A Mukherjee World View


Stupas and More

The four doorways (toranas) of Stupa 1 stood just outside the stone screen, which encircled the massive stupa. This screen was essentially made of large blocks of stone linked together in a sort of chain. Overall it managed to look smooth and delicate, though each of its stones was clearly quite massive and solid.

Inside, there was a narrow ambulatory passage, with the massive bulk of the stupa rising up to your right (if you walk in a clockwise direction, as you are supposed to). A flight of steps took you one level up, where you could walk around the dome again. Though this balcony was at quite a height, it was less than halfway up the dome to the platform and small structure at its top. Those were inaccessible.

Stupa 1, the earliest of the stupas at Sanchi, dates back to the third century BC. It was built by the famous Mauryan ruler, Ashoka, and has the distinction of being the oldest existing stone structure in India. Other Stupas, monasteries, temples and sculptures in Sanchi were added over the following centuries. The stone screen and the toranas of Stupa 1 were also added later, in the first century BC.

Smaller stupas were scattered all around, but there were only four large stupas, of which No. 1 was the largest and most impressive. No. 2 stood well away from everything else, in a serene, almost hidden setting of its own. Not all of the stupas at Sanchi had toranas and only No.1 had the stone screen around it.

Stupa No. 1, strangely enough, was not at the highest part of the hill. At higher ground, to its east, were the remains of ancient monasteries and a temple. Low walls and the stumps of pillars showed how the area must have been divided into rooms and corridors. The superstructure, presumably wooden, had not withstood the ravages of time.

Tucked away in an open corner of one monastery was a larger than life statue of Buddha, sitting in his customary pose, with his back against a wall and his knees folded, engrossed in eternal contemplation. It was clear that this was not his intended place: he had been kept here to rest and seemed to be quite at home in this peaceful, open area. He had an almost human figure with a sublime smile and expression of all-encompassing peace. When I stood next to him, I found that I was only a little taller than he was sitting down and his massive face was significantly bigger than mine. I gingerly put out my hand and touched his cheek. It was warm, like a live person's might be, and firm, strong, enduring.

Facing Stupa 1 was the smaller Stupa 3. This also had a torana, but was smaller and simpler in every respect. Beyond this, there were scattered circular mounds, which looked like mini-stupas, though they were not domed.

Behind Stupa 1 stood the remains of the Ashoka pillar. Its base was still standing, but the rest of it lay rather sadly in a small shed nearby. A few small temples stood around idly passing the time of day as they had done for years. The ground behind the Stupa 1 sloped away with steps leading down to a large tank, a begging bowl made of stone, more monasteries farther away, and at the end of the path, Stupa 2, in its hidden, secret pocket of greenery.

I spent the day wandering around, stumbling over ancient stones and discovering the best places to linger and watch the sun light up the beautiful golden stone. The surfaces that seemed burnt black at mid-afternoon assumed rich golden, auburn hues as the shadows lengthened. At last, as the sun sank, a brilliant red lit up the evening sky, hiding the blemishes of 2000 years and making the ancient monuments glow like embers of a dying fire.

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