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Solo in MP: Sanchi

By Anamika Mukherjee

Sanchi is a quiet little town, almost a village in fact, in the heart of the vast flatlands of India, in Madhya Pradesh. It is known only for the ancient Buddhist stupas and the Ashoka pillar that adorn the top of a small mound in the serene, green countryside. Sanchi is a bumpy 45 km drive from the state capital, Bhopal, and is well connected by bus and train. It is a convenient day trip, but it's also easy, and tempting, to spend more than a day here.

The train station is 100 m off the main road, and the intersection of the station road with the main road also serves as the central bus stand and drop-off point for taxis. Across the main road and less than 100 m down a shady lane, is the museum and the ticket counter for the monuments' enclosure.

The monuments' enclosure itself is a fair distance up the road - and when I say up, I mean that literally. A winding, tarred road for vehicular traffic snakes up the hillside, and part way up, a set of steps serves as a pedestrian's shortcut to the top - though there are rather a lot of them (steps, that is, not pedestrians). There is a certain air here, of quietude, of serenity, of laziness, that makes you want to take your time even getting to the enclosure.

The first sight that greeted me as I made it to the top of the infernal steps, was the New Temple of Buddha. It was a graceful structure, neatly finished in pastel colours, primarily pink. This was not exactly what I had expected. It didn't look very ancient. As I walked on a few steps, the ancient stupas, hidden by the rise, slowly came into view.

Stupas were built to hold the funerary ashes or relics of great Buddhist monks. However, before you get any ideas of actually seeing containers such as urns or caskets holding any such relics, let me add that the stupa is the container. You don't get any closer than that. Unlike tombs (such as, famously, the Taj Mahal) you can't go into stupas; they have no opening into the dome to allow you in. You can't go up them either. The most you can do is to walk around them, at ground level, or, if they happen to be provided with a staircase, at the first floor level, which may not be all that high up.

The first stupa I encountered at Sanchi, Stupa No. 1, as it is generally (and unsurprisingly) called, was the grandest. It had four doorways, facing the four cardinal directions. Each was intricately carved, and each was different. The carvings depict the life of Buddha and his attaining enlightenment. According to the tradition of the time, Buddha was never shown directly, but only symbolically, often as the Bodhisattva tree, familiarly known as the Bo tree.

The interpretation of the various scenes was explained in great detail on boards in front of each gate. Unfortunately, the explanations were only in chaste Hindi. The guides who were buzzing around the enclosure would be only too happy to explain the carvings to you in any of a number of languages, should you feel inclined to let them - at a fee, of course. I could have spent a few minutes reading the detailed explanations, but I preferred to wander around and enjoy my own interpretations.

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.