Follow us on :

Tell a friend :

Posted on : November 3rd, by
Sanchi Stupa with gateways “Toranas”
Toranas in 2004

It has been a couple of weeks since I sat here. When I started with the blog, my intention had been to write weekly. Having said that, it seems to be more like every two weeks. I am conscious about blog experts suggesting writing regularly and at least every week. Sometimes a lot happens in life and this is not possible – at least for me. I have resorted to write often but also that I should continue to love the process of writing. When I do write, it flows easily and from the heart and mind. I like sitting by myself by my window looking out into the garden, watching into the distance as the grass fills the land in front of me with only a tree or two to break the outline. It is lovely. And I want to savour the time away from the everyday world of daily living – making time to think about our past, what drove it, and how it affects us still. Can we look into the lives of those before us and see what shadows they have cast?

The picture of Toranas (Gateways) at Sanchi is one such place. We took this in Jan 2004.


There are four such gateways. These Toranas have been strategically placed at the North, South, East and West. They stand there very simple in design and construction, two long pillars like a doorway and then on top of them are three horizontal architraves.  This pdf gives you all the four gates with some lovely images I talk of how this reflects an early village defense structure in an earlier blog …………. There is perhaps a symbolism of squaring the circle – the Anda inside. Roger Shepherd in his article on the gates of Sanchi talks of how the four gateways now seem to make the Stupa “rotate” in a circular manner – symbolising the wheel doctrine of Buddhism or a Svastika of Hinduism, an interesting thought

There is no doubt that the Toranas are profuse with scenes of life. They have become iconic of Sanchi. But their great charm, for me, lies not in the architectural beauty which is undoubtedly there but as a valuable record of the past. Here you see riders on horse back, peacocks strutting, mahouts on elephants, ladies on a first floor balcony, men and women in crowds, trees, flowers, an archer, a rich person with a parasol and even a wood nymph – a ‘yakshi’ or to be more accurate a ‘Shalabhanjika’. The site Art and Archeology has a glossary of such terms in Asian art

"Shalabhanjika" wood nymph on Sanchi Stupa Torana
“Shalabhanjika” wood nymph and elephants on Torana

It describes these ‘Apsara’ (divine maidens) at the edge of the brackets as a ‘Yakshi’ (a wood nymph) who raises her arm to hold a tree while one leg is cocked on the ball of her foot. The idea being that the tree becomes fruitful by grasping its branches. In the times of wood deities, fertility being valued so much so that Manu’s ‘Dharmasastra’ (a treatise on Laws of life, 100 BC, Kautilya’s ‘Arthasastra’(treatise dealing with statecraft, economics and wealth generation 300 BCE, and Vatsyayana’s ‘Kamasutra’ ( dealing with ‘kama’ which is more than sex, as it is actually a treatise on sensuality in all its forms and of course including sex from about 200 BCE all deal with this issue of fertility as being important for keeping various wheels going. So it seems appropriate that central amongst these scenes of life is Buddha – there are many figures of prayers to stupa like this one …

Unfolding parchment scroll in Torana
Unfolding parchment scroll in Torana with scenes of life

And unfolding on a parchment scroll (see the circular parchment folding) represented on this Torana, at the very  periphery of these scenes of life are the ‘Shalabanjikas’ representing fertility and continuity of life  – how appropriate, how charming! How subtle!

I enjoy looking at the minutiae of sculptures – it is best when you are there at the site and you arm yourself with binoculars. When we remember, my mother and I take our binoculars at our temple visits. You can see the detail of the sculptures high above. Sanchi’s Toranas lend themselves to hours of thorough gazing. Alternatively, buy yourself a magnifying glass and look at photographs – these days you can zoom in digitally. We went to Sanchi in 2004 and so have photographic prints on paper and occasionally I take a magnifying glass and go over them.

Elephant on Northern Torana of Sanchi Stupa
Elephant on Northern Torana with rippling muscles

One such evening I found this elephant. It is on the Northern Torana. You can hardly see it as it is so high on the gate. But when going over the print with a magnifying glass I found it. The carving is subtle. It gives you a feeling of the rippling size of this mammoth. Many a time we come across temple elephants with branches in their trunks – which are curled up like here.

