Sanchi-Vidisha-Bhimbhetka : Glimpses of Ancient India

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Asia » India » Madhya Pradesh » Sanchi
August 15th 2007
Published: December 3rd 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

With our goal of one excursion every month, this time we left for the central part of India. The group size was just two, Nilanjan and me. An overnight train from Delhi to Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, is the best way to start exploring some of the best sites of ancient history of India.

This is one place that is etched deep in my memory from the high school history texts. It was quite an excitement that we were off to see the famous Sanchi Stupa. Sometimes when I travel to these places, that I had only read about in texts and that is so steeped in history, I have this childish excitement. It is very different from the trips to the hills or the sea. Keeping it cheap and convenient, we had taken an auto from Vidisha to drop us off at one of the government hotels in Sanchi. Although Sanchi is a small town, rather a tourist village, there is good arrangement for accommodation because this is a world heritage site. Besides the international and national largesse it receives, every year it hosts a large number of tourists from all over the world, mainly from countries with Buddhist background. There is also a railway station at Sanchi making it very easily accessible.

The Stupa sits on a little hillock that overlooks the surrounding area. We had to walk up about a kilometer before we reached the main entrance to the Stupa area. We stood for a while staring at the famous view. It is hard to resist providing a little background of this place, although there are zillions of articles on it everywhere and I am no authority on this. I would rather tell you some stories from the guide about the discovery of this place. As you might have read, this Stupa was built by Asoka in the 3rd century BC. There were eight places where the remains of Gautam Buddha were preserved after his death, and smaller stupas were built around them. When Asoka adopted Buddhism, he opened up all but one stupa, and brought the remains to Sanchi to build this Great Stupa. The one stupa that was not opened still remains in a village in the state of Bihar. The story goes that when Asoka wanted that stupa to be opened the people resisted non-violently, and such was the strength of their faith that the stupa survived. Asoka wanted to build a great center of Buddhist learning around Sanchi. For the few hundred years to follow, even after the downfall of the Maurya empire, Sanchi kept on growing in prominence. The four ornate gates at the Sanchi Stupa were all built during the later periods, some during the predominantly Hindu era of the Gupta emperors, and all of them were constructed from generous donations.

With the passage of time, and the emergence of the Islamic period in India, the glory of Sanchi dwindled. The mound gathered dust and turned into a place infested with wildlife.
People knew about it, but had forgotten the past glory of this place till the British came to India. Initially, they opened up the Stupa in search of hidden treasures, only to find ash, priceless though it was, it was of no value to the treasure hunters. Then between 1912 and 1919 under the supervision of Sir John Marshall proper archaeological restoration of the Sanchi Stupa took place. It is worth visiting the museum near the Stupa which has some dated black-n-white pictures from the days of the restoration, as the Stupa emerged gradually from its natural hiding. It has lots of other artifacts that were discovered and preserved carefully. I would remind readers this is the version from my recollections of the guide’s description. There will be lot more authentic versions for interested readers.

While you take a look at the Stupa, make sure you do not overlook some of the stone carvings, like the Shalabhanjikas, the laughing Buddha, and some of the detailed carvings on the gates depicting different stories from the life of Gautam Buddha. The Shalabhanjikas are life size carvings of a bejeweled female symbolizing fertility. The laughing Buddha statues, not all of them have a smiling face though, depict different moods a “grihi” (a family person) must endure. These statues are symbols of luck for a household, and are popularly recognized as the Chinese laughing Buddha. Tiny bits of eye-openers for me!! Also, mind it when you plan to enter through the gates into the inner ring of the Stupa -- there is a gate through which you can enter and come out from another gate to absolve yourself of your worldly sins. So, check carefully before you step in.

One of the famous Asoka pillars with four lion heads, the national emblem of India every Indian is so familiar with seeing at the back of coins, can also be seen in Sanchi. However, it no longer stands tall - the beam rests near the stupa, and the famous lion heads that once was atop the beam is preserved at the museum. The reason for this sad state of the pillar is another amazing story, courtesy our guide. The local vassal of this region was so impressed by the smooth texture of the stone pillar that he decided to use it as a crushing device; the pillar was brought down and although I don’t know whether it was ever used for the purpose, still the damage was done. I leave the readers to judge the authenticity of this bizarre story.

