The ‘Great Stupa’ at Sanchi is the oldest stone structure in India and was originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BCE. Its nucleus was a simple hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha. It was crowned by the chatra, a parasol-like structure symbolising high rank, which was intended to honour and shelter the relics. It has four profusely carved ornamental gateways and a balustrade encircling the whole structure.
The place was sanctified by the visit of Mahendra, son of Asoka, who came to meet his mother Devi, perhaps living in one of the cells of the monastery located near Stupa 2, clothed in saffron cloths and a begging bowl in hand. It was from here, Mahendra, embarked on the missionary journey to Ceylon for propagating the message of the Buddha.
Sanchi might have originated from Sanskrit and Pali word Sanch meaning To Measure. In Hindi, however Sanchi or Sancha means for Moulds of Stones.
It was Emperor Asoka (273-236 B.C.) who had constructed a brick stupa, monolithic pillar and monastery. Evidently, as desired by the Great Master the stupa containing his relics had to be placed inside stupas, which were built at the junction of the four cross roads, symbolically represented here by the four paths and gateways.
During the Sunga period (2nd – 1st century B.C.), the original Asokan brick stupa was enlarged, veneered with stone and an addition of balustrades along with staircase and harmika was placed. Apart from this, they also constructed Temple 40 and erected Stupa 2 and 3. The credit for the beautifully carved gateways (torana) should be given to Satavahana rulers who employed ivory workmen of Vidisha. In 4th Century, during the period of Gupta rulers, temples, monasteries and pillars were constructed at Sanchi. The place also witnessed constructional activities, during 7th and 12th centuries A.D. Since the fourteenth century A.D. the site was completely deserted. As there was none to care, the monuments soon disintegrated and fell apart in to many fragments.
In 1818, General Taylor saw shapeless ruin in the wilderness of Sanchi. Captain Johnson dug out the entire western portion of the stupa in 1822. Alexander Cunningham and Captain F.C. Maisay (1851) further excavated it in search of relic casket. However the credit for piecing together the scattered fragments of this monument goes to Sir John Marshall during 1912-1919 who was the Director General of Archaeological Survey of India.
Thus the original stupa made of Mauryan brick by Emperor Asoka (273-236 B.C.) is not the one what one sees today. It was just half of it. What looms large before us is the addition and stone veneering made during the Sunga rule. The railings all around, a staircase, harmika (top railing) and chhatravali (crowning disc like umbrellas) were also added during the same period. Besides this, Stupa 3 on located to the north of Stupa 1 and Stupa 2 on the west of Stupa 1 on a lower terrrace were also the contributions of Sungas. The Stupa 3 located only 45 m to the north-east has terrace railing, chhatravali (umbrella) on top and flight of steps. Constructed in 2nd century B.C. it has a diameter of 15 m and a height of 8.23 m, excluding the umbrella. This yielded a casket containing the relics of Sariputa and Mahamaudgalyayana, the chief disciples of Buddha. Sariputa was a native of Nalanda and part of his remains has been enshrined in Nalanda also.
The first gateway (torana) one encounters is the Northern one. According to an inscription on the southern gate it has been carved by ivory carvers of Vidisha. There are four such carved gateways in four cardinal directions, depicting life scenes of Buddha and Jataka stories. These toranas (gateways) became so popular outside the country that it would be interesting to note that in Japan ornamental gateways are still known as ‘tors’. In place of elephant tusks what we find is a circular hole at present. Few know that during Asokan period real elephant tusks were fixed in those holes.
The stupa measures 36.8 m (120.70 ft) in diameter and 16.46m (54 ft) height excluding the railing and chattra. The stupa being the biggest in Sanchi might have enshrined the relics of Buddha.
Moving along the berm or the railing towards east one comes across the East Gateway. One of the most important figure on this gateway is the dramatic depiction of the attempt by Gautam Buddha’s father to convince him on the pomp and glory of worldly ways. To which Gautama Buddha responds by walking in the air, to the envious awe of mere mortals immersed in desires. Other scenes include Asoka paying respect to the Boddhi Tree, etc.
As one moves further, the southern gateway is encountered along with a broken Asokan pillar to its east.
When one sees the pillar it may be difficult to understand the fact that how a single stone measuring 42 ft and weighing nearly 50 tons was carried from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh to Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh over a distance of 800 km. The load a normal truck carries on modern tar road is from 12 to 15 tons. This Herculean task of transporting a pillar weighing 50 tons was accomplished 2300 years ago when there were no cranes and modern roads. Thousands of labourers might have worked day and night to bring this huge pillar, haul it to the top of the hill and then raise it to bring it to upright position. But what a strange irony of fate it was that a local Zamindar broke it to pieces to use it as a sugarcane press.
From the South Gate as one move along the right side the West Gate is encountered. Just beneath the architraves one sees the yaksha figures as bharvahakas (load bearers) showing different expressions of emotions. Evidently, although the weight is same on all the yakshas it is their different mental dispositions that make some of them sad or angry, while others take the responsibilities with a grin.
The south pillar again shows the themes of responsibilities of a king as depicted in the Mahakapi Jataka scene, wherein Boddhisattva as the leader of monkey sermonises on the duties of the king. The middle architrave of this gate shows the scene of the Deer Park Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon. Further ahead to the west on the lower terrace one can see the Monastery no 51 built by Queen Devi. Significantly, a large stone bowl, nearby, was used by the monks to store all the alms obtained by them and it was redistributed amidst themselves equally. As one treads further down the Stupa 2 is seen with its gateways and railings. A closer look at the railings reveals one of the earliest art at Sanchi. This stupa yielded a relic casket with the name of the 10 monks, some of whom were contemporary to Asoka.
Today, around fifty monuments remain on the hill of Sanchi, including three stupas and several temples. The monuments have been listed among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1989.