Buddhism in stone

Stupa 3 which contained the relics of the Buddha's disciples Sariputta and Mahamogalana. Photo:Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Stupa 3 which contained the relics of the Buddha’s disciples Sariputta and Mahamogalana. Photo:Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Frontline, August 19, 2016

The remains of Buddhist architecture and sculpture at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh tell the story of the rise, flowering and gradual decline of Buddhism in India. Text & photographs by

Located on a hill in Raisen district, around 50 kilometres from Bhopal and 10 km from the ancient trading, religious and art hub Vidisa (Vidisha in modern times) is Sanchi, a site known for its stupas, pillars, temples, monasteries and sculptural wealth. It is a great place to see the beginnings, efflorescence and decay of Buddhist art and architecture from the third century BCE to the 12th century C.E. In a way, Sanchi covers the entire period of Buddhism in India. As the historian Upinder Singh says, it provides a remarkable history of Buddhism in stone spanning some 15 centuries.

Sanchi, a World Heritage Site, has an ancient past. Prehistoric paintings and tools have been found at the well-known Bhimbetka Caves, another World Heritage Site nearby. Recent archaeological and hydrological studies by Julia Shaw and John Sutcliffe have brought to light ancient irrigation works belonging to second or first century BCE. The presence of mud dams and reservoirs indicates the prevalence of rainwater harvesting for drinking water requirements and for irrigation, possibly in rice cultivation. During the Buddha’s time, this area formed a part of the mahajanapada (one of the great states) of Akara in the western Malwa region. Sanchi is referred to as Kakanava or Kakanaya in early Brahmi inscriptions found in the site. In the fourth century, it was known as Kakanadabota, while a late seventh century inscription refers to it as Bota-Shriparvata.

An early Buddhist text, Mahaparinibbhanasutta, says that when the Buddha was breathing his last, he called in his favourite disciples Ananda, Sariputta and Mahamogalana and told them that after his death his body should be cremated, the ashes distributed, and stupas erected over them at crossroads. Following his death (mahaparinirvana), the Buddha’s relics were divided into eight portions and stupas were built over them.

Meanwhile, the powerful Mauryan emperor Asoka was establishing his political supremacy across the subcontinent. However, after the Battle of Kalinga, in which many lives were lost, Asoka decided to transform himself and soon became a devout Buddhist. It is said that out of his zeal to spread Buddhism, he opened seven of the eight original stupas and got the Buddha’s relics redistributed. Stupas were built over the places where the relics were kept. According to legend, he built around 84,000 (some say 64,000) stupas all over northern India and in areas now in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Asoka and Sanchi

Asoka also built the core of Stupa 1, known as Mahastupa or the Great Stupa, at Sanchi. The archaeologist M.K. Dhavalikar says this is indicated by the fact that the level of the stupa’s floor is the same as that of the Asokan pillar near by. Further, fragments of the chunar sandstone umbrella over the structure bear the characteristic mirror-like polish seen on Asokan pillars.

Why did Asoka choose a site that was not directly connected with the life of the Buddha? The place was not directly connected with any incident in the Buddha’s life. The Buddha did not visit the place, and it is not mentioned in any Buddhist source. Neither Fa Hien nor Hieun Tsang, the famous Chinese pilgrims who travelled to India in ancient times to visit Buddhist religious centres, mentioned the place.

Asoka’s connection with Sanchi can be traced to his wife Devi, who was the daughter of a merchant based at Vidisha. He married her while serving as the Governor of Ujjayani (modern Ujjain). The only early reference to the site in Buddhist literature is found in the Sri Lankan chronicles Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa. They mention that Mahendra, son of Asoka and Devi, on his way to Sri Lanka as a missionary, halted at Vidisha to see his mother. She apparently took him to the beautiful monastery of Vedisagiri that she had built. This, in all likelihood, is Sanchi. The quietude and seclusion of the hilltop and its suitability as a place for meditation and monastic life may have influenced the choice of location. The patronage of a rich mercantile community from Vidisha ensured a sustained supply of resources and also patronage by traders and business. (Vidisha was located at the confluence of the Betwa and Bes rivers on the flourishing trade routes linking Mathura (northern route) and Pataliputra (eastern route) to western and southern India.)

