Symphony in stone

Sanchi sights

Symphony in stone

Bhopal may not have any significant archaeological monuments of its own. The Taj-ul-Masajid, its grandest monument and also the largest mosque in India, is a comparative newbie in the archaeological time scale, completed in 1985. But, Bhopal is a perfect base to plan day-trips to ancient sites in India, all of which lie within a radius of 60 km.
Bhimbetka Caves, to its south, has rock paintings harking back to the Stone Age when our ancestors lived inside rock shelters as hunters and gatherers. To Bhopal’s east lies the incomplete Bhojeshwar Temple, which has one of the largest Shiva lingas in the world. About 57 km from Bhopal are located the Udayagiri Caves — one of the oldest Hindu and Jain rock-cut shelters. To its south and 46 km from Bhopal is the oldest stone structure in India — the Sanchi Stupa.

Sacred mound
From the Stone Age to the Buddhist and Hindu past, this region cuts a wide swath of history. However, this entire area had until not too far been associated only with Buddhism. The grand stupa, the Buddhist temples and monasteries at Sanchi attracted Buddhist pilgrims and scholars from all over India and abroad. Even Bhimbetka Caves, until discovered and dated by the peripatetic Indian archeologist V S Wakaner, was thought to be Buddhist extensions of the stupas at Sanchi.

The Buddhist monuments at Sanchi are perched atop a rolling hill. A wide motorable road winds up to the top. There are three stupas here, but the largest, Stupa No 1, usually gets all the visitors’ attention. It sits prominently on the hill and its stone dome and spire are visible from the train as you ride into Bhopal. The stone exterior, however, was later added by the Sunga dynasty. The wooden interior, encased by stone and commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in 3rd century BC, remains hidden from view. Inside lie the relics of Gautama Buddha. But it was on the basis of its four toranas or gateways, each facing a direction, that Sanchi Stupa was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are over 85 stupas in the world, but Stupa No I stands out with elaborately carved toranas.

With the decline of Buddhism in India, the monuments at Sanchi had fallen into neglect and the four toranas had all fallen down. They were re-erected much later. The carvings on the toranas depict the life of Gautama Buddha not only from the time of his birth, but also from his previous incarnations. These stories taken from Jataka tales are rich in metaphor and lavishly carved on the massive toranas. Some of these were either vandalised or destroyed with time. The missing pieces were replaced by plain slabs. Also, Buddha isn’t represented in the human form, but symbolically by his sandals, a lotus, a canopy or the bodhi tree.

A large Ashoka pillar was also erected near one of the gateways, but was vandalised. Today, only its stump remains. Rest of the pillar is displayed on the ground.

Beyond Stupa No 1 are other Buddhist temples and monasteries — places where the local guides never take you. The temples are rudimentary stone structures, and the monasteries are but ruins with only the boundaries of where the walls once stood.

The best time to visit Sanchi is in the last week of November when this quiet hill erupts into festivity with Buddhist pilgrims converging for the Chethiyagiri Vihara Festival. The bones of two of Buddha’s disciples are displayed. For the rest of the year the bones are locked up in a Sri Lankan temple, which was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952.

Fact File

Getting there
Sanchi is 46 km north-east of Bhopal. Several tourists buses shuttle between Sanchi and Bhopal, or hire a taxi.

Sightseeing options
Bhimbetka Caves: Known for rock
paintings dating back to the Stone Age.
Bhojpur: The unfinished Bhojeshwar Temple with one of the largest lingas in India.
Udayagiri Caves: The Hindu and Jain rock-cut shelters with images of gods carved on their interiors.

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