)
Stupas and monasteries at Sanchi, drawn by art historian Percy Brown (1900)|Wikimedia Commons

The 2nd BCE – 1st CE was a period of intense building work after the Great Stupa was destroyed by Pushyamitra (reign c. 185 – 149 BCE), the Shunga who usurped the Mauryan throne. His son Agnimitra (r. 149 – 141 BCE), who was Governor of the region, based in Vidisha, later made this his capital. He also rebuilt much of the stupa, adding the outer structure or casing of the Great Stupa and the railings. It was during this period that Stupas No 2, 3 and 4 were built, as were additional structures like platforms and enlargements of temples.

Elaborate carvings on one of the gateways
Elaborate carvings on one of the gateways|LHI

The 1st to 3rd century CE saw the erection of the iconic gateways with their exquisite carvings that depict the life and times of the Buddha and tales from the Jatakas. Interestingly, none of the carvings show Buddha himself. He is always shown symbolically, either as a Bodhi tree or just a footprint. The reliefs also depict the history of early Buddhism and have panels showing the battles over the Buddha’s relics and Ashoka’s efforts to redistribute the relics.

The Southern Gateway of the Great Stupa also has an inscription referring to a certain ‘Ananda’, who is described as the foreman of artisans of Satavahana King Satakarni II, dated to 25 CE. It is believed that much of the exquisite work on the gateways of the Great Stupa was done by ivory carvers of the region.

Statue of Buddha in the complex
Statue of Buddha in the complex|Wikimedia Commons

Between the 4th century CE and 6th century CE, the Guptas dominated the region and they too were great patrons of the Sanchi complex. It was at this time that large statues of Buddha were added to the four gates, and that Temple No 17 (considered the oldest free-standing temple in India) and Temple No 19 were built. There is also an inscription of Chandragupta II (450 CE) here. The Gupta inscription on the balustrade, interestingly, refers to this place as ‘Kakinadabota’.

Sanchi inscription of Chandragupta II
Sanchi inscription of Chandragupta II|Wikimedia Commons

In around 500 CE, Marshall notes that this region seems to have passed into the hands of a local king Bhanugupta, and a decade later it was annexed by the Huna king Toramanna. In 528 CE, his son Mihirakula was defeated. Things were quiet for the next century or so but the building work at Sanchi seems to have continued in the 7th-8th century CE, with around seven small stupas, monasteries and temples being built.

Temple built by the Paramaras
Temple built by the Paramaras|LHI

In the 9-12th century CE, under the Gurjara Pratiharas and the Paramaras, there was another bout of building work. The Paramaras added a massive temple to the complex. Much of the structure has been destroyed but you can still see the scale of what it would have been like around 1,000 years ago, from the scattered bits of the old temple stored nearby. Sadly, this temple gets little attention.

The Rise and Fall of Vidisha

The story of Vidisha, earlier referred to as Besnagar and then Bhilsa, and the area around it, which is about 62 km from Bhopal, predates the Mauryan Empire. The earliest layer of habitation here goes back to 1200-1000 BCE but detailed excavations in the area – the most extensive being the recent Sanchi Survey Project (SSP) spearheaded by a team led by archaeologist Dr Julia Shaw from University College London (UCL) between 1998-2007 – helps paint a broader picture of the area in its prime. The SSP covered an area of 750 sq km and during the course of the excavations, the team found around 35 Buddhist sites, 145 old settlements, 17 irrigation dams and over 1,000 sculptural and architectural fragments associated with Brahmanical, Jain, Buddhist and local traditions.

While the core area of the city changed over time, we know that the town of Vidisha is today situated east of the Betwa River, in the fork of the Betwa and Bes Rivers. The ancient town of Besnagar lies 3 km from present-day Vidisha, on the west side of the river, and there is evidence of this having become an important trade centre even in the pre-Mauryan period. Both, the ancient town and the modern one, are 9-11 km from Sanchi today.

Cover of the book ‘The Monuments of Sanchi’ by Sir John Marshall and Alfred Foucher
Cover of the book ‘The Monuments of Sanchi’ by Sir John Marshall and Alfred Foucher|Swati Publications

Marshall in his book underlines the importance of the region. He explains, ‘The area had a commanding position at the junction of the Bes and Betwa (the latter was important for transport during the monsoons). It was also strategic vis-a-vis its position linking it to two great trade routes – one that ran West-to-East from the busy sea ports of the west through Ujjain, Kaushambi, Kashi to Pataliputra; and the other South-to-North East, from Pratisthana to Shravasti as well as other cities like Kosala and Panchala.’

In fact, while it was around 225 km from Ujjain, the biggest city in Central India in ancient times, Vidisha often vied with it for supremacy. In his book Monuments Of Sanchi Vol1, Marshall points to the fact there was a time when Vidisha even superseded Pataliputra during the time of Shunga King Agnimitra, Pushyamitra’s son. Agnimitra, who was the viceroy of Vidisha, shifted his capital here when he took over the throne.

In her paper, Sanchi As An Archaeological Area, archaeologist Dr Julia Shaw says, ‘The city mounds of Vidisha represent the earliest phase of urbanism in Central India.’ And while this process was later here than in the fortified cities of the Gangetic plain where the Buddha lived and preached, Shaw points out how Buddhism and urbanisation were interlinked here too.

Heliodorus Pillar
Heliodorus Pillar|Wikimedia Commons

But Vidisha was an important place for many faiths. As Shaw points out, ‘Vidisha is also home to some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the Pancharathara system of the Bhagavata cult.’ Evidence of this is the famous Heliodorus Pillar in Besnagar and the Gupta-period Udayagiri Caves.

However, by the time of the Guptas, the old city of Vidisha seems to have lost its position, falling to ruins soon after.

From the 13th century CE, the town of Bhilsa (the primary town of the region by this point) faced the brunt of marauding armies. In 1293, Alauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate sacked the city. In 1532, Bhilsa was run over by Bahadur Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate, after which this area fell under the control of the Malwa Sultans.

Thankfully, none of these armies seem to have reached the hilltop of Sanchi – leaving the monuments undisturbed. By the 19th century, this great stupa complex at Sanchi seems to have disappeared from public memory – till its rediscovery in 1818.

But there is a lot more to be rediscovered around Sanchi. Very little work has been done on the four other ‘topes’ that Alexander Cunningham covered in his Bhilsa Topes (1854) – the stupas of Sonari, Satdhara, Morel Khurd and Andher, all in a radius of 15 km from Sanchi. Subsequent research has shown that all these stupas were connected and formed part of a network under a sect of Hemavata Monks. But little work has been done on them or even the cave complexes in and around Sanchi, which were perhaps used by early monks.

More than 200 years after its discovery, Sanchi and the area around it remain a mystery, still waiting to be ‘discovered’ and studied.

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