Sanchi, located at an hour’s drive from Bhopal, hosts historically one of the most important monuments of India, the Great Stupa commissioned by Ashoka, the Great. Although the monument itself does not make a spectacular site as compared to some of the other monuments in India, and also does not attract hoards of tourists, it is unmistakably significant in terms of history and heritage. It demonstrates the great emblem and the message of truth and honor given by Ashoka that became the national identity of India. It is also one of the most important religious places of Buddhism and attracts flocks of Buddhists traveling from all over India, Sri Lanka and other parts of the world.
The large yet simple monument of the Great Stupa is perched atop a modest hill in the small village of Sanchi, situated nearly 46 kilometers from Bhopal. The place itself is also known by the name Sanchi Stupa. This eminent testimonial to love, peace, courage and trust, a structure with ancient, historical carvings has several relics and articles of historical importance around it. Though the central Stupa was built by emperor Ashoka, some other kings added to the place over the next few centuries. As Hinduism began to rise in India, the Stupa slowly went in oblivion, until it was re-discovered by the British Officer, General Taylor, in 1818. Over this long period of nearly 2100 years, particularly during the early centuries, the Stupa showed signs of having been destroyed partially or completely and then being rebuilt and restored. The last restoration took place around late 19th and early 20th century, nearly hundred years after the re-discovery of the monument.
The central hemispherical dome of the Stupa was built in bricks in 3rd century BCE by emperor Ashoka. The epitome of peace and love, the great King was once a callous and spiteful figure, who attacked and destroyed the kingdom of Kalinga. The war ended in Ashoka observing the piles of dead bodies he had been the sole reason for. The grasping of the terrible loss of humanity he had brought upon the earth, transformed Chand Ashoka, or Ashoka the Fierce, into one of the greatest messengers of peace and Buddhism. During his spread of Buddhism in wide regions that stretched as far as Sri Lanka down South and up to Egypt in West, Ashoka built the Great Stupa of Sanchi.
The Stupa was built upon the relics of Buddha. Although it has not been confirmed with proof, the relics of two of the direct disciples of Buddha have been found here. The simple dome built in bricks, 120 feet high, has been topped by a square, in the centre of which are the three superimposed umbrellas, the symbol of dharma. One can take the stairways to climb up the middle portion of the Stupa and take the circular round. This small walk provides a view of the relics around the site and the ancient Buddhist monastery located a few hundred meters down the hill at the feet of the Stupa.
There are detailed carvings and inscriptions on the four gateways to the Stupa. These gateways, referred to as Toranas, are the fine masterpiece in Buddhist architecture. The gateways were constructed almost two centuries after the Stupa was built. They are identified as Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western Gateways. The gateways depict various tales from Jataka. As was the custom during the Mahayana phase of Buddhism, the statue of Buddha has not been displayed anywhere, but he has been represented through various symbols such as the lotus, the Bodhi tree, the wheel, his footprints and his throne.
The Southern Gateway displays the four lions sitting back to back, only three of which can be viewed at once. This is the symbol of the national emblem of India. The message associated with it, ‘truth alone triumphs’, or ‘satyameva jayate’, became the national slogan of India.
Several artifacts gathered from the site of Sanchi Stupa have been exhibited in the Archeological Museum. The ticket to the Stupa also covers a visit to the museum. There are many more small stupas on the hill along with the pillars constructed by Ashoka, of which only one survives today.
A trip to Sanchi can be planned on the way to Bhopal. Vidisha, a small town ten kilometers from Sanchi with some other historical attractions can be clubbed with this visit. The best time to visit the Stupa is around sunrise and sunset. The ticket should be bought the previous day if you plan a visit during sunrise.