Sanchi- The Site of Stupas

‘Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life’ said Buddha. This quote perhaps describes the realization of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who after the bloodshed of the Kalinga war, realized its futility and chose the spiritual path of Buddhism. Situated on the hill of Sanchi are the dome-shaped Buddhist shrines that are intriguing and enigmatic. Buddha never visited Sanchi during his life, yet the stupas of Sanchi hold deep admiration as they are the most well preserved and the oldest Buddhist structures of India.

During our 5-day trip to Madhya Pradesh, one of the day’s was set aside to explore Sanchi, Udaygiri and Vidisha. As we set off from our hotel in Bhopal for Sanchi en route, we stopped and clicked pics at a place where the Tropic of Cancer is marked as a yellow line. This was the second time during my recent travels that we were crossing the Tropic of Cancer, the earlier one being in Kutch, Gujarat. 

Sanchi is known for its hemispherical Buddhist Stupas containing relics of Buddha or his disciples. Having read about these in history books as a student, I was looking forward to seeing them. After purchasing entry tickets, we entered the complex on Sanchi hill which has Stupas, monasteries, temples and pillars constructed between the 3rd century BC and 12th century AD. The Great Stupa was built by Emperor Ashoka who embraced Buddhism and was instrumental for its spread in the Indian Subcontinent.

Out of the three Stupas here, Stupa 1 or the Great Stupa is the most impressive and has four gateways on which are carved stories showcasing the life of Buddha. As we admired the details of the gateways a guide, Rakesh Singh approached us saying he could show us around with another family and we could split the fees. It was more than what we had bargained for, and we were more than happy.

The original stupa was about half the size of the existing one and was made of bricks, and mud mortar explained Singh. It was severely damaged by ‘hostile elements’, and subsequently the reconstruction was done with stone and plastering. In 1st Century BC, the four gateways were added and were the highlight for us. The dream announcing the birth of Buddha, his early years as a prince, his decision to renounce the world, his quest for enlightenment, miracles, his trials and tribulations… are all intricately carved on the gateways.

There were remnants of temples too in the complex. One of the temples with nine pillars bore a striking resemblance to the Greek temple Pantheon. Trade between Greece and India meant that there was an exchange of art and designs too. Since the family accompanying us had a precocious eight-year-old, curious to know the why, what, when, and how of the monuments our guide patiently explained the details, making sure to satiate her curiosity. The teacher in me couldn’t help but think how history could be taught creatively by arousing the interest in students on such excursions rather than mugging up chapters of history textbooks.  

Temple resembling Greek Pantheon, Sanchi @Rafiq Somani

Near the south gateway were the remains of an Ashoka Pillar with edicts in Brahmi scripts. Two portions of the pillar lay in a shed while the capital with four lions is at Sanchi Museum. India’s national emblem is inspired by the Lion Capital of the Asoka Pillar of Sarnath.

As we walked down the hill, we saw remnants of a monastery where the monks and nuns were trained in monastic practices. Further ahead was The Great Bowl, carved out of a massive boulder in which food, offerings were placed and distributed to the monks.

Mauryan era Buddhist stupas, Ashokan pillars, Gupta Era Temples, monasteries are all a testimony of the Buddhist architecture from 3rd BC to 12th Century. This UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sanchi has ‘Masterpieces of Buddhist Art’ worthy of the tag.

Boating Facility at MPT Jungle Resort, Udaygiri @Rafiq Somani

After exiting Sanchi, we headed to Udaygiri and en route stopped for lunch at MPT Jungle Resort. The resort is very popular as a picnic spot and located in a dense forest. A boating facility is also operational here. After a buffet lunch, we headed to the Udaygiri caves which are a group of rock-cut caves that were carved during the reign of Chandragupta II and date back to 4-5th Century AD.

We were impressed by Cave 5, which has a breathtaking carving depicting Lord Vishnu in Boar or Varaha avatar. Another cave had a remarkable sculpture of Lord Vishnu reclining on the King of Nagas (cobras). A lot of the figurines were behind locked meshed metal doors to protect them from possible vandalism, but this prevented us from appreciating their beauty.

Vidisha is a small town from where emperor Ashoka’s wife Devi, a devout Buddhist, hailed. When I told our driver that we wanted to see the Heliodorus Pillar located at the outskirts of the town, he feigned ignorance. He claimed that he had taken around so many tourists including foreigners, but none had made a request for visiting it. Seeing a broken pillar in the Udaygiri caves complex, he passed it off as the said pillar. I told him that I was a travel writer who liked exploring not just the popular attractions but even lesser-known ones bearing historical significance. With google maps to rescue, we finally found our way to the pillar which the locals call Khamba Baba.

The stone column was built in 113 BC by Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador of Indo-Greek king Antiacidas who came to the court of the Sunga king Bhagabhadra.  Inscriptions reveal that Heliodorus was a worshipper of Vishnu. This was the second sculpture we had seen (the first being the Temple at Sanchi which resembled Pantheon) which bore indications of Greek influence.

Next, we set off in search of the Bija Mandal temple with the help of google maps, as the driver was clueless about this structure too. We found ourselves in the middle of the village, and as the by-lanes were too narrow, we decided to walk it down. We did manage to reach the gates only to find them locked. There were a bunch of kids inside the temple campus jumping, shouting and running around. On enquiring how we could get in, we were directed to another gate on the opposite side.

As we entered the campus, we were stunned to find sculptures, pieces of boulders with intricate carvings some proudly displayed, and others were strewn around the lawns. Archaeological Survey of India’s storehouse was on one side. Going further, we could see the remains of the temple, which was constructed in the 11th Century and later destroyed by Moghul emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th Century, who erected a mosque. A flight of steps led us to the plinth, but the Mandapa was locked by metal jhalis. Inside we could see a series of pillars and pieces of sculptures strewn around. The façade of the plinth had intricate cravings interspersed intermittently indicating that the temple never reached the completion stage.

As we strolled through the campus, we chanced upon an exquisite stepwell dating back to the 8th Century. Steps led to the well and sculptures adorned the two pillars on the first landing leading to the well. The pillars had scenes from Krishna’s life. Vidisha has some priceless gems, but my heart bled at the apathy and lack of attention that they rightfully deserved.

We had been drenched in the ethereal magnificence of Madhya Pradesh’s heritage and cultural offerings. The state is an embodiment of several historical treasures that are waiting to be explored. So, when are you planning your trip?

GETTING THERE-
Nearest Airport: The nearest airport is in Bhopal with connectivity to major cities of India. From Bhopal, you can hire a vehicle to Sanchi. Vidisha and Sanchi can also be accessed by trains.
Distances: Bhopal to Sanchi is 48 km by road. Sanchi to Udaygiri Caves is 8 km by road. Sanchi to Vidisha is 9 km by road.
Where to Stay: We stayed in Bhopal and chose to take day trips. Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s Gateway Retreat in Sanchi is an option, or alternatively, you can do a net search.
Travel Trip: You won’t find many decent eating joints, so MPT Jungle Resort is your best bet for a wholesome meal in Udaygiri.

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