Why Sanchi Stupa is one of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites?

Would you miss seeing a UNESCO world heritage site even when it is nearby? I wouldn’t, even for the entire world! I was in Bhopal when I realised that the renowned world heritage- Sanchi Stupa- is only fifty kilometres away. I knew immediately that I had to visit it and realise my long-borne wish.

I reached the Stupa during hot noon. The monument surprised me in ways more than one. For starters, it is still intact. I mean, it is not in ruins, the dome is upright, the gateways are sturdy, the figurines have not worn out, the pathway is wide and clean, the lawn is lush green and an architecture that makes your eyes go wide.

A monument from the 3rd century standing as dignified as ever is a wonder. It is so well-maintained that it made me question—”How did this monument get all this attention?” 

Read on and find the answers yourself!


Map of Sanchi Stupa

Why the Great Stupas? History of Sanchi Stupa

What are stupas?

The stupas are usually hemispherical structures that house the relics of a prominent figure. Wherever Buddhism is followed, spotting a stupa around there is inevitable. Belongings of the Buddha Himself, or his followers or prominent Gurus or some scriptures which need to be preserved are kept in these Stupas. It is believed to represent the Buddha himself. 

The Stupa itself is believed to look like the Buddha in his yogic posture. Sanchi stupa is no different from this concept. It has the relics of Buddha himself, and it was commissioned by the great emperor Ashoka. Ashoka belongs to the Mauryan empire, dating to sometime in the 3rd century. This makes it probably the oldest standing Stupa. 

Sanchi Stupa
The main stupa of Sanchi

It is believed that originally the Stupa was made out of brick. In the later period, the current stone stupa was built on top of the existing brick one. The brick one is said to be only half in size of the new one. 

One needs to be thankful for the construction of the earlier stone stupa. Otherwise, it would have got ruined due to the weather long back. There are multiple stupas within the complex as well as around Sanchi that are made of brick but have not withstood the test of time. History says that the outer stone wall was constructed in the Shunga period. However, the Shungas were Hindus and staunch Brahmins, so I wonder why they built these Buddhist Stupas.

If you do know the answer to it, please do drop a comment.

Sanchi Stupa Madhya Pradesh
Another stupa within the complex

A walk through Sanchi Stupa

Let us now step into history.

As I walked through the campus, I saw that the monument’s history was written impeccably at the entrance. This is a common feature found at many ASI sites and UNESCO sites. I love this.

What surprised me next was a board with the history of Sanchi written in Braille. One can run fingers on the board to read it if they know Braille. How thoughtful! Yet another feature at the site was the working audio guide. No, not the audio guide with the headphones at the ticket counter at museums, but the ones you can dial through using your mobile phone! Different numbers are marked at places; you just have to choose the option to hear all the details on your phone. 

This way, one need not hire guides or remain clueless. I have noticed this kind of audio guide in other monuments, but the exception here was that it was working!

sanchi stupa
Description of Sanchi stupa that can be found in Braille format

As I stood at the Stupa entrance, at the north gateway possibly, I was awe-struck by the figurines and stories inscribed on these gateways. They looked recently carved as though some divine power was indeed protecting them against any damage. 

There are four such magnificent gateways around the Stupa, named simply as the south, north, east and west. These gateways are also called Toranas. In front of each such Torana, there is an ornate carving depicting the related stories. These depictions could range from Jataka tales, some episodes from Buddha’s life to some historical significance or even a moral lesson. You can easily spend more than half an hour trying to figure out each gateway. These gateways have a front and a back and have different inscriptions on both sides. The fascinating thing is that nowhere here is Buddha directly represented! He has been represented as a fruit or a bird or even some symbol. It is a mystery we have to decode by ourselves!

Here are some of the carvings found at the pillars of the gateway. I have tried to explain them as much as I could.

north gateway Sanchi Stupa
Sanchi Stupa with North Gateway
sanchi gateway
Depiction of stories on the gateway explained

There are two interpretations of the carvings mentioned above. 

One, Buddha is represented by the Stupa shown on the top, and people are coming in to offer their prayers and get blessed by him. Two, people are bringing in offerings and donations to build the Stupa. The people depicted in the lower row are more exquisitely dressed compared to others. One conclusion is that these might depict foreigners coming in to give donations as well.

