35) Sanchi - a peaceful hill crowned by a group of stupas

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May 4th 2005
Published: May 21st 2005
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Great StupaGreat StupaGreat Stupa

Sanchi is unique for having the most perfect and well preserved stupas in India
Since Delhi we have continuously headed east, the logical destination after Orchha would have been Khajuraho. But Sanchi was a place we absolutely did not want to miss, we had already passed it by moving north, so we made a detour from Orchha. From the distance (ca. 200 km) we knew that it would not work out in one day, so we left our luggage in a nice hotel in Jhansi close to the train station - from there we would go on to Khajuraho when back - and took a train. Trains in India, at least theoretically, are provided with different classes. You have two AC classes, two-tier with two beds in a compartment and three-tier with three beds, then there is sleeper class and regular class with wooden seats without berths. India has many trains running across the country, some of them for 40 hours or more, and tickets for so long journeys you have to book several days in advance. But we sometimes want to use a train on a short notice. Once the train is already on its way, you have to buy the tickets on the day of travelling and they are only valid for regular
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The four gateways, or toranas, are the finest works of art at Sanchi and are among the finest examples of Buddhist art in India
class. We have developed a strategy that has always worked so far: we do not go to the regular class because it is as crowded as can be (by our latest story you will understand what that means!) and enter the sleeper class. Finding places to sit there isn't easy either but we try to advance to the middle of all sleeper class compartments, where it is usually less crowded. Of course the Indians on board (we never meet foreign tourists) ask for our tickets, we gravely say we've got them (which is only partly true because they are not for this class), then they will let us take seats. There are always more people in than are meant to be anyway, on the seating benches 8 instead of 6 and also the upper berths are occupied. If and when the ticket controller comes, our hearts start beating faster because he has the right to move us to regular class. But Stephan handles the situation well, plays the surprised and naive one, always smiling and in the end we are allowed to stay and simply have to pay the difference in price, they call it access fare, we don't even

The scenes carved into the pillars and their triple architraves are episodes of the various lives of the Buddha
pay a fine. This time, we used the same strategy, hoping for the best and it worked once again. During the train ride, many vendors walk through the train, selling cold and hot drinks, sweets, chips, reading material in Hindi, all kinds of toys, key rings, combs and other useless knick-knack. Sometimes also food is sold, but we don't dare touch it. Still we do not have to starve, every time the train runs into a bigger station, passengers hop onto the platform where there is again plenty to buy. We hope the food there is fresher and mostly eat deep-fried things like samosas or vegetables in some kind of dough rolled into small balls, which is usually delicious. It is always Stephan who does this chore and Klaudia stays behind in the train, always worrying that he would not miss it, in her nightmares she sees herself sitting in the train while he stays behind on the platform. Fortunately the Indian trains have a special system which helps a lot in this case: the trains do not start as rapidly as in Europe but extremely slowly so that passengers can still get on even when the train has been
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A nearly perfect hemispherical dome, the Great Stupa is topped by a triple "parasol" set within a square railing
rolling for some time. When there is time before departure (we always arrive on time and sometimes the train is late so we have plenty of time), we eat in the station restaurant, very cheap, e.g. a thali for only 22 rupees and it was very good, or on the platform where we once had an omelet on toast for breakfast.

We arrived in Sanchi in the late afternoon and tried to find a convenient hotel, which turned out to be impossible. First, there were few of them, one was quite good but far too expensive and furthermore it was being renovated, the others were cheap but basic and we chose one that was not very clean, but we were willing to accept it for one night. The owner wanted copies of our passports and visas, he pretended this to be requested by law, well, up to now we had never came across this law, but he insisted and we had to find a place in the market where to do this. Sanchi is a small village without charm, there is nothing to be seen apart from the renowned Buddhist stupas. We also tried to continue our webblog but
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The Yakshi, a bracket figure on the eastern gateway of the Great Stupa in Sanchi
could not find internet that worked, too bad. In the end, we had the photocopies done and wandered around the market, where we saw a machine grinding red chili. There was not much to do, so we decided to go to bed earlier and get up early in order to avoid the most scorching heat, and looked for a restaurant. Not much choice either and we made the mistake to go to a street restaurant. There were a lot of people around, though, but we realised too late that none of them was eating. Then we ordered chicken, the actual mistake, an absolute not-do. It took very long, which is usually a good sign meaning that the food is fresh but the dishes were extremely spicy, always a bad sign.

