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Posted on : September 29th, by
Artist's view of Sanchi Stupa during Shunga period
Artist’s view Sanchi Stupa – Shunga period

I sit alone in my room and the wonderful and yet complex histories of far away times flood in front of my eyes. I am trying to tell the story of the Great Stupa of Sanchi and find its complexity wonderfully charming but also daunting to put on paper. I had originally thought I would do one blog on Sanchi but there is so much to say. I know whole books would be needed to do this monument justice and great historians have worked on this, and so I find myself writing my third blog. My perspective is to tell the story of Sanchi Stupa and, in so doing, relate to the wonderful histories that make the monument what it is.

                                     Ashokas times left a brick stupa of modest proportions. The word Stupa comes from Sanskirt Stup or Pali thupe which literally means a heap. In fact, the Telugu word for a heap isThopa and I can hear being told as a child to throw the rubbish on that Thopa. From there to the stone structure of double the size with embellishments of the three tiered parasol of Buddhist symbolism takes us through the fall of the Mauryan dynasties at about 185 BCE. Samrat Ashok had died in 231 BCE, so the Mauryan empire saw a few more generations of kings. They found it hard to scale the lofty heights of Ashoka.
It is possible that the clash between upholding the concept of righteousness in Dharma and the pragmatism of cold calculating machinations of Kautilyas Arthasastra was difficult to resolve. Arthasastra was a treatise on statecraft, economics and military strategy written by Kautilya, a Brahmin minister during Ashokas grandfathers time. The two opposing concepts of outcomes oriented actions and strategies vs the emphasis on righteousness would have cast confusing shadows. The Arthasastra is a great book and discusses seven limbs of state the Saptanga Sapta  meaning seven and Anga meaning limbs those of the King, the territory, the administration, the treasury, the capital, machinery of power (armies, punishment centres) and allies. A veritable treatise of Dos and Donts of statecraft, it was written by Kautilla, traditionally called Chanakya a Brahmin of great shrewdness. Never again was such a work brought to fruition in India. Only in the mid 16th century in far away Venice did Niccolo Machiavelli write The Prince but the former is more complex and exhaustive.

The last of the Mauryas was Brhadatta but he seems to have been weak. John Keay India a History calls him a half-wit. This Mauryan emperor was assassinated during an army inspection by his commander one Pushyamitra Sunga. But what strikes me is that Pushyamitra was a Brahmin but a successful warrior. Given the idea of caste systems being rigid and non-transgressable in Ancient India this does not fit with the echoes of this event. Perhaps society in India two millennia ago was based on professions or guilds or Varna. The Vedic books suggest four groups arranged in hierarchy the Brahman (the intellectual priest class), the Kshatriya (the physical warrior aristocratic class), the Vaisya (the mercantile class) and the Sudras (the workers and labourers). The evolution of what seemed a loose but sensible division of work in society according to abilities into a rigid sanctioned caste system is complex. One can understand how religion gives a stated authority over the classes, particularly if the religious texts are in a language which is not spoken everyday and hence, dependent on interpretation. Sanskrit was the medium of the Vedic corpus while the spoken language was Pali, Brahmi or Karoshti depending on the region. While these northern Indian local languages had scripts in the south,Tamil was the language spoken but did not have a script in those times. One can understand how control over a gateway to knowledge can offer an assertion of purity and superiority by certain sects. Romila Thapar in her book The Penguin history of Early India from Origins to AD 1300 discusses three preconditions to the development of a caste based society unequal access of various groups within that society to economic resources; inequalities legitimised through theoretically irreversible hierarchy and the imposition of hierarchy claim to be based on a supernatural hierarchy. This book gives very interesting details and perceptions of Indian historiography. The template she describes is a recognizable one in histories all over the world whether they are the Egyptian priests and Pharaohs, the Inca religions of Peru or early Christendom and later medieval feudal systems of Europe.

So it passes that the Brahmin Pushyamitra assassinates the Kshatriya Brhadatta in 185 BCE and the Sunga dynasty starts. Whether this starts a renewal of Brahmanism along with a backlash of Buddhism or whether there is simply a need for a new upstart ruler to stamp his authority, the story goes that the brick monument  of the Great Stupa of Sanchi is vandalised and ravaged. A Buddhist book Ashokavadana   Narrative of Ashoka ends with the life of Pushyamitra and describes him in some detail as the enemy of Buddhist faith. But perhaps this is just  intentionally adulterated propaganda.

And then the wheel of time turns around and as if to make amends Pushyamitras son Agnimitra rebuilds the stupa; this time a bigger and stronger building, now in stone from absolutely beautiful beautiful sandstone quarried from the local hill at Sanchi. And this is how the present architecture starts taking form……….

The hemispherical dome ‘Anda’, Anda means egg in the local vernacular, is raised on a circular platform ‘Medhi’. It is now 40 metres (130 feet) in diameter. . A square small platform was built, called the Harmika and its centre is a three tiered umbrella, the ‘Yasti’.

Sanchi Stupa - Shunga period, first modifications with dome and three tiered pillar
Sanchi Stupa – Artist conception early modification Shunga period

The Medhi was meant for circumambulation and would be accessed by 2 stairways the Sopanas. This rite of walking around a central religious sanctity was called Pradakshina. Around this tier the dome was flatted at the top

The simplicity of the design is pleasing to the eye. But there is intense symbolism here that is also meaningful to the practising Buddhist of the time. Today the stupa is a great monument that tourists come to see but in those times and for centuries thereafter, this was a living, breathing, religious entity into which hundreds invested their lives’ hopes, structures, ambitions and feelings.


Artist's view of Sanchi Stupa with early railings “Vedika” and four portals or gateways “Toranas”[
Artist’s view of Sanchi Stupa with early railings “Vedika” and four portals or gateways “Toranas”
Around the circular building a railing was then built. Called a Vedika this enclosed the pradakhsinapatha the circumambulatory path. The railing had four portals or gateways called Toranas They were fixed points of entry and arranged in the form of a Swastika. The word Swastika is a Sanskrit word which comes from Su meaning good and Asti meaning it is. Translated it comes out as It is good but to me it hints at more. Astitv means what you are about, your core being and Swastik then hints at being good at the core. When I first started formulating my ideas on Swastika, the word filled me with wonder. You have to recall that the Vedika was very Aryan in concept as in Vedic rites where a sacrificial fire was involved a small railing would be around it  and still is when a marriage fire is created for a wedding ceremony in North India. The pradakshina then happens in relation to this railing. This act of circumambulation changed the commemorative nature of the stupa from being a mound with relics of Buddha to a chaitya a place of worship. So from being a heap with the relics of Buddha which gave it sanctity this circumambulation which in itself is a vedic rite turns this in to a building of worship. It does not end there. A second Vedika is built on the top a much smaller one. It encloses a cubicle called the Harmika. It was probably here that the relic of Buddha was placed. And in its vertex raising above was a three tiered umbrella the chatri. It was seen as a representing the three layers of heaven and in time represented Dharma.  A further representation was thought to be of the Anda, indicating the sky enveloping the earth. In time the stupa itself became a symbol as a whole. It stood for Buddhas release from the cycle of birth and rebirth, the Parinirvana or the final dying. So, now when you see a little stupa as part of a scene, it indicates that time in Buddhas life when he has conquered dukkha or sorrow and broken the cycle of birth and rebirth.

In time other structures would be added but that would be a whole new chapter in Indias socio-cultural history..