Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: Sanchi
It's odd at first, but most of the foreigners in Bhopal's hotels are Japanese. There's a reason. They've come to pray at Sanchi, perhaps India's most spectacular Buddhist site.
Call it an hour's drive north of town. We're atop an otherwise unremarkable hill. There's not even a legend that the Buddha was ever here, but the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka was, and it was he who began the tradition of building stupas. The great stupa of Sanchi is in the background.
Ashoka's stupa, built in the third century B.C., was entirely of brick. After his death and the dissolution of the Mauryan Empire, sovereignty here fell to the Sunga kings who, as often happened, enlarged the stupa by building a stone envelope around it and filling the space with rubble. Ashoka's stupa was in this way doubled in the second century B.C. to a diameter of 120 feet. The scabs you see are what's left of the thick cement that once covered the dome or anda, which was then covered with a fine white-washed plaster trimmed with swag-like sculpted ornaments in contrasting colors.
We've come around to the southwest corner, and you can see some other features. Above the dome, there's a parasol or chhatra) atop a square pavilion or (harmika) formed by a balustrade or (vedika). There are two other vedikas at the base, one on top of a reinforcing terrace (medhi) whose weight helps keep the structure from spreading, and another on the ground. Both were used by worshippers following a clockwise processional pathway or pradakshina patha.
The glories of the stupa are its four toranas or gateways. These were added late in the first century B.C., when Sanchi had fallen to the Andhra or Satavahana kings. The four are cardinally oriented and all generally similar, with triple architraves. They're also profusely ornamented.
We're looking south here, so the pillar on the left here can be described as the front side of the east pillar of the north gateway. So it was described by John Marshall and Alfred Foucher in their ponderous, three-volume Monuments of Sanchi (1940). In this northern gate, the top two architraves identify the seven Buddhas of this eon (the manushi Buddhas). The bottom architrave illustrates the Vessantara jataka, a story of a bodhisattva banished for his generosity.
Here we look at the rear side of the north gateway. There are seven freestanding figures on the top. Fragmentary as they are, they're still in better shape than the figures atop the other three gateways. In the center is a broken dharmacakra, or wheel of the law. It was framed by a pair of protective spirits or yakshas, which are framed in turn by a pair of triratnas and a pair of lions. The triratna symbolizes the Buddhist trinity of Buddha, dharma (law), and sangha (the fraternity of monks).
The upper architrave illustrates the Chhaddanta jataka, a story about a bodhisattva born as a 6-tusked elephant who, from pity, allows a hunter to saw off his tusks. The middle one shows the Buddha's moment of enlightenment; it's one of the four key episodes--birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and death--in the life of the Buddha. The Buddha appears as a Bodhi tree, the tree where the Buddha found enlightenment. He faces the general of the demon Mara's army; on the right are furious demons. Note that there are no images of the Buddha anywhere on the stupa: until a later period, he was always represented by symbols such as the Bodhi tree or the wheel of the law.
The bottom architrave concludes the story of Vessantara.
The east side. The stupa was abandoned in the 12th century and discovered by the British in 1818. The south gateway had fallen over, but the others were standing, even though their foundations had been poorly designed by builders who were used to working in wood, not stone. A British officer deliberately breached the southwest side of the stupa in 1822 and managed in the process to knock over the west gateway. So things remained until Napoleon III in 1869 asked if he could have one of the gateways. The British declined and in 1881 repaired the stupa; by 1883 the fallen gateways were again upright. Unfortunately, the British reassembled the parts incorrectly, so to this day the front and back sides of the architraves of the south and west gateways are garbled. The British also made a hash of the stupa. Marshall--the same who would later write tomes on the subject--worked at the site from 1912 and 1919 and completely rebuilt the southwestern third of it. He also restored the medhi, or elevated terrace.
Approaching the eastern gateway. The upper architrave again shows the last seven Buddhas of this eon; the middle one shows the Buddha's departure from Kapilavastu, the city of his birth; the bottom one shows Ashoka's visit to the Bodhi Tree.
The rear side of the eastern gateway. The top shows in considerable detail the trees associated with the previous buddhas of this eon--acacia, sal, several kinds of fig. The middle architrave shows the Buddha worshipped by wild animals, but its precise subject is unknown; the lower architrave shows elephants carrying lotus leaves as they approach a stupa.
