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Posted on : September 20th, by

                                     As I sit down a week later I think of the entire site. Sanchi has not been far from my thoughts this week. As a decade has passed since I visited it, this last week has been  wonderful as from nowhere little experiences and memories have filled my thoughts about Sanchi. It is quite ethereal. One wonders where these memories were stored. They must have been somewhere to resurface like this. Reliving past experiences can thrill you again. It is like travelling to new lands without the hassle of packing. When you are at Sanchi the site surprises you gently and draws you in. There are so many books and iconic images of what is called the Great Stupa of Sanchi. But when you are there, you realise this is a large complex. Built over the years on a gentle sloping hill which has gradually been accruing buildings. You can see the nuances of architecture and the use of the buildings change. You are made aware of the benefactors who have died or the regimes that have changed and how,with these changes, comes an enthusiasm of either destruction or construction to stamp their name on posterity.

                                    Perhaps as a start you should see the video of the World Heritage Convention as Sanchi is on the UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisations) list of World Heritage monuments. The video gives you an introduction to the overlay of buildings at the site. Just be aware it is available in multiple languages and you will have to chose the language. Otherwise it starts in Arabic which is fine if you know Arabic if you dont, the meaning is lost. Another resource I have found fascinating is at a collection of images started by Namit Arora, formerly into IT and now into photography and described as a labour of love and lunacy. That opening line makes you want to explore the site. There are some good photos here on Sanchi

While the photos and videos are an essential way of transferring the visual context of what Sanchi offers, what attracts me most about Sanchi is the story of progress. When did this start, why did it begin, what was the context of history, how did it get to be what it is. Sanchi is reported to be the oldest stone structure in India. It is made of sandstone thought to have been brought from Sanchi Hill and the neighbouring Nagouri hill. These blocks of stone are then polished and layered. But this was not always so. The great stupa began life as a brick building in the 3rd century BCE. Maybe it replaced an earlier older wooden structure which would bring it back to the theme of my last blog. The original idea seems to be to hold a relic of Buddha. Buddha lived in the 5th century before Christ. For a man who has been deified and has had so much written about, there is scientific controversy about when he died 544 BC, 486 BC or 483 BC. All this sort of adds to the mystique. We do not know how he looked. The first images were sculpted about 400 years after his death and the seated lotus ‘Padmasana’ postured Buddha with rippled robes with his eyes closed in meditation is the output of the Gandhara school of art Gandhar being an area in modern Swat in Pakistan and ruled by Kushana kings like Kaniska just after the turn of the first millennium  which led to a border amalgamation of Greek-Roman art with Indian sensitivities and persona. As initially there was no image of Buddha, relics were placed in a casket and the casket placed in a small chamber in the centre of a hemispherical mound. These mounds were the stupas. There is a question about whether this relates to the practice of pre-Buddhist burial mounds. It is possible. In my travels I remember the island of Orkney to the north of Scotland. We went there in 2000. There we saw how man lived in early Neolithic communities in a place called Skara Brae. That place is thought to be 5500 years old. There is a mound close by which seems to have been used then. This Neolithic tomb called Maeshowe  is a multi-chambered building which is a little hill and the reliquary practices bring that to the fore of my mind. The similarities of a hillock on a plain, the practice of reliquaries. Another flash past is near where I live which is a burial mound wherein Vikings have been buried. Maeshowe, too, has runes left by later vikings. It seems possible that people place relics and then objectify and later sanctify it. This idea developed amidst a host of philosophies in India. There was the social convention of purifying ideals of Brahmanism and modifying yet living side by side to Brahmanism were thoughts of Gautama Buddha, Mahavira Nattaputta (founder of Jainism) and Gosala (founder of Ajivikism). The societies based on caste or varna seemed to be challenged. Certainly Siddhartha Gutam was born a kshatriya (a warrior class) to Suddhodhana. Suddhodhana was a raja but herein lies a twist the word raja would mean king or more correctly one who rules. Sudhodhana was in a Sakya state which was an independent republic a Gana Sangha  whose chief would be elected and possibly then called a Raja’ . So, the son may or may not then become a chief. All this happened in the foothills of the Himalayas the future Buddha – the enlightened one   was born in Lumbini which today is in Nepal. From there, his journey took him through urban centres like Vaisali, Srvasti and Magadha. He travelled to todays West Bengal then called Anga. He practiced many paths, many austerities but finally settled on a  middle path as the solution to mans grief. His solution was universally applicable from Raja (King) to  Runk (pauper). This is an extraordinary and sublime thought. But it did not stop there. He gave his first sermon to five disciples at the Deer park in Sarnath near Varanasi. Varanasi was and still is the centre of Hinduism. Buddha gradually created a Dharma or teaching and a Sangha or monastic community to spread this around. So when you see saffron clad images of Buddhists in Burma or Cambodia this is where it started. His teachings spread across lands and across generations. At that time northern India had little states or kingdoms like Koshala or Magadha. There were different kinds of ruling classes either monarchies or oligarchies. There were different kinds of communities. And around these communities defence structures were built. For example, a small fort was built at Pataligrama (grama meaning village) which later transformed into a city called Pataliputra. Pataliputra became the capital of Mauryan empire the first empire that seemed to take in a chunk of northern India. By the time the third emperor Ashoka was the ruler the empire encompassed almost the entire subcontinent (except parts of South India). Ashoka ruled from 269-232 BCE over huge parts of the subcontinent. By then, Pataliputra was connected to port cities in the East and West and on these trade routes were stupas. The stupa at Sanchi is near  the town of Vidisha. Ashoka called himself Devanampiya i.e. someone Beloved of the Gods or even Dear to the Gods. He also called himself Piyadassi which possibly translates into Dearest servant a servant of the Gods of course! He ruled for 40 years an unbelievably long period characterised by excessive energy and zeal. When that energy tuned to war, he created a huge empire that extended from Afghanistan to Bangladesh and to the south till Andhra Pradesh. There were huge casualties of these expansionist policies famously the Kalinga (modern Orissa) where the death toll seems to be huge even by modern standards of warfare. I have been at the fields of Kalinga where I saw one of the rock edicts. However, here in Kalinga he is careful not to publicise the death and misery toll that he advertised in other rock edicts.  Fourteen of these rock edicts survive and they proclaim rules for living for his children by which he means subjects. For an impression of these look at

