Sanchi Stupa (also known as the Great Stupa or Stupa Number 1) is not only one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in India, it's also the oldest stone structure in the country. This remarkable monument was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989 and is very well preserved, particularly given its age. Visitors are often surprised to find that Sanchi Stupa is part of a larger hilltop complex with additional stupas, monasteries, temples and pillars. Read on to learn more about it and how to visit it in this complete guide.
The construction of Sanchi Stupa is widely attributed to Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka was the third emperor of the powerful Mauryan Dynasty, which at the time ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from Afghanistan to Bengal. He's regarded as being particularly ruthless and cruel, having killed all the male rivals in his family to claim the throne after his father passed away.
The Mauryans followed Vedic rituals, so why did Ashoka build a Buddhist monument?
The story goes that eight years into his rule, in 265 BC, Ashoka decided to invade Kalinga (present-day Odisha on India's east coast) in an effort to strategically expand his empire. The Kalinga War turned out to be one of the biggest and bloodiest battles in India's history. Ashoka won. However, the carnage was horrific — so much so, that it's said to have prompted him to have a religious epiphany (others believe the "epiphany" was politically motivated to counter his reputation for cruelty).
After the war, Ashoka formally devoted himself to Buddhism and the practice of nonviolence. To help spread the religion, it's said that he constructed 84,000 stupas, each containing some of the Buddha's cremated mortal remains obtained from a stupa in Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir in Bihar).
Archeological evidence points to Sanchi Stupa being the first stupa made by Ashoka — at least it's the first one still standing. The hill chosen at Sanchi was not far from Vidisha, where Ashoka's first wife Devi, a Buddhist, lived. Some historians believe that Bimbisara, ruler of the ancient Magadha kingdom and supporter of the Buddha, had previously established a monastery for monks there. Others believe that Devi set up a monastery and supported the building of the stupa.
Nevertheless, the stupa's original earthen brick and mortar structure was much more basic than what exists today. Apparently, it was partially destroyed by king Pushyamitra Shunga after he defeated the Mauryan Dynasty in 185 BC and founded the succeeding Shunga Dynasty. His son, Agnimitra, is thought to have rebuilt and enlarged the stupa by casing it in stone to give it its current form. Further additions, such as its four elaborately carved stone gateways, were made in the first century BC during the reign of the Satavahana Dynasty.
A final flurry of construction took place at the site in the fifth century AD, when the Gupta Dynasty ruled much of the Indian subcontinent. This included the Buddha sculptures surrounding the stupa, and the Gupta temple (a rare early example of temple architecture in India).
Sanchi was an important center for Buddhism in India up until the decline of the religion in the 12th century AD. After that, the site was eventually abandoned. A coverage of thick jungle protected it from damage during the subsequent period of Mughal rule in India.
British General Henry Taylor discovered and documented the deserted site in 1818. Unfortunately, it was later ravaged by amateur archeologists and treasure hunters before proper restoration works began in 1881. The works were supervised by Sir John Hubert Marshall, Director General of the Indian Archaeological Survey, and completed in 1919.
Sanchi is one of the top tourist destinations in Madhya Pradesh. It's located in the Raisen district about an hour northwest of Bhopal, the state capital.
How to Get There
The nearest airport is in Bhopal. Sanchi can conveniently be visited on a day trip from Bhopal. A taxi will cost about 2,000 rupees upwards for a round-trip. Do note that you'll cross the Tropic of Cancer on the way to Sanchi! There is a sign on the highway and you can stop for a photo.
Alternatively, Sanchi has a railway station that's well connected to Bhopal, and there are morning and afternoon trains (see train options). However, the railway station in Vidisha receives more trains from other destinations. It's about 15 minutes away from Sanchi.
Taking a local bus from Bhopal to Sanchi is another inexpensive option. The cost is about 50 rupees per person.