The south gateway. Note the double staircase by which the terrace or medhi is reached. The capitals beneath the architraves show the famous lions found on Ashokan columns. The matching figures on the north and east gateways are elephants, but about 50 feet behind the camera was Sanchi's Ashokan column, with lion capitals. The column is gone now; part was taken by a local landowner who needed a roller to crush sugarcane.
The top and bottom architraves are backwards and non-narrative; the middle one shows the stupa of Ramagrama, where nagas prevented Ashoka from removing relics for redistribution more widely.
For protection, the capital from Sanchi's Ashokan column is in the Sanchi museum. The stone is not the local sandstone, used for most of the work at Sanchi. Instead, it came from Chunar, some 500 miles away. Marshall was convinced that the sculptor was an "Asiatic Greek," possibly from Bactria. India in the third century B.C., he argued, did not have sculptors who could do work like this. Needless to say, Indian authorities disagree.
Rear of south gateway. The top and bottom architraves, mistakenly mounted back to front in the 1880s, show the seven Buddhas of this eon and the siege of Kushinagar at the moment of capitulation. (Kushinagar was the place of the Buddha's death. The city tried to retain the Buddha's relics but a siege induced it to share the relics with seven other cities.) The middle architrave possibly repeats the Chhaddanta jataka, about the bodhisattva born as a 6-tusked elephant.
The west gateway, derided by Marshall and Fouchet as insincere carving-for-hire. The top architrave shows the usual subject of the seven Buddhas of this eon, but the middle and bottom architraves are backwards. Foucher thought the middle one might have something to do with the Buddha's preaching and the bottom one with the six-tusked elephant, but he says the sculptor was "trifling with his subject."
Here's the rear of the west gateway. The top one shows transport of relics and the middle one the siege of Kushinagar.
Marshall and Fouchet considered the dwarf capitals too bulky.
The bottom architrave according to Marshall and Fouchet shows a procession to the Bodhi tree; later interpreters see the moment of enlightenment.
Here's the base of the front side of the east pillar of the north gate, showing the miracle of Sravasti. The skeptical court of Prasenajit watches as the Buddha walks in air.
Front face of the south pillar of the east gate: skeptical disciples attempt to rescue the master from a flood (note the crocodiles and geese) but find that he is miraculously walking on dry land in its midst.
This panel is immediately below the preceding picture. The Buddha has brought new disciples to Magadha, the town shown at the top. King Bambisara comes out in his chariot and, upper left, dismounts to pay homage.
The front face of the south pillar of the east gate shows the conversion of the Kasyapas, Brahmans whose temple had a fearsome fire-breathing naga. The Buddha entered where no one else dared, and the serpent crawled meekly into his begging bowl.
The front side of the west pillar of the south gate shows the Buddha's first sermon, preached at Benares to the four guardians of the world, the lokapalas.
The front side of the south pillar of the west gate illustrates the Mahakapi jataka. Monkeys escape over a bridge made in part by the body of the bodhisattva who is helping them escape from a king who may do them harm.
There are many other subsidiary remains at Sanchi. Here, near the great stupa, is stupa 3, restored from a heap of rubble by Marshall.
A thousand feet down the slope of the hill is Stupa 2, with relics from the approximate time of Ashoka. A sandstone relic casket with the names and burnt bones of teachers was found inside the stupa by the British in the 1850s and is now in the British Museum. The stupa is chiefly remarkable, however, for something you can't see from this distance.
It's this, the characteristic Buddhist balustrade or vedika. There's a nomenclature for all this, with posts (stambha), crossbars (suci), and coping (ushnisha).
The great stupa's balustrade is devoid of ornament; here, however, the posts are covered with decoration, typically the lotus, a symbol of immaculate conception because its flower appears on the muddy water's surface as though from nowhere.
As though anticipating what John Ruskin would so admire in the Doge's Palace, the carvers here created 70 unique lotus images.
There are other images, too, including this wheel of the law, supported by a Triratna.
And the Japanese? This group came quickly, chanted together at Temple and Monastery 45, and left almost at once. The temple, of which the ruined shell of the tower (sikhara) is visible here, dates from the eighth or ninth centuries--late in the Sanchi day. (The numbering of Sanchi's ruins goes back to Alexander Cunningham's The Bhilsa Topes, 1854.)
By that time, Buddhism was no longer aniconic. Images of the Buddha were now commonplace and imported here from Mathura, south of Delhi. This one sits outside Temple 45.
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