Sanchi: Where time has frozen
By Amlan Home Chowdhury
Baked by scorching summer sun and bathed by relentless monsoon torrents continuously for 2300 years, the Great Stupa of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh still stands in its total grandeur proving a place where Lord Buddha’s ash lies, just cannot be destroyed.
The sacred relics of Lord Buddha and his two chief disciples Sariputta and Mahamogallan were buried in caskets at this stupa.
At Sanchi, time seems to stand frozen. As you look at the stony-human statues, you really have an uncanny feeling they would answer if you ask them about Emperor Asoka, Queen Devi, Sanghamitra and Mahindra. So lively the eyes of the ancient men and women in stony statues appear you feel they are gazing at you.
The eyes seem to be asking: “Why don’t you converse with us? What are you waiting for?” Those eyes appear to request you to hum the hymn “Buddham Sharanam Gachhami” (let us take shelter under the umbrella of Lord Buddha) as monks would chant centuries ago.
Sanchi witnessed the grand royal wedding of Emperor Asoka with Devi, the daughter of rich Sresthi or businessman of nearby Vidisha. Of course our ancient ancestors living in Sanchi and Vidisha must have received the wedding invitation some 2300 years ago. Who knows?
It was from Sanchi the Buddhism sprawled to Sri Lanka and entire South East Asia. Mahindra and his sister Sanghamitra, children of Queen Devi, set out from here to Anuradhapura (today’s Sri Lanka) and Thailand, Java, Sumatra and Korea. From there, the religion sprawled to China, Japan and Vietnam.
No wonder of the 360,000 foreigners coming to Sanchi Stupa from all across the world, nearly 59 percent of them belong to South East Asia. A stupa is a burial mound containing sacred relics or other very precious religious items.
A Virtual Pictorial Album on
Lord Buddha’s Life
When we read a book, half of the meaning of it is construed through the photographs and paintings. Similarly, you can virtually read all aspects of Buddha’s life described in Jataka through the scenes etched in stone at the Great Stupa. We wonder at the fertility of brain of those who conceived the idea of telling the Jataka-tales through the stones. Just imagine, they were not photographers but sculptors. With hammer and chisel, they portrayed different scenes from Buddha’s life.
If you look at the story of the maiden Sujata of Uruvilla hamlet (today’s Bodhgaya in Bihar) as etched in stone-panel, it would appear just like a photograph. On finding Prince Siddhartha reduced to a virtual skeleton under the Bodhi Tree at Uruvella, Sujata offered him a bowl of rice-milk pudding with the advice that through fasting no one can attain enlightenment. It was after this that Siddhartha attained the supreme Enlightenment to become Buddha.
Take another scene of evil Mara troubling Prince Siddhartha so that his meditation is distracted and he fails to achieve Bodhi or the Enlightenment. You really wonder how could those ancient sculptors chisel such lively scene? How could they be so exact?
How could they be so exact to depict the historical records that tells about the “war over Buddha’s ashes” after he was cremated following his Mahaparinirvana or death? More your imagination takes flights about those sculptors, more interested you become.
Let us now have a look at this particular stony-scene. The story of a near war over the sharing of Buddha’s mortal remains as depicted in Jataka appears like an action-packed thriller. The Southern Gate of Stupa Number One, we get the depiction of the story of Buddha’s relics.
Lord Buddha attained his Mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar (in modern Uttar Pradesh state of India), kingdom of powerful and warlike Mallyas. The Kushinagar people wanted to keep the entire ashes of Lord Buddha with them. However, the other eight powerful kingdoms of those days too wanted their share of the ashes of Buddha.
Since the Mallyas were not willing to part away with any portion of the ashes, the rulers of those eight kingdoms attacked and besieged Kushinagar. Seeing no way out, Kushinagar agreed to divide the ash into eight parts for the eight kingdoms. This scene of Jataka finds its most wonderful expression in stone
Despite Relentless Attacks,
the Great Stupa Survived
Sanchi, located 45 kilometers away from Bhopal, fell on the 3800-years old trade route of Aryavartha: today’s India.
The 71 ft (21.64 m) Great Stupa, located on a hillock, has a strange history of going into ruins and again rising up with all it’s gleam at different junctures of history.
A strange fact about the Great Stupa is that it fell into ruins and had been victim of vandalism by very ancient hands. Yet it rose up.
After about a century of the construction of the Great Stupa, Emperor Pushyamitra Sunga who had overthrown the family of Emperor Asoka from the seat of power invaded Sanchi to break the Great Stupa as he was opposed to Buddhism. The greatest symbol of Dharma or the wheel of human life was broken at the orders of Pushyamitra Sunga.
The Buddhist book Ashokavadana, written in 2nd century BC, mentions Pushyamitra Sunga as an “evil king who persecuted the Buddhists across Aryavartha.” If you want to have a glimpse of his ancient villainy, you must know that he had offered to pay one hundred gold coins to whosoever bringing the head of a Buddhist monk in the city of Shakala (modern Sialkot town of Pakistan).
The history of Pushyamitra Sunga cannot be completed without the story of Vibhasa, a book written in 2nd century A.D. On turning over the pages of Vibhasa, you come across that Pushyamitra Sunga once went to Bodhgaya to destroy the Bodhi Tree under which Lord Buddha had attained his Bodhi or Enlightenment.
When the evil king tried to destroy the Bodhi Tree, the god of the tree appeared in the form of a beautiful woman and killed him. It may be the imagination of the ancient authors of Vibhasa but the story circulated in South East Asia in those days and it was translated into Chinese in 317 A.D. by a monk named Shariputrapariprichha.
And lo what happened after the death of Pushyamitra Sunga?
His son Agnimitra Sunga on becoming the Emperor of Magadh, repaired the Great Stupa, extended it and asked sculptors to create new scenes from the Jataka at its various gates. It rose again in the 85BC to 75BC.
Between 12th century A.D. and 14th century A.D. the Great Stupa at Sanchi was vandalized by the Muslims as they were intolerant to temples, stupas, idols, sculptures, frescos and murals depicting any religious thoughts.
Modern Day Restoration
of the Great Stupa
The credit to restore the Great Stupa of Sanchi goes to the British East India Company’s Gen. Taylor, Capt. Johnson, Sir Alexander Cunningham, Captain F.C. Maisey, James Princep and Sir John Marshall.
They did it before the independence of India. After independence, it was K.K. Muhammad, former Regional Director of the Archaeological Survey of India, who brought the ruinous Stupa to its present wonderfully beautiful stage.
It was Muhammad who gave this UNESCO World Heritage Site its present unique shape. He used all those “original” ingredients in mortar and binding agents that were used in the days of Emperor Asoka.
Really, history stands frozen at Sanchi.