Architecture and evolution

The Mahastupa consists of a hemispherical mound (anda) built over a relic chamber (tabena). It has a truncated and flattened top on which rests a square chamber (harmika), which has a railing and a central pillar (yasthi) supporting a stone triple-umbrella formation (chattravali). There are two circumambulatory passages. There is an elevated terrace (medhi) enclosed by a three-bar railing (vedika) and accessed by two flights of stairs (sopanas) from the southern gateway. The second circumambulatory passage is on the ground surrounding the mound (pradakshinapath). This whole structure has been put within a stone enclosure with a similar three-bar railing with four carved gateways (toranas) built in four cardinal directions. The ground balustrade (vedika), in turn, consists of stone uprights (stambha or thaba), horizontal crossbars (suchi) and copings (ushnisha), most of which have inscriptions mentioning the names of donors. The three umbrellas on the summit symbolise the “Three Jewels” (tri-ratna) of Buddhism—the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Built with buff brownish stone, the Great Stupa measures 36.8 metres in diameter and 21.64 m in height from the ground level to the original chattravali. The complex was built over several hundred years. The core of the stupa was built of mud and brick by Asoka in the third century BCE. A monolithic pillar of finely polished sandstone was also erected. It consisted of a tapering monolithic shaft adorned by four lions. While the stump of the monolithic shaft is in situ, the lion capital is exhibited in the site museum. The pillar, which was apparently broken into several pieces by a local zamindar for pressing sugar cane, carried an Asokan edict identical to the one at Sarnath warning monks and nuns against schisms in the Buddhist community.

Asoka’s mud-and-brick stupa got a stone encasing and was enlarged in the Shunga period. The ground balustrades, a berm, stairways, and the harmika were also built during this period, and so were Stupas 2 and 3. The role of the Shungas in the persecution of Buddhists and their art is a debatable one. It has also been suggested that the first Shunga ruler Pushyamitra destroyed the original Sanchi stupa. However, his son Agnimitra gave it a facelift. Besides, the Bharhut Stupa was also erected during this period. So, while the Shungas may have been pro-Hindu, they do not come across as consistently anti-Buddhist. Sanchi architecture is testimony to the co-existence of Hindus and Buddhists, certainly for a long period of time.

In the first century C.E., the Andhra-Satavahanas, who had extended their sway over eastern Malwa, constructed the elaborately carved gateways to Stupas 1 and 3. The gateways and the balustrade were built and painted. An inscription on the top architrave of the southern gateway records that it was a gift of Ananda, the royal architect of king Satakarni. The ruler has been identified as Satakarni II of the Andhra-Satavahana dynasty, who according to the Puranas controlled a large empire in central and western India and in the Deccan with his capital at Prathisthan (Paithan near Aurangabad). His coins have also been found in the Malwa region (western part of Madhya Pradesh). Dhavalikar thinks that the early group of Ajanta caves (Hinayana) were possibly also carved during Satakarni II’s reign in the second half of the first century.

Around 150 C.E., the Satavahanas were displaced by the Saka-Kshatraps, who initially were governors of the Kushanas, ruling from Mathura and later assumed independence and ruled from Ujjain. The Kshatraps, in turn, were removed by the Gupta rulers around 399 C.E. when Chandragupta II established control over Malwa. One of the inscriptions dated 412-13 C.E. on the balustrade of Stupa 1 talks about this. The discovery of Mathura sandstone images in the Sanchi complex shows that even in the fourth century Mathura continued to meet such demands. Local art started flourishing in the region soon afterwards, and a manifestation of this trend is the presence of Buddha images seated under canopies against the berm of Stupa 1 facing the four entrances. However, even during the heyday of the Guptas, figures of the Buddha from the ateliers of Sanchi fell short, in standard and number, when compared with their counterparts at Sarnath.