See this shot of the elephant that I took in Coorg in 2007.

Elephant at forests of Coorg, Karnataka
Elephant at forests of Coorg, Karnataka; photographed in 2007

What I like about this carving is how this elephant’s representation is so realistic.

And so it goes on. I find the representations interesting. Like the ‘Triratnas’ – the three jewels. 

"Triratnas" i.e. three jewels -  stand for the the Buddha, the Dharma (wheel), the Sangha (the community)
“Triratnas” i.e. three jewels
stand for the the Buddha, the Dharma (wheel), the Sangha (the community)
"Triratnas" i.e. three jewels -  stand for the the Buddha, the Dharma (wheel), the Sangha (the community)

The three ratnas stand for the Buddha, the Dharma (wheel), the Sangha (the community). For isn’t Buddhism (and every religion in the wider sense) based on an original thinker, the original thought and the community that is built around this thought? This symbol of Sanchi explains that concept very well. You will find more on this concept of the three jewels here It is truly the little connections that capture my imaginations.

In the same vein here is a section of the south pillar of the East  Torana.

‘Miracle of the Serpent’ on south pillar of East Torana
‘Miracle of the Serpent’ on south pillar of East Torana

It gives you the story of the ‘Miracle of the Serpent’. The story is of a fire temple with a poisonous snake within it. Buddha enters the temple and the venomous snake meekly withdraws into a begging bowl. The story is nice but for me it is everything else that is in this frieze that is fascinating. They show the fire coming out of the temple roof tops, they show cows, ascetics, forests, a river, geese, pots! Look at the pots…. I love these two, one of which has various designs and one of which is plain.

pot in Shatavahana times
Earthern pot in Shatavahana times

I once bought a pot in a Tunisia market. Or rather my wife zeroed in on it, selected it and I just paid. I get a lot of pleasure from it now. It comes from nomadic Berber tribes of the desert. We had bought this in 1998 in a market in Tunisia at the very edge of Sahara desert in an oasis town called Tozeur.

pot from Berber tribes bought in Tunisia, 1998
pot from Berber tribes bought in Tunisia, 1998

This is an earthen pot inlaid with camel bones. We were told pots like these are made by a groom as a gift to the bride as a demonstration of his skill. The pot is beautiful. When I spotted the pot rendering in Sanchi stone I thought of the pot from Tunisia. There is relief in the sculptured pot as if there is an inlay work. And now look at the pot higher up – a plain earthen pot. It is just like the one we bought in 2012 in the markets of Hyderabad. I have dry flowers in it now – a different use. I like the continuity of connections.

Earthern pot, Hyderabad markets, 2012
Earthern pot, Hyderabad markets, bought in 2012

