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DateLine Sunday, 25 May 2008

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Sanchi Vihara: A popular religious site

This year, we celebrated the Thrice-Blessed Day,Vesak at the Sanchi Vihara in India. While attending all the religious activities here, we thought of visiting some of the temples as well.

Sanchi is one of the most popular Buddhist religious sites in the world, but is also well known for its archaeological significance. It is 50 kms from Bhopal and is famous for its numerous stupas.

The place is related to Buddhism, but not directly to the life of the Buddha. King Asoka built the first stupa here and also put up many pillars at the site. The crown of the famous Asoka pillars, with four lions standing back to back, had later been adopted as the national emblem of India.

Sanchi remained neglected for so many years and was rediscovered in 1818; the marvellous pieces of structure were not in good shape at the time of discovery.

Gradually, the historical and religious significance of the place was recognised. The restoration work of the stupas started in 1881 and finally, between 1912 and 1919, these were carefully repaired and restored.

It is accepted that the structures at Sanchi were some of the most organised constructions of that era. King Asoka originally constructed the Sanchi Stupa in the Third Century BC. It is 16 metres high and 37 metres in diameter, with a railing surrounding it.

The best preserved is the northern gateway, upholding a broken ‘wheel of law’, whereas the oldest is the southern gateway. Pillar No. 10 was erected by Emperor Asoka himself and is close to the southern entrance to the great stupa.

Halfway down the hill, to the west, sits a second stupa, with ‘medallions’ decorating the surrounding walls with lovely motifs. It contained relics of important Buddhist teachers, and it is because the teachers were lower in stature to the Buddha and His direct disciples that this stupa is positioned lower than the great stupa.

The third stupa stands north east of the main stupa and although smaller, resembles the great one. It once contained the relics of two of the Buddha’s most important disciples.

There are two other big stupas, (one of them is in a very bad condition, and many small ones) and some less than a metre high. To the south of the great stupa is a chaitya and a smaller temple, both reminiscent (reminding) of Greek architecture. There are traces of wooden viharas or monasteries on the site.

The great stupa No. 1 is the oldest stone structure in India, 36.5 metres in diameter and 16.4 metres high, and with a massive hemispherical (half-circular) dome. The stupa stands in eternal majesty, the paved path for processions around it worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims.

Stupa No. 2 stands at the very edge of the hill and its most striking feature is the stone balustrade that rings it.

The four gateways constructed in Sanchi are the best form of Buddhist expression one can find anywhere in the world. Gateways or thoranas as they are called are covered with carvings which depict scenes from the life of the Buddha and Jatakas, the stories relating to the Buddha and His earlier births.

At this stage, the Buddha was not represented directly, but symbols were used to portray Him; the lotus represented His birth, the tree His Enlightenment, the wheel, derived from the title of His first sermon and the footprints symbolising His presence.

The pillars are scattered in the area; some of these are broken while some are in good shape. The Asoka pillar is on the southern entrance.

Today, only its shaft stands here while the crown is kept in a museum. The crown consists of the famous four lions, standing back to back.

The Asoka pillar is an excellent example of the Greco-Buddhist style and is known for its aesthetic proportions and exquisite structural balance.

The Buddhist Vihara

The earlier monasteries were made from wood, which was elegantly carved and attractively decorated. The present monasteries are not even a shadow of what they were in the past.

A few kilometres from Sanchi are the relics of the Satdhara Stupa. The relics are kept in a glass casket, which is placed on the inner sanctum of the modern monastery. Sanchi had a huge bowl carved out of a single rock. Grain used to be stored in this bowl to be distributed among monks in Sanchi.

The Gupta Temple

This temple is now in ruins. However, whatever is left tells a tale of greatness and a temple which had no match during its times. The temple was built in the Fifth Century and is an excellent example of ancient temple architecture in India.

 

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