Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sanchi Stupas - Buddhism's holy grail

    “You guys are obsessed” remarked an Aussie lady in Sanchi on learning our travel schedule. In three days of travelling in Madhya Pradesh, my friend Ajay and I had experienced various highs and lows. We spent mornings visiting UNESCO world heritage sites and historical forts, amazed at the cultural and historical riches of Madhya Pradesh and spent the night traveling from one place to another in trains. Consequently sleep was a luxury; we slept wherever and whenever we had a chance- in trains, waiting rooms and crowded platforms and had hardly seen the back of a hotel in three days. We ate at road-side stalls when we had to hurry but splurged on Biriyani in the Lalit Hotel when we had time to spare. We cycled at times, walked miles sometimes and once also ended up in the back side of a sand lorry with the wind billowing onto our faces as we sat on the tarpaulin sheets covering the sand. We were on a wild ride exploring the hinterlands of India and enjoying every moment of it.
Main Stupa or Stupa No. 1 at Sanchi
    In 3rd century B.C, more than 300 years after the birth of Buddha, the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka laid of the foundations for a Buddhist establishment in a place named Vedisagiri around 10km from the flourishing town of Vidisha. This place also came to be known as Sanchi. He erected a stone pillar (later to become the famous Ashoka Pillar) and a brick stupa. The empires that came later – the Sunga (2nd century B.C) and the Satvahanas (1st century B.C) made significant contributions to the main stupa by building additional stupas, temples for Buddha and erecting the four world famous gateways made of sandstone at the four entrances to the stupa. In its heydays, Buddhism enjoyed the patronage of four empires - Mauryan, Shungas, Satvayanas and the Guptas. Work continued on Sanchi till the 12th century A.D. after which it was abandoned.
    The stupas are meant to contain the relics of Buddha and are probably the most important Buddhist monuments currently standing, the holy grail of Buddhism. Two hundred years ago the British wanted to cart the Sanchi gateways to UK ostensibly to protect them and even the French emperor Napolean wished to possess one of the gateways. Thankfully the stupas remain where they were meant to be and not in some art collector's private gallery.
Stupa 1 - Northern Gateway
    We arrived at the Vidisha (around 10 kms from Sanchi) Railway station from Jhansi at around 4:30 am in the morning. Our plan was to present the 3rd AC ticket that was had used a few days ago at the AC waiting room, hope the attendant lets us through after failing to check the date of travel and get some sleep before heading out to Sanchi in the morning. But the railways played a cruel joke on us – there was no waiting room at Videsha. Clearly Vidisha is no longer the rich and flourishing city that it was at Ashoka’s time. We unrolled our sleeping bags and slept on the platform; becoming one among the nameless, homeless people sleeping in railway station platforms. We woke up at 6.30 am, took a bus to Sanchi and had breakfast at the MPSTDC centre there after waking up the cooks. We then walked up the hill to reach the stupas and hired the audio guides on offer to learn more about the known beginnings of Indian History and architecture at Sanchi.

    The stupas are a product of the Hinayana system of Buddhism where Buddha was never portrayed in sculptures and paintings. A casual visitor may scour all the sculptures in the gateways, not find a single image of Buddha in it and wonder how the gateways qualify as Buddhist. Actually certain items on the gateways indicate a milestone in Buddha’s life and thereby symbolize his presence – a lotus flower (birth), a rider-less horse (renunciation), the Bodhi tree (enlightenment), a pair of slippers (first step after enlightenment), a wheel (first sermon at Sarnath) or an empty throne (nirvana). Etched on the gateways you will find various stories from the Jataka tales – stories from the earlier lives of Buddha as a Bodhisattva searching for enlightenment. Interestingly Gods of the Hindu Pantheon are also sculpted - Laxmi the Goddess of wealth, Indra the ruler of the heavens and Brahma the creator.
Northern Gateway - Jataka tale of Vasantara reiterating importance of sacrifice. From left Vasantara is shown leaving palace with children, then staying in a hermit after giving away both his children.
Stupa 1:
    This is one of the oldest stupas in India and 36.5 m in diameter and 16.4 m high with a hemispherical dome. Work on the stupas went on well into the 12th century A.D. The entrance to the stupas is through four magnificently carved gateways or torans. These torans are one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in India. The four torans probably represent the four noble truths of Buddhism which talk about reason for pain and suffering and how to avoid it.

Northern Gateway:
    This best preserved of the gateways present an insight into the life and architecture of the Sunga Period. The inscriptions on the torans indicate that the carvings are donations of the people of Vidisha, not just the kings. There is an arc on the top of the gateway with a yaksa has (Demigod) to the right. The circular ring like structures are meant to indicate rolled up scrolls. The three rows on the gateway are filled with Jataka tales. The story of bodhisattva vasantara is one of selfless generosity – He gives up all his riches, his kingdom and children and finally his wife. In the back side of the row, the story continues – finally the Gods relent on seeing Vasantara’s sacrifice and the family is reunited. 
Evil Mara tries to end Buddha's Penance. Buddha is represented through the Bodhi tree on left.
    The middle architrave tells the story of how Buddha overcame temptation in the final moments of his penance when the evil Mara gets desperate and sends his own daughters to tempt the ascetic. Buddha attains enlightenment and Mara’s evil army disperses in confusion.
Monkeys giving bowl of honey to Buddha. Buddha is represented here as Bodhi tree on left
Eastern Gateway:
    The pillar on this gate depicts the great departure of Prince Gautama in search of enlightenment. The Gods are shown to be helping the young prince in escaping the city of Kapilavastu. There are also depictions of King Ashoka visiting the Bodhisattva tree. There is also a statue of "shalabhanjika" who depicts the fertility and abundance of the world of nature. This is a Hindu motif that seems to have been adopted by Buddhism.
Stupa 1 - Eastern Toran