The post-Gupta period was one of gradual decline of Buddhism. Several monasteries and temples, however, were erected at Sanchi during the seventh century, when Harsha was ruling over northern India. The presence of images of Vajrasattav, Tara and Marichi belonging to the 12th century indicates that the Vajrayana sect also had temporary influence at the site. Evidence suggests that Sanchi had declined as a Buddhist centre by the 12th century.

It is uncertain how the end came. It might have been deserted by Buddhists. Brahmanism might have taken over, as indicated by a number of Brahmanical plaques containing representations of Vishnu, Ganga and Mahishasuramardini belonging to the 13th century. Some historians ascribe the decline of Buddhism to Muslim invasions.

Gateways, the crowning glory

The four gateways (toranas) in the cardinal directions, according to Dhavalikar, constitute the most impressive artistic creation of its class in ancient India—they form the crowning glory of Buddhist art at Sanchi. Although all four were built around the same time, the southern gateway was the first to be erected and formed the main entrance to the stupa. This is indicated by the location of the Asokan pillar at the entrance and the landing of the stairway on that side.

The gateways are intricately carved on the front and back and even on the side of the pillars. There are traces of red paint on the eastern gateway and the balustrade, which indicate that they were painted at some point of time. The carvings on the gateways resemble, even stylistically, the ivory carvings belonging to the Satavahana period excavated at Begram (ancient Kapisa) in Afghanistan. An inscription on the southern gateway records that it was executed by ivory workers of Vidisha. Dhavalikar thinks that the original carvings might have been in wood and were later replaced by those of stone.

The carvings show a variety of motifs and narrative panels, including the Bodhi tree, Tri-ratna, stupas, representations of the Buddha, eight auspicious symbols (ashta-mangalakas), the wish-fulfilling creeper (kalpa-lata) or tree (kalpa-vriksha), besides figures of animals, humans and mythical creatures. They depict in detail significant episodes and miracles in the Buddha’s life and his previous incarnations as Bodhisattva described in the Jataka tales. The Buddha has been represented by footprints, wheels, empty thrones, a canopy under the Bodhi tree, and so on, instead of in a human form. Among human or mythical figures are horse riders, corpulent dwarf males (yakshas) and nymphs (shalabhanjikas). Some of the friezes of Sanchi also show devotees in Greek attire (Greek clothing, attitudes, and musical instruments) celebrating the stupa. The art historian Vidya Dehejia says the architects of Sanchi used visual storytelling as a way of popularising the Buddhist faith. Major events in the Buddha’s life were “given a historic dimension through visual biographies that became the ‘text’ of images which appear everywhere, though presented in different ways”.

The Sanchi carvings and embellishments were funded by the local population—individual men and women, family groups and village associations of Buddhist and Hindu leanings and monks and nuns. There was no royal patronage, as is usually assumed for enterprises of this kind. Around 631 records of donations are inscribed on the carvings. Such donations were connected to the idea of spiritual and religious merit common to both Hindus and Buddhists. Dehejia says the donors may have requested their favourite stories to be carved on the panels and then have their names inscribed on them. This may explain why certain stories (such as the Buddha’s enlightenment and the Great Departure) are repeated on the gateways.

Other monuments

Besides the Mahastupa, Sanchi contains several other monuments, including some already mentioned—stupas, temples, monasteries and buildings, pillars and votive stupas. Of the stupas, Nos. 2 and 3 still survive. A large number of stupas are spread across the complex on the main terrace around the north-east, south-east and south-west quadrants of the Great Stupa. Stupa 2 stands on an artificial terrace down the slope of the hill. It does not have a gateway and appears somewhat bare. However, the ground balustrades are well decorated with floral and plant motifs, real and mythological animals (including a stag with an elephant’s head, a lion with a human face and a woman with a horse’s head), birds, fish, nagas, human figures and demigods such as yakshas, yakshis and kinnars. Stupa 3 was built during the Shunga period (second century BCE) and the gateway was added during the first century C.E. Most motifs and scenes appearing on the gateway are similar to the ones on the Mahastupa except the scene of Indra’s paradise. Relics and reliquaries of two of the Buddha’s closest disciples, Sariputta and Mahamogalana, were found in Stupa 3.