But if you want to see the English translations of what had been written in the local languages (for maximum dissemination) of Brahmi, Karosthi etc look at There are some fascinating insights into the times and thoughts of India before the first millennium.


So Ashokan times give form to the current Sanchi Great Stupa. Why did this happen? Why was an emperor of such huge areas interested in a little town near Sanchi? Ashoka had been the governor of Ujjain. This was in the time of his father, King Bindusara. Buddhist sources mention a love affair with a daughter of  local merchant of Vidisha called Devi or Vidisha Mahadevi, loosely translating into the great goddess of Vidisha but this colloquialism does not translate well. While some stories talk of her as his queen, John Keay in his book ‘India A History’  talks of her not being married to him. John Keay’s book is one of the first serious books on Indian history that I read and for me a book that remains the most enjoyable discourse on Indian history and I can heartily recommend it – you will find it at Amazon. But coming back to the story, Devi bore Ashoka a son and a daughter. Devi lived in Vidisha which  was only 120 Kms from Ujjain and Sanchi is on the proverbial outskirts of Vidisha. Perhaps Ashoka took to Buddhism as a salve to the soul of an emperor and recognised it as an answer to the difficulties of life, perhaps he saw Buddhism as a way of making people peaceful, reflective and less rebellious, perhaps he saw it as a unifying force that needed little economic outlay in terms of maintaining armies – the reasons can only be conjecture now that so many years have passed. But it does seem Ashoka gave Sanchi a lot of economic and political capital. His son form Devi is given prominence, too, in that Milinda goes to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism. To me that proximity of Sanchi to one of the greatest emperors India has had is wonderfully hair raising. Originally, the great stupa at Sanchi was a brick structure about half the size it is now. Now it stands 40 metres in diameter and 16.5 metres tall. I can imagine it as a brick building. Is this possible? Did ancient India make bricks?  Only a year ago I went to Lothal in Gujarat. Lothal is one of the cities from the time of Mohenjodaro and Harappa i.e. Indus Valley civilisation. There you will see bricks of the past. Square bricks, rectangular bricks, thin bricks, thick bricks, still preserved in the hot sun 5000 years after man has made them.

Lothal - Ndus Valley civilisation
Brickwork at Lothal, Indus Valley civilisation site


There in Lothal , I also saw custom made bricks at the circumference of a well in the shape of a trapezium where the inner perimeter of the bricks is lesser than the outer perimeter of the bricks. So this depth in technology of brick making existed 5000 years ago and clearly did in Ashokan times too. 

Brickwork of well at Lothal, Indus Valley civilisation
Brickwork of well at Lothal, Indus Valley civilisation


Lothal was of Indus valley civilisation a time which predates the Aryans and some Vedic scriptures.. So this technology of brick making existed 5000 years ago and clearly did in Ashokan times too.

So life for the Great Stupa at Sanchi began as a brick stupa.  The story then gets more interesting…. but that is for another day

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