Learn more about Sanchi
Sanchi is a small village in India, located 46 km north east of Bhopal, in the central part of the state of Madhya Pradesh. It is the location of several Buddhist monuments, dating from the third century BCE to the twelfth century CE.
The 'Great Stupa' at Sanchi was commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great in the third century BCE. Its nucleus was a simple hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha. It was crowned by the chhatra, a parasol-like structure symbolising high rank, which was intended to honour and shelter the relics (Dehejia 1997). In the Sunga period, in the first century BCE it was expanded with stone slabs to almost twice its original size. The dome was flattened near the top and crowned by three superimposed parasols within a square railing. With its many tiers it was a symbol of the dharma, the Wheel of the Law. The dome was set on a high circular drum meant for circumambulation, which could be accessed via a double staircase. A second stone pathway at groundlevel was enclosed by a stone balustrade with four monumental gateways (toranas) facing the cardinal directions.
The gateways and the balustrade, even though made of stone, were carved and constructed in the manner of wood and the gateways were covered with narrative sculptures. These showed scenes from the life of the Buddha integrated with everyday events that would be familiar to the onlookers and so make it easier for them to understand the Buddhist creed as relevant to their lives. In the case of Sanchi and most other stupas it was the local population who donated money towards the embellishment of the stupa to attain spiritual merit. There was no direct royal patronage. Devotees, both men and women, who donated money towards a sculpture would often choose their favourite scene from the life of the Buddha and then have their names inscribed on it. This accounts for the random repetition of particular episodes on the stupa (Dehejia 1992). On these stone carvings the Buddha was never depicted as a human figure. Instead the artists chose to represent him by certain attributes, such as the horse on which he left his father’s home, his footprints or a canopy under the bodhi tree at the point of his enlightenment. The human body was thought to be too confining for the Buddha.
The compound Buddhist symbols: Shrivatsa within a triratana, over a Chakra wheel, on the Tonana gate at Sanchi.]] Further stupas and other religious Buddhist and early Hindu structures were added over the following centuries until the 12th century CE. Temple 17 is probably one of the earliest Buddhist temples as it dates to the early Gupta period. It consists of a flat roofed square sanctum with a portico and four pillars. The interior and three sides of the exterior are plain and undecorated but the front and the pillars are elegantly carved, giving the temple an almost ‘classical’ appearance (Mitra 1971).
With the decline of Buddhism, the monuments of Sanchi went out of use and fell into a state of disrepair.
The site was re-discovered in 1818 by a British officer, General Taylor. Amateur archaeologists and treasure hunters, ravaged the site until 1881, when proper restoration work was initiated. Between 1912 and 1919 the structures were restored to their present condition under the supervision of Sir John Marshall.