Stupa 1 - Eastern Gateway - The great departure. Buddha is represented by a riderless horse.
Eastern Gateway - Scene depicting Buddha's birth. Top frame - His mother dreams of a white elephant that enters her womb.
Eastern gateway - On left, the Kashyapa brothers warning buddha about 5 headed cobra. On the right, the brothers are paying obeisance after they see the cobra protect Buddha instead of harming him.
    Ashoka once dispersed a series of columns across North India with his edicts. The pillars at Sanchi were once 40 feet high but currently it stands broken. The audio guide tells us the story of how an iron monger once brought down these majestic pillars with great difficulty so that he could use them at his workplace!! The museum of Sanchi houses the crown of the pillars which was adopted as the emblem of India – four lions standing back to back. The words Satyameva Jayate from Mundaka Upanishad, meaning ‘Truth Alone Triumphs’, are inscribed below in Devanagari script.
Eastern Gateway - Shalabhanjika depicting fertility or abundance in nature.
Eastern Gateway - Buddha walking on water.
    Everybody knows that Christ is supposed to have walked on water; the stories in this gateway tell us that Buddha had done the same as well. Walking on water seems to be a touchstone that separates prophets from Gods!

 Southern Gateway:
    This was once the main entrance to the Stupa. When the Stupas were rediscovered by the British, treasure hunters and amateur grave diggers came in troves to find hidden treasure and almost destroyed the Stupas. This has a representation of scenes from the life of Ashoka and Buddha's Birth.
Southern Gateway - There are no sculptures below the four headed lions due to amateur conservation effort undertaken when the stupas were rediscovered.
Top - A despondent Ashoka find out that his favorite Bodhi tree is dead. Below Indra and other Gods taking away a lock of Buddha's hair.

Western Gateway:
    The western portion of the stupa had collapsed in 1822 during to the treasure-hunting by the British but restored 60 years later. It houses a few masterpieces - The first sermon symbolized by wheel preaches that ignorance is the root of all evil and it is called the Dharmachakra Pravarchan. 

Western Gateway - First sermon at Sarnath. Buddha is represented by the wheel. Notice the deer on either side to show that this happened in a deer park.
    This gate is famous for depiction for the first sermon of Buddha at the deer park at Sarnath. The six incarnations before becoming the Buddha is called the Manushi Buddha. The architrave is supported by pot-bellied dwarfs showing various emotions like anger, duty, pain and joy as the weight of the torans bear down on them.
Western Gateway - Story of the Monkey King. The top frame shows the monkey king making a bridge across the river.
    There is also a story of a monkey king Bodhisattva whose clan is attacked by a human king. The monkey king makes a bridge between two trees allowing his subjects to cross the river and escape but perishes in the effort. The importance of sacrifice is a motif that is mentioned many a times in the stupas.
    Also finding mention many a times is the theme that devotion to God is always rewarded. One such story is that of Sama, a devoted son of his blind parents being shot down by a king who mistook him for an animal. The King regrets and prays to the Gods who bestow
the gift of vision to the blind parents.
Western Gateway - Story of Sama. On left frame king fires arrow that kills Sama. On right the blind parents.
     The Western Gateway also depicts the story of a Bodhisattva who was a royal six tusked white elephant. His jealous younger wife feels left out, vows to be reborn a princess so that she could kill him, pines away and dies. She is reborn in human form and becomes the Queen of Varanasi. The Queen sends men to kill and get back the tusks of the six tusked white elephant. The hunters wound the elephant but find it difficult to remove his tusks. The Bodhisattva elephant obliges by removing his own tusks and presenting them to the queen who realizes her folly and perishes in grief this time... The cave paintings in Ajanta have a beautiful painting of the entire Matropaksha Jakata - here

Temple 17:
    This was built in the beginning of the Gupta period around the 5th century A.D. and consists of a flat-roofed square sanctum and a portico supported by four pillars. This is remarkable for its structural propriety and symmetrical proportions.
Remains of Temple No. 17 from Gupta period.
Temple 18:
    This is the remains of temple or stupa. Does not look special now, but in those times it was a paradigm shift in temple building and most of the Temples in India now are built in this style.
Temple No. 18
Temple 45:
    This is a temple of the medieval period and stands on the ruins of an earlier seventh century structure. Still has a glorious image of Buddha with images of River Goddesses Ganga and Yamuna on the door indicating that Buddhists adopted established Brahminical motifs over time. The statue shows Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment.
Temple No. 45 in the background.
Stupa 2 and Stupa 3:
    The second stupa stands at the very edge of the hill and its most striking feature is the stone balustrade that rings it. The third stupa once contained the relics of Buddha’s disciples Sariputta and Mahamogallena. This stupa was reconstructed brick by brick after it was destroyed by treasure hunters.The relics that the treasure hunters found were taken to London but were returned after India became independent and are now housed in the monastery in front of the Sanchi Stupas. If only the British would return the Kohinoor diamonds this easily!
Ajay in front of stupa no. 3
    On the path to enlightenment Buddha says – “It is better to travel well than to arrive”.  Ajay and I headed back to Bhopal with the satisfaction that we had traveled well and walked the path once taken by giants.

P.S. For more info Sanchi stupas and the gateways:


Rahul said...

Thanks for posting such a detailed article on Sanchi Stupa... Quite comprehensive and valuable read... Sanchi stupa is an amazing site...

Anonymous said...

I have always wanted to know how beautiful Sanchi was.
This articles truly shows how beautiful Sachi is.
And you have mentioned all the aspects that makes Sanchi beautiful.