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Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi

On a hill overlooking the plain and about 40 km from Bhopal, the site of Sanchi comprises a group of Buddhist monuments (monolithic pillars, palaces, temples and monasteries) all in different states of conservation most of which date back to the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. It is the oldest Buddhist sanctuary in existence and was a major Buddhist centre in India until the 12th century A.D.

The Buddhist monuments located at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1989. Although not associated in any way to the life of Buddha, the place is full of Buddhist structures of great architectural and sculptural beauty, and is one of the oldest Buddhist constructions in the world. The place saw a continuous building activity from the 2nd century B.C. until the 12th century A.D. The monuments include stupas, pillars, monasteries, temples, and paths for circumambulation, complete with railings. After the 13th century, with the decline of Buddhism, the site was abandoned and over the centuries came to be covered with trees and mud. The first structure to be built here was the stupa, commissioned by King Ashoka in the 2nd century B.C., which contains the relics of Buddha. The site of the construction is a hillock. The stupa, originally built of bricks, was later covered with stones and a layer of plaster. The railings and the profusely sculpted gateways, which surround the stupas, were added later. The railings were made by people who were transitioning from working in wood to working in stone.

The other two important stupas here contain the relics of two disciples of Buddha, namely Sariputra and Mahamogallana. Their relics, which were shipped to England by the early British explorers, have been brought back to Sanchi and are presently housed in the Chetiyagiri Vihara on the site. There are other utilitarian structures, such as monasteries and the water reservoirs, which too are well laid out and sturdy. There is an onsite museum as well.

The place also has an Ashokan pillar which contains the famous schism edict. The pillar, made in the Perso-Greek style, speaks volumes of Mauryan workmanship of polishing stone to give it a metallic shine, which has remained unsurpassed. The inscriptions found on the monuments record the names of the donors, and indicate that the site was sustained due to the patronage of the thriving Buddhist community in the neighbourhood. These inscriptions are also valuable sources of the Brahmi script.

The Buddhist monuments at Sanchi are connected to the Hinayana and Mahayana schools. The former did not believe in depicting Buddha, but indicated his presence by symbols associated with the important events in his life such as an elephant (birth), stupa (death), tree (enlightenment), and a wheel (preaching). Later, with the rise of the Mahayana School idols of Buddha were added. The temples found at Sanchi point to the beginning of free-standing structures that were used for worship. Also, the presence of foreigners in Indian society, who were eventually assimilated, is indicated by the Greco-Bactrian elements found in the sculptures.

The fact that the Sanchi monuments have survived the ravages of time, neglect and plunder, is an evidence of the high level of workmanship and technology of ancient India. Although belonging to a bygone era, the place is of great importance to the followers of Buddhism, who are now spread all over the world.