A day out to Sanchi recently, took me back in time. I remembered with sheer nostalgia my childhood sojourns to such legendary places with my parents – road trips laced with historical descriptions of their grandeur, beauty and magnificence, through my father. Driving through India is nothing short of an adventure. There is so much to soak in and imbibe.
However, as we drove through rather dilapidated stretches of the highway from Bhopal – it is about 50 km away, and reached there, without much fanfare, hoardings or even a board showing the turn and path to the Stupa…the aura of the splendour associated with these monuments, as fixated in my mind since childhood, crumbled. We really need to support preservation through advocacy and action.
A tale of apathy
The state of utter dilapidation, disrepair and degradation, has to be seen to be believed. Rampant apathy of those concerned with the maintenance and upkeep of the premises is writ large everywhere. The broken cobbled paths, garbage strewn on either side of the route leading to the stupa, leaves you ashamed as you see a multitude of local and foreign visitors making their way to the stupa.
On entering, the dome of the Sanchi Stupa looked perfectly intact, and blows your mind away by its sheer beauty. There is a sense of peace and solitude as you walk around the site. Luckily, the sun wasn’t harsh and the cloudy skies kept us cool, as we traversed the length and breadth of the grounds. This UNESCO World Heritage Site surprised me in many ways.
What it tells of a great king
A visit to Sanchi brings alive the awe you felt as a child when you opened your history books and read the tales of Emperor Ashoka. He built this great stupa and made the town of Sanchi sacred as well as popular, in the 3rd century BC. Later, a British cavalry officer rediscovered and revived the inviolability of the town in 1818. Buddhist influence over the central Indian landscape had declined by the 12th century, and the stupas and other monuments slipped into obscurity. As Buddhism recessed, these architectural marvels were no more considered useful, and eventually, were completely forgotten.
It was in the year 1818 that British officer General Taylor discovered the site of Sanchi. He set about restoring its glory. Between 1912 and 1919, these beautiful ancient structures were restored to their present condition under the able supervision of Sir John Marshall, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. Today around 50 monuments remain on the hill of Sanchi, narrating the rise and fall of Buddhist art and architecture.
The Sanchi Stupa is more than a reliquary preserving the remains of Buddhist teachers and Buddhism. It shows the journey to enlightenment. Traditionally, stupas do hold relics of Buddha or influential Buddhist monks. But at the same time, these structures also explain how Buddha achieved enlightenment, freeing himself from the cycle of life and death.
The stupa consists of a base bearing a hemispherical dome (anda), symbolising the dome of heaven enclosing the earth. It is surmounted by a squared rail unit (harmika) representing the world mountain, from which rises a mast (yashti), symbolising the cosmic axis. The mast bears umbrellas (chatras) that represent the various heavens (devaloka). The Toranas present at the stupa indicate trust, peace, and courage.
The most interesting feature about the Sanchi Stupa is that Lord Buddha has been symbolically represented by footprints, wheels, thrones, etc., rather than by his own image. As per the legend, the name ‘Sanchi’ originated from the word ‘Sanch’, that means ‘to measure’. Visiting this historical place will enlighten you in many ways. It is believed that originally the stupa was made of bricks. And in the later period, the current stone stupa was built on top of the brick one. The brick one is said to be only half in size of the new one. One needs to be thankful for the stone construction, as it has weathered many a storm. There are multiple stupas within the complex as well as around Sanchi that are made of brick, but have not withstood time. History says that during the Shunga period, the outer stone wall was constructed.
The town of Sanchi is naturally synonymous with Buddhist philosophy. Sanchi has been protecting these beautiful and sacred architectural wonders, just the way these wonders have been safeguarding ancient history and the art of the Mauryan period. The town, located in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh though, needs more visibility and infrastructure to handle the endless stream of visitors, most of whom are foreigners. The town barely has a handful of below average lodges and eating joints, and most visitors end up staying in Bhopal, and driving down for the day due to this.
As I stood at the entrance of the stupa, and soaked in the figurines and stories etched on these gateways, it made me realise that preserving history is important because it connects us to specific times, places and events that were significant milestones in our collective past. We must treasure remnants of our glorious past. The state of Madhya Pradesh is a perfect confluence of different kinds of heritage – natural, cultural and aesthetic. What is truly epic about its cultural repository are some of the geographical aspects emanating from history, and well, geology. Take for instance, the Tropic of Cancer line that passes through Vidisha district, another common stopover for enthusiasts, en route to the glorious Sanchi Stupa.