Sanchi also has small votive stupas in the vicinity of the larger ones. They mostly contained funerary remains of devout members of the laity. Individuals could sponsor the casting of votive stupas in order to gain merit and improve one’s karma.

Temples belonging to different periods from the second century BCE onwards are also found in Sanchi. The earlier structural temples, belonging to the Shunga period, were mostly apsidal in plan, but squarish temples began to be built during the Gupta period, from the fifth century onwards.

The Buddha was not worshipped in a human form by the followers of the Hinayana school. However, from the first/second century C.E., Buddha images began to be built and enshrined in Buddhist temples, which also started appearing.

The shift from the veneration of stupas and symbols and relics of the Buddha to the worshipping of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas in the form of images in shrines reflected the impact of Mahayana Buddhism.

Temples 17 and 18 are particularly important. Temple 18 is built on a raised platform and is apsidal in plan like the Buddhist rock-cut temples of Bhaja and Karla. It consists of an apse, a central nave and side aisles. The pillars are very high (5.18 m) with a square shaft and octagonal necking. The inner doorway has figures of river goddesses Ganga (identifiable by her vehicle, the crocodile) and Jamuna. These goddesses begin to appear on temple doorways from the Gupta period. The three different floors of the temple belong to the Maurya, the Shunga and the later Gupta periods.

Temple 17, built around the fifth century, is a flat-roofed structure with a front portico supported by four pillars. The doorway at the entrance has floral patterns and the door jams have images of Ganga and Jamuna. The shrine has no image now, but Captain Fred G. Maisey, the 19th century explorer, reported the presence of an early-medieval style Buddha image seated on a lotus throne supported by lions and inscribed with Buddhist mantras.

There are also a number of free-standing pillars in Sanchi, most of which exist in bits and pieces. The earliest of them is Pillar 10, which was erected by Asoka near the southern gateway. Pillar 35, near the northern gateway, is surmounted by a figure of Vajrapani. The capital now lies in the site museum.

Excavations and relic-hunting

Sanchi remained deserted from the 13th century onwards, only to be rediscovered by the British officer General Taylor in 1818. Repairs and preservation work were, however, taken up only in 1881 by Major Cole. Another person who worked very hard (between 1912 and 1919) to bring the monuments to their present condition was John Marshall, the then Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India. He set up a small site museum to house the loose antiquities found during the course of repair and renovation.

On the dark side, however, the rich sculptures and carvings of the stupa complex attracted amateur archaeologists and treasure hunters, some of whom ravaged the site. In 1822, Captain Johnson, Assistant Political Agent in Bhopal, opened up Stupa 1 from top to bottom on one side. This left a great breach resulting in the collapse of the western gateway and a part of the enclosing balustrade.

In 1851, Alexander Cunningham, together with Captain Maisey, excavated Stupas 2 and 3 and found relic caskets of Sariputta and Mahamogalana within. A shaft was sunk at the centre of the Mahastupa, but no relics were found there.

The story of the discovery of relics and reliquaries of the two Buddhist saints by Cunningham and Maisey from Stupa 3 at Sanchi; the journey of the relics to England and their eventual purchase by the Victoria and Albert Museum; a protracted agitation by Buddhists in England, Sri Lanka and India led by the Maha Bodhi Society; the return of the relics by England and their tour of Asia and final re-enshrinement at Sanchi in 1952 presents an interesting account of relic adventurism by colonial fortune seekers and a subcontinental Buddhist nationalist effort to get the relics back. The journeys of the relics have also been a subject of debate among historians.

There are also demands for the return of artefacts taken from another stupa. The government of Andhra Pradesh is making serious efforts to seek the return of several artefacts and sculptures excavated from the Amaravathi stupa and taken to London, where they are now on display at the British Museum.



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