Next morning, the inevitable happened, both of us suffered from strong diarrhoea but thanks to the strong medicaments we had with us, we managed to handle it somehow. The problem was that it had got later than we had intended and the heat was already quite intense. Sanchi's Buddhist stupas lie on an imposing hilltop, the path is quite steep but very beautiful, cut into the surrounding forests. We
Jataka StoriesJataka StoriesJataka Stories

Stories of the Buddha's past lives on the Sanchi Gateways
had rather a hard time climbing up the hill. resting in the shade whenever possible, cursing the restaurant and our own stupidity. When we reached the site, we were already exhausted, especially Klaudia, and she was sorry that she could not pay to these beautiful buildings all the attention they deserve. We were lucky that there were toilets on site and after a while, the situation calmed down. On the hill are two big stupas and several lesser ones often containing the ashes of monks famous for their piety and learning plus a whole complex of buildings (monasteries, temples, preaching halls etc.) but these are mostly in ruins. One part of the famous Ashoka Pillar is also found there, only the shaft stands and the crown is kept in the museum. The Ashoka Pillar is an excellent example of he Greco-Buddhist style and is known for the aesthetic proportions and the exquisite structural balance. Another stupa stands on a terrace down the slopes, its design is much simpler than on the Great Stupa. The park is wonderfully laid out and well kept, there are benches everywhere and it is easy to imagine Buddha sitting under a tree and meditating although
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Probably representing a festival which took place around the Great Stupa in Sanchi
he actually never was there.

Construction of the stupas built in brick made of stone started in the third century under the reign of the great emperor Ashoka who converted to Buddhism, and a great number of stupas and other religious structures were added over the succeeding centuries. With the revival of Hinduism, from the 14th century, Sanchi lay half buried, virtually forgotten and deserted until 'rediscovered' by the British general, who also found the Ajanta caves, in 1818. Stupas are large hemispherical domes, containing a central chamber, in which the relics of the Buddha were placed. Though most of the stupas are in ruins now three remain intact and are of great archaeological value. The designs and the carvings on the walls and gates of these stupas spell a heavenly grace and are very tastefully done. The stupas at Sanchi trace the development of the Buddhist architecture and sculpture at the same location beginning from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. One of the most interesting features of all the sculptures here is the lack of images of the Buddha in human form. The carvings have a wonderful vitality and show a world where people
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The western gateway depicts the seven incarnations of the Buddha
and animals live together in happiness, harmony and plenty. Stylized depiction of nature is exquisite. Lord Buddha has been shown symbolically in inanimate figures.

The largest, known as the Great Stupa, is surrounded by a railing with four carved gateways facing the all four directions of the compass. The Sanchi stupas are noteworthy for their gateways as they contain ornamented depiction of incidents from the life of the Buddha and his previous incarnations as well as events in the history of Buddhism.

When it got too hot, we left to visit the adjacent museum, which exhibits finds from the site (the crown of the Ashoka Pillar with four lions which stand back to back, caskets, pottery, parts of gateways or statues). Later we found a government hotel and restaurant, there we drank plenty of black tea and ate some toast, this way we recovered enough strength to travel back. In the train we used the usual strategy and were in the company of an engineer, who travelled with his father and uncle. The three of them spoke excellent English, they were obviously a bit bored, due to a nice and vivid conversation the 4 hours on the train
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The 1st century AD gateway of Stupa 3 was probably the last of the five gates built at Sanchi
passed quickly. Next day at 11 o'clock we took a bus to Khajuraho leaving from the Jhansi train station.

Sanchi is only visited by few tourists, unfortunately there is not much infrastructure around, but the wonderful site would deserve many more. We are happy to have seen it and a bit sad that we could not give it our full attention.


19th September 2005

I think you should have specified 3rd century BCE! Also the four-lion capitol is the official emblem of modern India. (The wheel on the Indian flag is also attributed to Ashoka!)
11th October 2005

sanchi - a rest stop
I visited Sanchi Aug 1972, after traveling overland beginning Mar 15. I love all of your fabulous photos and notes. I am returning for the first time this December. The new sites will be Chidambaram and Thanjavur. I missed a lot for the 3 months I traveled thru India.
28th July 2009

it was so much fun seeing these photographs..i m from India ..and i have not visited all the places (indian) you have shown here...and seriously, i m just tempted to do all of them ..thanks for this.

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