A nearly perfect hemispherical dome, the Great Stupa is topped by a triple "parasol" set within a square railing or harmika. A third of the way up from its base, a raised terrace, enclosed by a fence, is meant for ritual circumambulation of the monument. A second, stone-paved procession-path at ground-level is enclosed by an encircling stone balustrade. This path is accessed from the cardinal directions through four exquisitely carved gateways.
he most elaborate and well known of the more than 50 magnificent Buddhist monuments that crown the hilltop of Sanchi, India, is Stupa Number One or the Great Stupa. It is part of an entire complex of structures, mostly stupas, built between the 3rd Century BCE and the 12th Century AD. The stupa is not a building in any traditional sense. Once a burial or reliquary mound, the stupa has become a purely symbolic object.
Sanchi is 68 kilometers north of Bhopal in the state of Madhya Pradesh. It is unique, not only for having the most perfect and well preserved stupas, but also for offering the visitor a chance to see, in one location, the genesis, flowering, and decay of Buddhist art and architecture during a period of about 1500 years -- almost covering the entire range of Indian Buddhism. This is surprising since Sanchi was not hallowed by any incident in Buddha's life nor was it the focus of any significant event in the history of Buddhism.
Proximity to a city was of importance for Buddhist monasteries as the monks were obliged to go begging for half of every day. The religious duties that filled the other half day made it difficult to situate a monastery in a noisy town. For this reason large monastic communities sought a situation outside a city or on a busy trade route. The Emperor Ashoka saw Sanchi as an ideal place to give shape to his newly aroused zeal for Buddhism. It has always been a quiet, meditative place that was, meanwhile, located near the very prosperous city of Vidisha. The success of the Buddhist settlement was due in great measure to the piety of the rich, mercantile community of the nearby city.
Ashoka Maurya (273 - 236 BCE) was the most famous of the Buddhist rulers of India. A dozen years or so after he began his reign, about 258 BCE, he became a convert to Buddhism. He was a great administrator and a great builder. His empire encompassed the whole of India and Afghanistan. Ashoka's reign of paternal despotism has been compared to that of Constantine or Cromwell. With tireless energy he personally supervised all the affairs of government for 40 years.
His doctrine was less concerned with the analytic aspects of Buddhism and dwelled exclusively on ethics. He dispatched missionaries to other parts of India as well as Ceylon, Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia, and Epirus. It is due to Ashoka that Buddhism became, and long remained, the predominant religion of India.
The foundation of this important center at Sanchi was laid by the Emperor Ashoka when he built a stupa and erected a monolithic pillar here. Ashoka built a total of eight stupas on the hilltop of Sanchi including the Great Stupa. A great number of stupas and other religious structures were added over the succeeding centuries.
With the decline of Buddhism, the site decayed and was eventually completely forgotten. But, between 1912 and 1919, the structures were carefully repaired to their present condition and restored.
The stupa is the most characteristic monument of Buddhist India. Originally stupas were mounds covering the relics of the Buddha or his followers. In its earliest stages Buddhist art didn't represent the Buddha directly. Instead, his presence was alluded to through symbols such as the bo tree, the wheel of law or his footprint. The stupa also became a symbol of the Buddha. More exactly, it became a symbol of his final release from the cycle of birth and rebirth -- the Parinirvana or the "Final Dying."
In a larger sense the stupa is also a cosmic symbol. Its hemispherical shape represents the world egg. Stupas commonly rest on a square pedestal and are carefully aligned with the four cardinal points of the compass. This is a recurrence of the symbolism of the dome whereby Earth supports Heaven and Heaven covers Earth. The axis of the world is always represented in the stupa, rising above its summit. The so-called "parasols," set one above the other along the shaft emerging from its uppermost region, represent a heavenly hierarchy. The cosmic symbolism is completed by a ritual circumambulatory path around the monument.
Stupas are large-scale memorials built in particularly holy places. Generally they enshrine relics of some sort. As a building type the stupa is the forerunner of the pagoda. However, the stupa has also come to be known, on a smaller scale, as the reliquary itself and can be made of crystal, gold, silver or other precious metals.
The Great Stupa of Sanchi underwent a complete reconstruction after wanton damage inflicted upon it in the middle of the second century BCE. The reconstruction consisted of a stone casing, a terrace with a double flight of steps, balustrades, a paved processional path and an umbrella and railing -- all built of sandstone. Four elaborately carved gateways were added in the first century BCE.
The last addition took place during the rule of the Guptas, sometime before 450 AD. By now effigies of the Buddha were permitted and four stone Buddhas were placed against the walls of the stupa facing the gates. Their haloes are elaborately carved.
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The Great Stupa is 120 feet across (36.6 meters) and, excluding the railing and umbrella, is 54 feet high (16.46 meters).
Stupas may be made of brick, brick and rubble, or encased in masonry.
The present stupa encases an earlier one of about half its present dimensions. The earlier one, built of large burnt bricks and mud, has been attributed to the Emperor Ashoka, the main reasons being that the level of its floor is the same, and that the bricks used in it resemble those in other Ashokan structures.
The four gateways, or toranas, are the finest works of art at Sanchi and are among the finest examples of Buddhist art in India. The gateways were erected c. 35 BCE. The scenes carved into the pillars and their triple architraves are of episodes in the various lives of the Buddha.
The balustrades of the ground-level fence consist of a series of octagonal uprights with lenticular crossbars mortised into them and crowned by enormous copings rounded at the top. The outer faces of the uprights on the berm and stairway are carved with a variety of motifs, mostly flowers. The ground uprights, however, are austerely plain. The reproduction of the technique of wood construction in these balustrades shows that they follow the custom of wooden fences and are probably an innovation here.
Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563 - 483 BCE) was the son of a local ruler. At the age of 29, he decided that life was a cheat, and he renounced the world. After his enlightenment, Buddha, or "the enlightened one," came to Sarnath, near Benares, where he preached his first sermon. A stupa was built on the spot in the 3rd Century BCE.
All photos ©Roger Shepherd
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