Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh
The Great Stupa of Sanchi is the oldest intact religious shrine in India, and the last of the original stupas constructed by the Emperor Ashoka to remain standing. It is thus both of great religious importance to Buddhists as well as great architectural and archaeological importance to scholars. Because of numerous additions to the site over the centuries, the Great Stupa preserves a record of sorts of the continuity of the Buddhist community here over many generations. The Great Stupa of Sanchi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After his victory at the Battle of Kalinga and his subsequent conversion to Buddhism, the Emperor Ashoka devoted much of the rest of his life to peaceful pursuits and caring for the less fortunate. Among his projects was the construction of religious temples and shrines throughout his empire as a way of spreading Buddhist ideas and practices. One of these was constructed in what is now the town of Sanchi, almost in the dead center of the empire.
According to tradition, Sanchi was the birthplace of Ashoka’s wife, Devi, and the site of their wedding. Also according to tradition, she personally supervised the shrine’s construction. It is possible that the true original stupa constructed by Ashoka might have been destroyed early on and replaced by one of his early successors, though this is uncertain.
For over a thousand years the stupa was the religious center of the Buddhist community. Throughout this era, it was the practice of the local community to adorn and expand the shrine. Over time, many additional buildings and temples were added, and eventually the entire place had become a large enclosed compound.
As with the rest of India, Buddhism faded into obscurity here in the Middle Ages, and the stupa was eventually abandoned. It remained so for centuries until it was rediscovered by British explorers in the 19th century. The site was unfortunately pillaged at that time, but many of its artifacts were later returned. Because it has remained so amazingly intact after more than two thousand years, Sanchi has become one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage destinations in India.
The Great Stupa of Sanchi is actually a major archaeological site with many intact ancient buildings of which the Great Stupa is merely the chief attraction. What’s left of the medieval shrine includes more than a half-dozen stupas and temples and a mix of intact buildings and ruins that amount to more than fifty structures. Among these is one of Ashoka’s pillars, the carved stones that he left around India proclaiming his edicts and wisdom.
The stupa itself is a large circular temple crowned with a brickwork dome. The quality of the construction is amazing considering its antiquity. Within the stupa are kept some of the remaining relics of the Buddha himself. Of particular interest is the record of donations. Carved all over the site are the names of people who made contributions to the temple. Some of these date back two thousand years.
The Great Stupa and its surrounding buildings are located in a large open area just south of the modern-day town of Sanchi, approximately 320 miles south of New Delhi. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.mptourism.com/sanchi.aspx (official tourism website of Madhya Pradesh).
There are no other Buddhist sites as important or as well preserved in the central part of India.