It is from here that Arahat Mahinda set off to Lanka,
bearing the message of Dhamma:
Impressive northern gateway to Sanchi
Symbols of purity
Located some 46 km northeast of Bhopal, the capital of India's Madhya
Pradesh is a village named Sanchi. The word Sanchi means 'measure' in
Pali and Sanskrit, and in Hindi, it means 'mounds of stones.'
In Sanchi, some of the finest and oldest samples of Buddhist
architecture are found. Though not directly connected to the life of the
Buddha, Sanchi is linked to Buddhism's most famous convert, Emperor
Asoka - and to the advent of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
The Great Stupa at Sanchi is the oldest stone structure in India and
was originally commissioned by Emperor Asoka. Its nucleus was a simple
hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha. The
construction work of the stupa had been overseen by Asoka's Buddhist
wife, Vidisha Devi herself. Sanchi was both her birthplace and the venue
of her marriage to Asoka.
In addition to his marriage to a local woman, a possible reason for
Asoka's selection of location may be due to the hilltop being an ideal
place for pilgrimage.
Message of Dhamma
It is from Sanchi that Arahat Mahinda, the son of Emperor Asoka, set
off to Lanka, bearing the message of Dhamma, perhaps with the
understanding that the religious philosophy would strongly take root and
survive in Lanka.
Asoka's daughter Sanghamitta followed her brother and brought a
sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi to the island that embraced Buddhism. She
was accompanied by 36 artisans - a visit that enriched the culture and
arts of the island nation. These gifts - both spiritual and cultural -
are strong bonds that historically link Sri Lankan Buddhists with the
Sanchi, a few miles away from the historic city of Ujjain from where
Asoka ruled, comes to life once a year, in late November, when a special
event - Sanchi Mela - the biggest religious event in Sanchi - takes
place, drawing thousands of Buddhists from around the world. At that
time, Sanchi is firmly placed on the Buddhist map as it is also the time
for an annual holy relics exposition of Buddha's two Chief Disciples,
Arhants Sariputta and Moggallana.
Chethiyagiri, the vihara standing atop the Sanchi hill, in close
proximity to the fabled Sanchi stupas, the Asoka pillars, the
monasteries and the four impressive gateways or the thoranas, ,together
form a UNESCO-declared world heritage site.
In 3 BC, Asoka built the Sanchi stupas and the first stupa housed the
famous Asoka edict, also the oldest stone structure in India. More
buildings and stupas were added to the existing site ubsequrntly but
were destroyed by invaders.
Historical accounts indicate in 1815, Gen. Taylor rediscovered
Sanchi's ancient ruins though, subsequent amateurish archaeological
efforts coupled with continuous plundering, caused further destruction.
It is recorded that an Indian Samindar, (wealthy nobleman) split the
famous Asoka Pillar to create a cane juice-extracting machine and that
Alexander Cunningham undertook a massive restoration programme to
rebuild Sanchi. Cunnigham excavated the second and third great stupas -
monumental Buddhist artworks, also the site where he discovered the holy
relics of the Chief Disciples. In 1919, the stupas were restored to
their former glory by the British and the relics were carried away to
A subsequent request by the Nawab of Bhopal, for the restoration of
the relics to Bhopal State and the re-enshrinement at Sanchi, proved
successful. The Bhopal State and the Mahabodhi Society reached an
understanding to re-enshrine the relics at Sanchi and the Nawab donated
a plot of land for the construction of a suitable shrine. He also
donated Rs.25, 000 towards the construction of a stupa, now known as the
Chietiyagiri Vihar. The relics were ceremonially handed over to the Maha
The Mahabodhi Society negotiated with the British King and the
authorities of Victoria Albert Museum in London to secure the
custodianship of the sacred relics, to be re-enshrined in a suitable
place. Nearly a century later, the relics were returned to where they
were originally discovered, Sanchi.
On the last Sunday each November, a full day relics exposition is
held in Sanchi, drawing thousands to Chethiyagiri. "Sanchi and
Chethiyagiri are spiritually connected to Sri Lanka, particularly to
Mihintale, where Buddhism was received by Lanka. Without Sanchi, we
would not be Buddhists and it is a place that deserves our reverence,"
notes the Nayaka Thera, who calls for the celebration of the gift of
Buddhism that Asoka sought to bestow on his neighbouring island, to
propagate the concept of ahimsa. Poson Poya Day is a celebration of this
unique gift from Sanchi to Mihintale.