Today we know Buddhism as one of the world’s major religions, followed by about 500 million people around the world. But all things have to start somewhere… and by someone.
Now, you may think that Buddhism was started by Buddha – and that’s obviously not wrong. It was his life in the 6th century BC that was the genesis of the religion. As Buddha travelled through modern-day India and Nepal, teaching his messages of peace and equality, he inspired people to follow his teachings.
I’ve written previously about Buddha and his birthplace of Lumbini and I would recommend having a read of that story, if you’re interested.
But although Buddha may have begun the spiritual side of Buddhism, there’a actually another man we should probably credit for turning it into a mainstream religion.
His name was Ashoka and it’s here at the Buddhist complex of Sanchi in India that we find the most impressive monument from his life – the Great Stupa of Sanchi.
But before I tell you a bit more about the stupa, it’s worth quickly mentioning the greater legacy that he left us: Buddhism as a world religion.
Emperor Ashoka and Buddhism
Ashoka was an Indian Emperor in the 3rd century BC. Like many rulers in that part of the world back then, he waged battles to extend his territory and increase in power. But one day, he had a crisis of conscience.
Apparently, after one particular battle, he looked out at the huge death toll his war was causing and he became traumatised by it. He decided something needed to change and wondered if there was an alternative to violence.
This brought him to Buddhism, a faith that had been practiced in the 400 years since the death of Buddha, but only be a relatively small number of followers in the Ganges valley.
Ashoka saw a way forward through Buddhism. He became a true believer, fascinated by the teachings of Buddha. He had a new plan to conquer minds and heart with morality rather than weapons.
And so Ashoka set out to teach this new peaceful religion to everyone in his empire – and beyond. He thought that if he could convince the rest of the world that Buddhism was the path to enlightenment, he could end conflict and suffering.
Emperor Ashoka effectively made Buddhism the official religion of India.
He travelled through his lands, building monuments in the name of Buddha…
He erected pillars with inscriptions on them – instructions for how people were to follow this new faith…
And he even uncovered the relics of Buddha himself and spread them to tens of thousands of smaller stupas.
Many of these monuments, stupas, and pillars are now lost to us more than 2000 years later. However, enough remain that we can get a sense of this physical spread of Buddhism throughout the subcontinent, and how it very quickly transformed from a fringe cult into a mainstream religion.
And that brings us back to the most impressive of these remaining monuments – the Great Stupa at Sanchi.
The history of Sanchi
Emperor Ashoka built the Great Stupa at Sanchi in the 3rd century BC on a hill about 10 kilometres from the city of Vidisha.
At the time, Vidisha was a wealthy trading city that embraced Buddhism, which is probably one of the reasons Ashoka chose this site. But historians think it also had to do with a woman.
Apparently Ashoka fell in love with a women from Vidisha called Devi. Sometimes she is referred to as his wife.
Regardless of whether they were married or not, Devi wouldn’t follow him back to the capital to live with him there. So it’s thought Ashoka built the stupa here as a tribute to her.
In the following years – and following centuries – Sanchi became an important Buddhist centre. Smaller stupas were built around the main one, and then came temples and monasteries.
There was Buddhist activity here until at least the 12th century AD and, if you explore further afield, you’ll find other small satellite communities that were established in the region by other Buddhists.
Even though today you can see a lot of the later stupas and the archaeological remains of the temples and monasteries, there is still no doubt that the Great Stupa is the most important part of the Sanchi site.
The Great Stupa at Sanchi
As I arrive at Sanchi and walk up from the entrance, I can see the Great Stupa in front of me. Immediately I’m struck by its size and its elegant peaceful shape. But it’s only when I get closer that I see its real treasure in the detail.
The Great Stupa that Emperor Ashoka built was about half the size of the current one and was made of large bricks and mud mortar.
It was about 50 years after Ashoka’s death that it was enlarged using local sandstone.
It wasn’t until the 1st century BC that the elaborately-carved gateways were added – and they are one of the things that makes the Great Stupa of Sanchi so special today.
Standing beneath the first of these gateways and looking up, I can see a whole range of carvings in the stone. Some are just patterns, some are symbols, and some seem to be intricate representations of scenes.
In fact, as I listen to a guide talk about the artworks carved into the stone, I realise that there is a huge amount of meaning in each small part of the gateways. And considering there are four of them and the carvings are on both sides, you could spend a lot of time looking at them.
Each of them has a set of four lions, elephants, or pot-bellied dwarves supporting a grid with three architraves, and between the architraves are the figures of horsemen and elephants.
In these architraves are the important scenes. Across all four gateways, you can find examples of historical scenes like the Siege of Kushinagar and Ashoka visiting the Stupa of Ramagrama.
There are also scenes from the life of Buddha, such as him leaving home, his first sermon, and his enlightenment.
And then there are other important narratives from Buddhism, such as the story of Chhaddanta Jataka, a previous incarnation of Buddha.
You can use some stairs to go to the upper terrace of the Great Stupa and walk around, getting a closer view of the carvings on the inside of the gateways.
Although the overall size of the structure may appear to be the most impressive thing on first glance, it’s standing up here and looking at this art from 2000 years ago that is the most special thing to me.
It’s about an hour’s drive to get to Sanchi from Bhopal (a bit more with bad traffic) and there are some other things you can explore in the area, including the Udaigiri Caves and smaller Ancient Buddhist settlements like Satdhara or Sonari.
Most people who visit Sanchi use Bhopal as a base because there are interesting things to see in the city itself, and it’s a good launching pad to other sites in the region. That includes another World Heritage Site at the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters.
I have some suggestions for good accommodation in Bhopal here.
A good cheap option by the main lake is Lago Villa, or for something amongst the action, try FabHotel Siya Palace.
If you're looking for a comfortable business-style hotel, The Courtyard by Marriott is the best in Bhopal.
And I think the nicest hotel in Bhopal, which has a lovely bit of history, is the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel.
It is technically possible to get to Sanchi by bus from Bhopal but it is quite tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you want to go by public transport, train is a better option – although there aren’t many each day.
If you would like a private tour to take you out the Sanchi, you could try this optionor this option. Check the prices for the number of people in your group because it will get much cheaper per person the more you have with you.