Looking at the same motif, there is more that catches my eye. The people in it. Look at them – all men. They are mostly bearded, one clean shaven, all wearing thin clothes of the same type. These were Shatavahana times about 2000 years ago It is worth bearing that in mind – 2 millenia ago! Is this how people looked then, and was this the common dress code? The Shatavahanas have been called the Andhra dynasty. Yes, they held sway over Andhra but the kingdom seems to have started in today’s Maharashtra. They seem to have jockeyed for position with the Kushanas and Satraps as you see in the image in the previous  link. And with the decline of Kushanas (some time after Kanishka) who held sway over the Silk road and styled themselves “Lord of the Northern Route” the Shatavahanas called themselves “Lord of the Southern Route” – ‘Dakshina –pata- pati’. Trade blossomed, links to the west with Rome and to the East with Thailand etc so called Suvaranabhumi – Land of Gold. Today the airport of the capital of Thailand, Bangkok  is called Suvarnabhumi airport. This trade was enormous. The profit from the coastal cities was important. So much so that a book by several Greek authors called Periplus of Eryhtraea described the navigation to Deccan ports of Broach, (Bharukaccha, Barygaza) which had a system of pilot boats to escort vessels through the tricky waters of Narmada. And guess what? I had read and seen a similar thing in Lothal in Gujarat from the time of Harappan civilization of 2000 years before the Shatavahanas. The trade boomed in cotton, yarn, pepper, myrrh and so on. But it is the story of clothes that is relevant to these reflections. Cotton surprised the Greeks who wrote of ‘trees that grew small white clouds’.  The Greek historian Herodotus reported this in his book ‘Histories’ about 500 years before Shatavahanas Cotton was suitable to the climate being light, but look at their clothes – they seem to be only up to the knees and there is a throw or wrap around the shoulders. This is very much like what you see in paintings at Ajanta caves. This garment is like a ‘dhoti’ or an Andhra ‘lungi’ but a ‘dhoti’ (like a lungi / Sarong) starts at the waist and goes down to the ankles and there is no element of a wrap. A sari on the other hand has a wrap and goes to ankles but is worn by women. So here is something interesting – the men folk wore a kind of a sari that came to the knees. You can tell they are men as they all have beards.  Of course this would have needed no stitching being a continuous cloth. And when you look back at the famous statue of a bearded man/ priest form Mohenjo-daro even though you see only the top half there is a wrap like here!

And what is the significance of this trade? Did Buddhism have a link to the prosperity of Shatavahanas? This is an interesting question. The Buddhist philosophy did one thing – it did not make a caste or ‘Varna’  distinction. Hinduism by 1st century BC had already been codified as in ‘Manusmriti’ Dharma was laid down in Mahabharata and it gave meaning to life (Purushaartha = Purusha being Man and Artha is Meaning). There was a triad of Dharma (piety), Artha (wealth) and Kama (Pleasure). This started getting codified as treatises like ‘Manusmriti’ appeared in 1st century BC. This text of 2685 verses gave cultural definitions and codes of practice for relationships in the community, ways of humans, possession of  animals, sex, money, houses, politics, law, caste. It gave rules and then exceptions to the rules and over time the laws became rigid. In time, the concept of ‘Moksha’ or deliverance from difficulties of life came in – but the deliverance was in the afterlife.  Buddhism took a different stance – it prescribed a way to find the cause of unhappiness, to get rid of desire, by a middle path of living leading to deliverance from unhappiness. There was no more reliance on Laws for the “Twice born” (the Dwija) – a physical birth and then a spiritual birth – there was no  confusion of whether the Dwija referred to only the spiritual class of Brahmins or also the warrior class of Kshatriya or mercantile Vaisyas but firmly excluding the Shudra (the menial workers). With Buddhism came inclusivity and lack of stratification meaning laws were few. People travelled, unhindered by caste politics or considerations like the ‘ten vices’, ‘four major addictions’ and the lists of varna-ashrama-dharma (social and religious duties tied to class, stage and ‘jati’ or guild you belonged to. Buddhism became identified with commerce and manufacturing. Stupas took the place of caravanserais. Beside the stupas, there came bazaars, lodgings, stables, shops – thought to have been built in timber which was readily available, easily molded, and cheap but sadly destructible too. John Keay tells in “India – a history” how the monasteries and stupas got grants from weavers, grain merchants, basket makers, leather workers, shipping agents, ivory carvers, smiths, salt merchants and a host of craftsmen and dealers who are recorded as donors in caves and temple inscription. Sanchi, too has a record of this. Mathew David Milligan tells in his thesis of two such inscriptions – on images of stūpas found on the southern gateway recording the gifts of two prominent individuals. The first is a junior monk whose teacher holds a high position in the local order. The second is the son of the foreman of the artisans of a king. Thus, Sanchi became a record of the times.

It is little things like this that allows such insight.  And what is the continuity to today – look at the mangoes, the bananas, the elephants, horses – all we can see and use in today’s India? And if you are looking for great symbolism look at Dharma – the wheel which is now in Indian flag and the Ashoka lions in our emblem – such sublime associations to the Toranas of Sanchi.