Sanchi is a destination that’s been on my list for a long time. I have always wanted to visit the Great Stupa seen so far only in pictures. Nothing like it exists anywhere else in the country and it is truly one of the cultural wonders of ancient India. I have also wondered what it must be like to touch the ground where Buddha once walked. And now, I am finally in Sanchi.
Two thousand years of history suddenly becomes overshadowed by more pressing needs of a traveller. I have lunch. Then I look for accommodation for the night. I notice a lodge along the main road. I am led to the first floor and shown a large comfortable room. Its cleanliness, so rare to find in India within a backpacker’s budget, pleases me.
‘This is for three hundred,’ says the boy who is showing me the room.
‘That’s a little too much for me,’ I reply and leave it to him to make his move.
‘Actually we give this room for three-fifty for foreigners,’ he says.
‘Well, we are Indians. We can’t pay that kind of money,’ I argue. By including him on my side, I am sure his empathy would help me in the bargain.
He takes me to another room, smaller but just as clean. The room is for two-fifty.
‘I like the room but I am willing to pay two hundred. It’s so much cheaper to stay at Vidisha. I stayed there last night. I might return to Vidisha. It’s so close by.’
I am clearly testing him, but there seems to be lots of empty rooms at this place. I paid only Rs. 105 at Vidisha last night but it was a small box with no attached bathroom. After some quiet deliberation and a bit of hestitation, he agrees for two hundred. I am pleased.
I wash clothes and rest for a while. When I finally leave the room in search of the stupas, I have already been at Sanchi for two hours. The urge is now stronger to experience the Buddha, Buddhism and Buddhist art.
‘Do we have to buy a ticket?’ ask a visitor. He is tall and simply dressed in the manner of a villager coming to town on occasions.
‘Yes. They will ask for it at the top of the hill,’ I tell him. I have never been up there but my experience tells me that I am right. The man queues up behind me at the ticket counter. I buy a ticket for ten rupees. I start walking towards the museum first.
‘Wait for me,’ calls out the villager. I am not in a mood for company. I enter the museum. He takes to the footpath leading up the hill.
It’s funny how some people see things in a museum. A family walks in right after me. The little girl in the group leads the way.
‘Nothing here. Nothing here. Nothing here,’ she says as the group takes a brisk walk through the galleries. They might have as well entered an empty room of blank walls.
Two of the stunning exhibits here are the lion capital of Ashoka and the remains of an Ashokan pillar. Both have the typical smooth Mauryan polish. In these we find a fragment of history 2300 years old. There are fine sculptures from the Gupta Period but none of them come close to the antiquity of the Mauryan Period from the time of Ashoka.
I walk up the hill by a well-laid path under a canopy of arching branches. The Great Stupa comes into view. A stone railing surrounds it. A tall gateway packed with carvings frames it. It is not alone. Adjacent to is another beautiful stupa, smaller in size. It has no balustrade but it does have a similar gateway in just proportion. Lots of other ruins are scattered about the place – temples, halls, votive stupas, monasteries and even a stone bowl. They are from various periods but the earliest structure to stand on this hill is the Great Stupa. At one temple I take note of eroticism and the images of Ganga and Yamuna, clearly Hindu art from later periods.
Coming back to the Great Stupa, I am clearly overwhelmed by this enigmatic structure in stone and mortar. It stands about 16 meters high with a diameter of 37 meters. The dome is like an inverted bowl. It stands on a cylindrical drum. The dome is topped with a stone pen enclosing a triple parasol signifying the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The plaster on the dome has peeled off considerably revealing the stone bricks that make up the structure. The original stupa commissioned by Ashoka must have been a lot smaller. It was only in the next century or two that the gateways and the stone railing were added.
There are four entrances leading into the ambulatory at ground level. Buddhas in meditative posture sit with their eyes closed at these entrances. I read on a board that these are from the Gupta Period. I recall that in Ashoka’s time the Buddha was worshipped via symbols. The gateways bear reliefs that depict worship of a bodhi tree, a stupa or the wheel of dharma. A double stairway on the Southern side lead to the base of the dome where there is the second ambulatory. This affords close views of the higher reliefs on the four gateways.
The sun is setting. The crowd is thinning. Bus loads of tourists rush in to see the stupas before the place closes for the night. The place is open from sunrise to sunset. I take a last look of the stupas and resolve to come back the next morning.
At 7 am, the counter is already open and I am back with the stupas on the hill. I take a slow walk around them. The lawns around are neatly mowed. The trees are fresh and green; but a couple of trees have been planted too close to the Great Stupa. They rob me of a clear view of the stupa. When this site was discovered in recent times, the place would have looked very different. The ruins have been restored only too well. The reliefs are too clean and the stones too bright. Somehow the sense of a ruin is missing.
I sit under the shade of one of the trees. Squirrels forage boldly at my feet. I take my time in making a little drawing of Stupa 3 – its smooth dome of bricks, its double stairway that sweeps and rises, the balustrade that defines the ambulatory, the stone pen on top and the parasol within. I sketch the gateway – the three architraves, the three pairs of whorls, the stone mullions connecting the architraves, the floral motifs, the worship of stupa, the worship of the wheel, the lion capital, the dwarfs, the elephants, the lions…
I return to the Great Stupa to study the reliefs in detail. Information boards nearby help a great deal. There is symbolism everywhere. There are stories from the life and death of the Buddha. There are fascinating stories from the jatakas. There are everyday village scenes carved out in exquisite detail. There are superb reliefs of animals and birds – elephants, horses, lions, goats, bulls, peacocks and mythical creatures. Floral reliefs of lotuses springing out of vases remind me of what I had seen at museums at Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh. On the Northern gateway, triratnas stand above the highest architrave. Voluptous females lean out from branches overflowing with flower and fruit. Even the space between the architraves is filled with sculptures in the round.
There is the depiction of Chaddanta jataka, the Vessantra jataka and the Sam jataka. The Mahakapi jataka on the Western gateway captivates me a great deal. The fragrant fruit has fallen into the river and is being carried downstream. The soliders and their king are depicted below. The monkey king is shown above stretched across the river as his companions cross over. No space on the stone slab is wasted. Everything on it contributes to story-telling.
I have been here for nearly four hours this morning. I force myself to move on. I have a final look at the stupas from a distance and make my way back to the hotel. Sanchi is ticked off my list but there is a good chance I may come back here sometime in the future.