From New World Encyclopedia
Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Great Stupa at Sanchi
State Party Flag of India India
Type Cultural
Criteria (i)(ii)(iii)(iv)(vi)
Reference 524
Region** Asia-Pacific
Inscription history
Inscription 1989  (13th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

Sanchi refers to a small village in India located 46 km north-east of Bhopal, and ten km from Besnagar and Vidisha in the central part of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Sanchi has an average elevation of 434 metres (1423 feet). The town exists as a nagar panchayat (town committee or council) in Raisen district in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

The village hosts several Buddhist monuments dating from the third century B.C.E. to the twelfth century C.E. UNESCO designated the Buddhist monuments, chief among them the Great Stupa containing relics of Buddha, a World Heritage Site. The monuments demonstrate the high regard rulers in the Madhya Pradesh region of India held Buddha and Buddhism. Over the course of the next two centuries, Buddhism competed with Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, and Islam, declining to the point that the temple compound in Sanchi had been lost from the twelfth century C.E. until rediscovered in the nineteenth century C.E.


The emperor Ashoka the Great originally commissioned the 'Great Stupa' at Sanchi in the third century B.C.E. Its nucleus had been a simple hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha, crowned by the chhatra, a parasol-like structure symbolizing high rank, intended to honor and shelter the relics.[1]

Sunga period

The stupa had been vandalized at one point, sometime in the second century B.C.E., an event some have related to the rise of the Sunga emperor Pusyamitra Sunga. Some have suggested that Pushyamitra may have destroyed the original stupa, and his son Agnimitra rebuilt it.[2]

During the later rule of the Sunga, craftsmen expanded the stupa with stone slabs to almost twice its original size. Architects flattened the dome near the top, crowning it by three superimposed parasols inside a square railing. With its many tiers, it represented the symbol of the dharma, the Wheel of the Law.

Madhya Pradesh • India
Map indicating the location of Sanchi
Location of Sanchi
Coordinates: 23°28′50″N 77°44′11″E / 23.480656, 77.7363
Time zone IST (UTC+5:30)
District(s) Vidisha
Population 6,785 (2001)

Coordinates: 23°28′50″N 77°44′11″E / 23.480656, 77.7363

The dome sat on a high circular drum meant for circumambulation, which could be accessed via a double staircase. A stone balustrade with four monumental gateways (toranas) facing the cardinal directions enclosed a second stone pathway at ground level. The Second and Third stupas, along with the ground balustrade and stone casing of the Great Stupa, had probably been commissioned during the rule of the Sungas. Inscriptions suggest that the highly decorated gateways came from the following Satavahana period.

Satavahana period

The gateways and the balustrade had been built after 70 B.C.E., apparently commissioned by the Satavahana. An inscription records the gift of one of the top architraves of the Southern Gateway by the artisans of the Satavahana king Satakarni:

"Gift of Ananda, the son of Vasithi, the foreman of the artisans of rajan Siri Satakarni."[3]

Although made of stone, they had been carved and constructed in the manner of wood, narrative sculptures covering the gateways. They showed scenes from the life of the Buddha integrated into everyday events familiar to the onlookers, making it easier for them to understand the Buddhist creed as related to their lives. At Sanchi, the local people had donated money for the embellishment of the stupa as a way to attain spiritual merit, a common practice at the time. The shrine had been embellished without direct royal patronage.

Devotees, both men and women, who donated money towards a sculpture would often choose their favorite scene from the life of the Buddha and then have their names inscribed on it. That accounts for the random repetition of particular episodes on the stupa (Dehejia 1992). The artisans never depicted Buddha as a human figure on those stone carvings. Instead they chose to represent him by displaying certain attributes, such as the horse on which he left his father’s home, his footprints, or a canopy under the bodhi tree at the point of his Enlightenment. Buddhist theology considered the human body too confining for the depiction of Buddha.

Some of the friezes of Sanchi also show devotees in Greek attire (Greek clothing, attitudes, and musical instruments) celebrating the stupa.[4]

Later periods

Pilgrimage to
Holy Sites
Dharma wheel.svg
The Four Main Sites
Lumbini · Bodh Gaya
Sarnath · Kushinagar
Four Additional Sites
Sravasti · Rajgir
Sankissa · Vaishali
Other Sites
Patna · Gaya
 Kausambi · Mathura
Kapilavastu · Devadaha
Kesariya · Pava
Nalanda · Varanasi

Additional stupas, as well as religious Buddhist and early Hindu structures, had been added over the centuries until the twelfth century C.E. Temple Seventeen represents one of the earliest Buddhist temples, dating to the early Gupta period. It consists of a flat roofed square sanctum with a portico and four pillars. The interior and three sides of the exterior have a plain, undecorated appearance whereas the front and the pillars had been elegantly carved, giving the temple an almost ‘classical’ appearance (Mitra 1971).

With the decline of Buddhism, the monuments of Sanchi fell into disuse, declining into a state of neglect.

Western rediscovery

General Taylor, a British officer, made the first recorded rediscovery of Sanchi in 1818. Amateur archaeologists and treasure hunters had ravaged the site until 1881, when proper restoration work began. Between 1912 and 1919, the government restored the structures to their present condition under the supervision of Sir John Marshall.[5] Today, approximately fifty monuments remain on the hill of Sanchi, including three stupas and several temples. UNESCO designated the monuments a World Heritage Site in 1989.


See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
  • Decline of Buddhism in India
  • Buddhism in India
  • Buddhist architecture


  1. Vidya Dehejia, Indian Art (Phaidon: London, 1997, ISBN 0-7148-3496-3).
  2. "Who was responsible for the wanton destruction of the original brick stupa of Asoka and when precisely the great work of reconstruction was carried out is not known, but it seems probable that the author of the former was Pushyamitra, the first of the Sunga kings (184-148 B.C.E.), who was notorious for his hostility to Buddhism, and that the restoration was affected by Agnimitra or his immediate successor." In John Marshall, A Guide to Sanchi (Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1918), 38.
  3. Original text "L1: Rano Siri Satakarnisa L2: avesanisa vasithiputasa L3: Anamdasa danam," John Marshall, "A guide to Sanchi," p. 52.
  4. John Marshall and Susan Huntington, "A guide to Sanchi", "The art of ancient India," 100, also described those "Greek-looking foreigners."
  5. John Marshall Retrieved January 28, 2008. John Marshall, "An Historical and Artistic Description of Sanchi," from A Guide to Sanchi, (Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1918), 7-29.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dehejia, Vidya. 1992. Collective and Popular Bases of Early Buddhist Patronage: Sacred Monuments, 100 B.C.E. – A.D. 250. In B. Stoler Miller (ed.), The Powers of Art. Oxford University Press: Oxford. ISBN 0-19-562842-X
  • Dehejia, Vidya. 1997. Indian Art. Phaidon: London. ISBN 0-7148-3496-3
  • Mitra, Debala. 1971. Buddhist Monuments. Sahitya Samsad: Calcutta. ISBN 0896844900

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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