Besides the main Stupa and the ornate gates, which have brought this up as a world heritage site, there are several other interesting structures that merit a mention. The most interesting to me was a structure that resembled the Parthenon (I have only seen the Parthenon in pictures). It was used as a place for congregation and study. There was also a Gupta age temple, which attracted with its simplicity of design. We saw more of such temples at Vidisha. The residence hall for the students and scholars was also a symbol of simplicity and austerity. The place was built of wood to a great extent and was gutted once and reconstructed. This campus also has a stupa dedicated to Sariputra, the most eminent disciple of Gautam Buddha who is very highly revered among the Ceylonese Buddhists. Hence, every year on a particular day in November the stupa of Sariputra is opened for pilgrims.

The charm of a place like Sanchi, especially if you visit it at a time when there is no tourist rush, leaves a lasting impression with its tranquility and serenity. Imagine, this is the place where Sanghamitra and Mahindra, the twins of Asoka had received their lessons on Buddhism before they spread it far and wide. Imagine, what a center of excellence it must have been in those days when scholars from far and wide must have assembled here to learn about Buddhism. Sitting there silently for a while one is truly reminded of the ancient glory of India.

Vidisha is just 10 kms from Sanchi at the confluence of the Betwa and Bes rivers. It is a temple complex located on a hill. The temples are carved out on the walls of the hill. We had reached quite early in the morning when the gates of this place were just opening giving us the advantage of scouting this place all by ourselves. It is more like an exploration where you walk through the hills finding out one temple after another. There are about 15 if I remember correctly. They are all dedicated to the Hindu gods and goddesses -- some to Shiva, some to Vishnu. The most impressive one was the huge monolithic statue of Vishnu in a reclining posture.

This is one place which will take a good two hours to explore. In the meantime, if you feel like having a snack break, beware of the monkeys there. We had a first-hand experience when a monkey just pounced on us, and snatched our meagre meal of bananas. So, we trudged through the hills without any breakfast, and the icing on the cake was to find out that our ride back to town has left when we came back from our trek. It was a further trek of 3 km back to the nearest town.

We had to get back to Bhopal to catch our train to Delhi. We are advised by all to catch a bus of the state transport which will take about an hour to take us to Bhopal. After a bit of deliberation, we decided that this is the best option given the lack of other readily available mode of transport. The journey by bus was memorable for the experience it gave me of the diversity of India, something we often read and talk about, but rarely experience living in a metro city. The feeling of being so out-of-place among Indians is something I had not quite expected. We were the only non-regular commuters in the bus, the rest being mostly villagers or commuters from the smaller towns on the way. Often I could not even follow the dialectic Hindi that was being used (admitted that without any formal education of Hindi my “fluency” of the language is questionable). Throughout the journey, just as the two of us stared at the people in different ethnic attire, they were staring back at us and probably wondering what are these two “Indians” doing here.

Once at Bhopal, we realized that there was plenty of time left for us to take a quick tour of another world heritage site, the rock shelters of Bhimbhetka. This is a site that has cave paintings, like the ones in the Altamira caves in Spain, from prehistoric times. Without a guided tour of this place, it is impossible to decipher the significance and meaning of the paintings on the cave walls. We were explained how the color and the type of paintings, and their changing forms denote the passage of time. There are paintings from pre-historic times to the medieval times, tracing the growth of human thinking in some manner. The same rock canvas has been used over time by generations without removing the earlier ones, leaving a magnificent picture of time. The guide had painstakingly explained the minute differences, which is too hard for me to recollect, to identify the paintings from different eras - sometimes based on the style, sometimes based on the colors used. One interesting detail that I remember is that in the prehistoric times, there was no horse in India. Horse supposedly is an Aryan import to India that came much later (remember we are talking about times before it could be dated). So in the earliest of paintings there is no horse, then there are very crude drawings of horse, and with time the horse paintings has gained in refinement (this dates to around 3rd century BC).

The short trip to Bhimbhetka was quite educational, if not as exciting as our trips to Sanchi and Vidisha. In a span of two days we have traveled in times, starting from pre-history to ancient periods of India. I believe this will be a trip worth a while for any enthusiast of ancient history of India.

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