Tickets are required to enter the monument complex and see Sanchi Stupa. These can be purchased online here (select Bhopal and the Buddhist Monuments) or at the ticket counter outside the complex. The cost is 40 rupees per person for Indians and 600 rupees for foreigners. Children under 15 years of age don't have to pay.
Make sure you wear comfortable shoes because quite a bit of walking is required to cover the whole complex.
What to Do There
Allow at least an hour to explore the complex (or more if you're interested in history and hire a guide).
Sanchi Stupa is, of course, the main attraction. This massive dome-shaped religious monument is about 36.5 meters (120 feet) wide and 16.4 meters (54 feet) high but it's not possible to go inside. Instead, Buddhists worship it by walking around it in a clockwise direction. This follows the path of the sun and is in harmony with the universe. The stupa has the names of more than 600 people, who donated money for its construction, carved on it.
The stupa's four gateways, which face all four directions, are a highlight. They're adorned with intricate carvings depicting various scenes from the Buddha's life, incarnations, and associated miracles.
Part of a pillar, also built by Ashoka, stands in front of the stupa's southern gateway. Ashoka erected many of these pillars across his territory in northern India, with inscriptions on them that convey his Buddhist message. Only 19 pillars survived and this is one of the finest. It warns of schism in the Buddhist community.
Other monuments are scattered throughout the complex, mostly in the vicinity of the Sanchi Stupa. These include Stupa Number 3, Temple 17 (the fifth century Gupta temple), Temple 18 (a seventh century temple), Temple 45 (the last temple to be built there in the ninth century), the Great Bowl (carved out of a single stone block and used to feed the monks) and ruins of other smaller pillars, stupas and monasteries. The bodily relics of two of the Buddha's earliest chief disciples were found in Stupa 3, and its dome is crowned with polished stone to mark its religious significance.
The plainer Stupa Number 2 is situated downhill and contained the relics of several Buddhist teachers. It's ringed by a balustrade carved with flowers, animals, people, and other beings.
An informative archeological museum, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, just beyond the ticket counter has some interesting exhibits that were recovered during excavations at Sanchi. These include the top part of the Ashoka Pillar with four lions on it (this is featured on India's national emblem) and objects used by monks. The house of John Marshall is also within the museum compound. Tickets cost 5 rupees per person and the house is closed on Fridays.
There are a number of attractions around Sanchi as well, such as more ancient Buddhist stupas at Sonari, Andher, and Satdhara. Chetiyagiri Vihara, completed in 1952, houses the relics of the Buddha's disciples found in Stupa 3 and also in a stupa at Satdhara. Raisen Fort, the rock-cut caves from the Gupta period at Udayagiri, and Heliodorus Pillar (erected by the Greek ambassador Heliodorus in the 2nd century BC) are worth visiting too.
Those who are interested in Buddhist teachings may wish to do a silent 10-day Vipassana meditation course at the Dhamma Pala Vipassana meditation center near Bhopal.
Where to Stay
Madhya Pradesh Tourism's Gateway Retreat hotel is situated very close to the monument complex in Sanchi (albeit between the main road and a railway line). However, it receives mixed reviews in regards to cleanliness and maintenance. Expect to pay about 2,500 rupees per night upwards.
The Madhya Pradesh Tourism Jungle Resort about 15 minutes away in Udayagiri is a better bet, with similarly priced rooms amid nature.
Otherwise, there are plenty of accommodations to choose from in Bhopal. Jehan Numa Palace is a luxury heritage hotel that's ideal for a splurge. Rates start from about 8,500 rupees per night. The Ten Suites is an atmospheric new boutique hotel with, as its name suggests, 10 well-appointed suites. It also has a common kitchen, library, lounge and gardens for guests to use. Expect to pay about 4,000 rupees per night upwards. Lago Villa is a delightful homestay next to a lake. It has rooms from 3,000 rupees per night for a double.
Jheelum homestay is a welcoming and peaceful place for those traveling on a budget. The hosts are a retired Army officer and his wife. Rates start from 900 rupees per night.