The Great Stupa – Sanchi, India

Dominating the Hill of Sanchi, India’s best-preserved and most extensive Buddhist site, is the Great Stupa.

Its hemispherical shape is believed to symbolize the upturned alms bowl of a Buddhist monk, or an umbrella of protection for followers of the Buddhist dharma (doctrine). The stupa’s main glory lies in its four stone toranas (gateways), added in the 1st century BC. Their superb sculptures replicate the techniques of wood and ivory carving, and cover a rich variety of Buddhist themes.


The Buddha was born in 566 BC as Siddhartha Gautama, prince of Kapilavastu. Renouncing his princely life, he left his palace at the age of 30 to search for answers to the meaning of human existence and suffering. He spent six years living with hermits, undertaking severe penances and fasts, but found these gave him no answers. Enlightenment finally came at Bodh Gaya, where, after meditating for 49 days under the Bodhi Tree, he discovered that the cause of suffering is desire; and that desire can be conquered by following the Eightfold Path of Righteousness: Right Thought, Understanding, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Concentration and Contemplation. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings is non-violence and peace.


India’s earliest Buddhist monuments were stupas, large reliquaries in which the ashes of the Buddha and other great teachers were interred. Solid throughout, the stupa itself is undecorated and designed to stimulate prayer and represent the path to divine understanding. As Indian traditions spread throughout South­east Asia, the Buddhist stupa reached new heights of complex Buddhist symbolism. Borobodur Temple in Java, with its design and sculpture of the highest order, is probably the greatest monument of this architectural style.


One of India’s greatest rulers, Ashoka (r. 269— 232 BC) was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the country’s first empire. The carnage and misery brought about by Ashoka’s bloody conquest of Kalinga (now Orissa) in 260 BC filled him with remorse.

He gave up digvijaya (military conquest)for dharmavijaya (spiritual conquest), and became a great patron of Buddhism, building many stupas, including the original brick stupa at Sanchi. Ashoka was a humane ruler whose edicts on rocks and pillars all over his vast empire record his ethical code of righteousness and nonviolence (ahimsa). He asked his officials to be impartial, just, and compassionate, and his subjects to respect others’ religions, give to charity, and avoid the killing of animals.



Statues of the Buddha meditating, added in the 5th century AD, face each of the gateways.

Four Gateways

These show scenes from the Buddha’s life, and episodes from the Jataka Tales. The Buddha is not depicted in human form, but only through symbols, such as a Bodhi Tree, footprints, or a wheel.

Circumambulatory Paths


The paths have balustrades carved with medallions of flowers, birds, and animals, and the names of the donors who funded them.

Vedika (Railings)

These are an impressive recreation in stone of a typical wooden railing design. They were the inspiration for the stone railings around Sansad Bhavan, or the Parliament House, in New Delhi.

The Great Stupa and its West Gateway

Enclosing a smaller brick stupa built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, the Great Swpa is capped by a three-tiered stone umbrella symbolizing the layers of heaven .

West Gateway


This animated scene from the Jataka Tales shows monkeys scrambling across a bridge to escape from soldiers.

Chattra (Parasol)

The Great Stupa is crowned by a squared-off platform (harmika), which encloses a triple “parasol” (chattra) atop a mast (yastl).

North Gateway


Here, Sujta, the village chief’s daughter, offers the Buddha (represented by the Bodhi Tree) kheer (rice pudding) , as the demon Mara sends the temptress to seduce him.

South Gateway


The Wheel of Law, seen here being worshiped by devotees, symbolizes the Buddha.

Detail of Architrave

The intricate carving on the architraves is the work of wood and ivory craftsmen hired to carve the stone.

East Gateway


A scene here shows a royal retinue at the palace of Kapilavastu, the Buddha’s home before he renounced his princely life.



Supporting the lowest architrave of the East Gateway is a sensuous, voluptuous tree nymph, gracefully positioned under a mango tree.


Th e Buddha’s past lives are retold in this large collection of fables, in which an animal or bird often takes the part of the Buddha. The fables had great religious, moral, social, and cultural significance.


2nd century BC: The Great Stupa is built at Sari chi by Emperor Ashoka.
1300s: With the decline of Buddhism in India, the Great Stupa falls into disrepair.
1818: The Great Stupa, is “rediscovered” by General Taylor of the Bengal Cavalry.
1912-19: The Director General of Archeology in India excavates and then restores the site.
1989: The Great Stupa is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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