It is one of the oldest stone structures in India. It is probably the best preserved group of Buddhist monuments in India. The architecture of Rashtrapati Bhavan and many other buildings in India drew their inspiration from this Indian monument. This UNESCO world heritage site is seen on the back of the 200 Rupee Indian currency note. I am talking about Sanchi Stupa, the Indian heritage gem that gave torana architecture to the world.
Located in the heart of India in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Sanchi Stupa was originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. It underwent many additions starting from the 3rd century BCE to the 11th century CE. The original hemispherical brick structure, pillars of Ashoka and one of the first free standing temples of India (Temple 40) were built during the reign of the Mauryan empire (3rd century BCE). During the Shunga period (2nd century BCE), they increased the size of the Great Stupa by adding stone slabs to it, added balustrade reliefs, staircases and some more small stupas. During the Satavahana period (1st century BCE to 1st century CE), the toranas or decorated gateways were built. And during the later periods of Western Satraps and the Guptas, further stupas and other religious Buddhist structures were built.
The highlight of Sanchi Stupa has to be its four intricately carved toranas. Different aspects of Buddha’s life and of Buddhism can be seen at Sanchi Stupa, especially on these four toranas (gateways) that are located at four different directions (north, east, west, south) around the stupa. Each of these toranas are intricately carved. The work is so beautiful that you might actually think that the panels on the toranas are made out of wood, but they are made of stone and they were carved by the ivory carvers of Vidisha.
Different scenes from the life of Buddha, Jataka tales, miracles of Buddha, temptation of Buddha, war over Buddha’s relics, removal of the relics by Ashoka, building of the Bodh Gaya temple by Ashoka, foreign devotees and much more can be seen on the relief panels of these toranas. Each inch of the toranas are full of rich visual stories that interest all kinds of visitors. The attention to detail and the skills displayed here are beyond exemplary. These toranas are so good, that countries around the world (Japan, China, etc.) have borrowed ideas from it and installed it in their temples and buildings.
The information depicted at Sanchi Stupa is enough to fill the pages of an entire book. What is even more special is that Sanchi stupa has stood for over 2400 years and the toranas have stood for close to 2000 years. And they still look as good as new. And which is why one needs the services of a knowledgeable guide to understand the full extent of this monument’s rich heritage.
The best way to explore Sanchi Stupa is first with a guide, then with a book, then with a camera and even then, you might have missed to spot a story portrayed on one of the relief panels. Personally, I prefer slow circumambulation of the Sanchi Stupa, one at the ground level and one at the first level. You might want to carry a pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens to see the smaller relief panels on the top of the torana clearly. And if you do this circumambulation at leisure, you might return to your hotel with a vast amount of information on the life of Buddha, the Jataka tales, the life of King Ashoka, the trade that happened at that time and the various influences of different empires on this monument from the 3rd century BCE to the 11th century CE. And boy, this rich insight is bound to thrill the culture lover in you.
The sound and light show organized every night will also add to this pool of information, but it will provide you with a very different perspective of this UNESCO world heritage site. For all those who missed availing the services of a guide, this 35 minute show is a great way to learn about Sanchi Stupa, its history, Buddhism and more.
It doesn’t matter whether you a regular tourist, a history lover, a follower of Buddhism, a culture lover, a student of archaeology or one who ticks off UNESCO heritage sites from their travel bucket-list, Sanchi Stupa possesses all the ingredients to truly bowl you over with its rich visual depictions. Its tales will carry you back 2500 years back to a time of King Ashoka and the Mauryas and sometimes much further beyond than that into the world of Lord Buddha and his interesting life stories. Sanchi stupa is a rich Indian heritage gem that needs to be treasured, preserved and appreciated by all of us. Such places make us immensely proud of our ancestors and our rich lineage.
Visit Sanchi Stupa if you haven’t visited it already. May be, plan a trip this year.
How to reach there:
The nearest airport would be Rajabhoj international airport at Bhopal. It is well connected with the rest of the country.
The nearest railway station would be Sanchi, though the one with the best connectivity would be Bhopal. Likewise with the bus station.
Sanchi Stupa is about 50 kms from Bhopal or about one and a half hours by road. Local taxis, self drives or local buses can easily take you from Bhopal to Sanchi town.
Sanchi Stupa light and sound show:
There is a sound and light show that happens every night at Sanchi Stupa between 7:30 PM and 8:05 PM. The counter opens at 7 PM, though one can book tickets in advance.
This sound and light show walks you through the rich history of this land through some great visual and voice overs.
It could be a bit chilly during the winter months. It might be prudent to carry your warm wear with you during those months.
A rich heritage site like Sanchi Stupa certainly requires the services of a learned and knowledgeable tourist guide. You can either hire the services of a government approved tour guide at Sanchi Stupa, hire one at your hotel , make use of the one provided by your travel agency or hire one directly.
A knowledgeable guide will make your Sanchi Stupa experience so much richer and fulfilling.
Daily timings and weekly offs:
Sanchi Stupa is closed every Monday and during the other days of the week, it is open from 8 AM to 7 PM.
If you wish to visit the Sanchi archaeological museum, then remember that it is closed every Friday and it’s daily timings are 9 AM to 5 PM.
Best season to visit:
Summers tend to be a bit warm at Sanchi and can be best avoided. Monsoons, post monsoons, winter and early spring are the best months to visit Sanchi Stupa. While the rains make the bleak landscape lush and make for vibrant sights, winters are perfect for those long walks in the sun. Don’t miss to carry your woollens if you are traveling during the winters. Late evenings and early mornings can be especially nippy.
Where to stay:
If you wish to stay close to Sanchi Stupa (which is what I would recommend), you can look at the simple budget property called Gateway Retreat run by Madhya Pradesh tourism. This property offers all the basic amenities and is real close to Sanchi Stupa. If you wish for a slightly more luxurious property, look up Aaram Bagh Sanchi run by Pachar group.
If you wish to stay close to Udayagiri caves, look up the MP tourism property called Jungle Resort.
Where to eat:
There are a few restaurants in Sanchi town that can dish out decent food. However, if you are a larger group, it might be prudent to order in advance.
It might also be better to plan your meals at your place of stay so that you can freshen up and eat at the same location.
There are restaurants near Vidisha in case you are headed towards Udayagiri caves.
Other nearby tourist attractions:
1) Udayagiri Caves: 5th century cultural beauty of Madhya Pradesh
2) Bhimbetka rock shelters: An UNESCO world heritage site and home to some of the oldest known rock art in the Indian subcontinent
3) Bhojpur: Home to the largest Shiva lingam in the world
4) Taj-ul-Masajid: One of the largest mosques in Asia
5) Bhopal: The beautiful city of lakes that is known for its greenery, culture and food
6) Chanderi: The historical city famous for its sarees
7) Orchha: The hidden capital of the Bundelkhand kingdom
8) Khajuraho: The 10th century erotic art temple wonder