This story depicts King Bimbisara leaving his kingdom, Rajagriha, to pay a visit to Gautam Buddha. Buddha is represented as the throne on the top left corner.

Bimbisara visiting Buddha
Bimbisara visiting Buddha – story on the pillar

The story goes thus—

Once, Buddha begged for alms throughout the kingdom of Rajagriha. The commoners noticed his radiant aura, unlike a poor beggar. The King was informed that probably a God is walking through his kingdom! The King notices him as well and sends for him to be invited to the palace. The King wanted some wisdom from him. However, Buddha had renounced his kingdom and was living a life in abstinence to obtain salvation. So, he did not go to the King in his palace.

buddha walking on river
Buddha walking on the river depiction

There are many famous stories of Buddha depicted, such as the miracle of Him walking on water. Here too, he is not shown in the relief. His throne is empty on the right-bottom corner. He is represented as the flooding river. His disciples are waiting on a boat on the river. Then he walks on the river, and we can see his disciples paying homage to him after his miraculous act.

Pillar of gateway with intricate carvings

The Toranas also tell us which period it is from, who constructed it and so on. One of them shows our national emblem of the four lions facing back to back, imagery taken from the Ashokan period. 

It is also said that there was a huge pillar erected along with this emblem next to the main Stupa. The emblem is now preserved in the museum. One such pillar has elephants and demons carved onto it.

Ornate Toran

There is an ornate walkway that takes you around the main Stupa. We can see inscriptions on the floor dating back to the Mauryan period. In South-East Asia, you can climb up certain stupas and peep into them! For instance, the ones I found in Ayutthaya, Thailand. There you had these steps using which you can walk up to the top, peep into the Stupa and offer your prayers. 

However, Sanchi Stupa does not have that facility. You can walk around it to offer prayers, but you cannot see the inside of the Stupa.

Also Read – Temples of Ayutthaya kingdom – Click Here

Sanchi Stupa stairs
pathway with unique railing from Shunga Period

There are many more structures inside the complex. It is believed that the whole Stupa was once a part of a temple that surrounded it. I am not sure how authentic the claim is, but you can see individual standing temples like below around the area.

Sanchi Stupa was constructed as a centre for studying and understanding Buddhism. Hence you can see structures like prayer halls and hostels around the premises, but they are in a dilapidated state.

sanchi temple
Temples in the complex

Some facts about Sanchi Stupa

  • Emperor Ashoka commissioned the work for the Sanchi Stupa and laid the foundation. However, he never visited the Stupa after that. It was his wife, Queen Devi and his daughters who completed the construction work. 
  • Initially, it was just the main dome and Ashoka pillar erected next to the dome, and overtime, other monuments and gateways were constructed around it. 
  • Though it is believed that most of the construction was done during the Shunga period, it is also said that Shungas were against Buddhism. The rest of the structures were constructed using donations from foreigners and other Buddhists around the area.
  • Since Sanchi is on an elevated hill, it escaped the vandalisation by the Muslims rulers.
  • Up until 1818, Sanchi Stupa was neglected, and General Taylor discovered it. The jungle had taken up the complex, but he found that it was well preserved still. In 1912 Sir John Marshal ordered the restoration work of Sanchi. He was the Director-General of Archeology back then.
  • In 1989 it was declared as a World Heritage Site. 

Is it that you have been to Sanchi Stupa but somehow missed out reading these carvings? Do not worry; Wikipedia has all the information you need to know. Check it out here – Sanchi Stupa Wiki

architraves on stupa pillars
Architraves with stories on them

How to Reach Sanchi 

Sanchi is about 50km from Bhopal. There are some resorts scattered here and there around the monuments found close to Bhopal. But I feel staying at Bhopal and covering the rest of the places using a vehicle will be much easier. I could not even find public transport plying to Sanchi and other places. So stay at Bhopal and hire a cab. Bhopal has Uber and Ola cab facilities, and you can hire those vehicles for a day. Bhopal has an airport and is well connected to other cities through road, bus and train too.

Places nearby Bhopal

Sanchi Stupa is not all that there is to see! Bhopal is resplendent with a lot of things to do and places to visit. Spare a day, hop on a cab, and explore the places around—

Bhojeshwar Shiva Mandir, Bhojpur – 

This temple is only about 30 minutes away from Bhopal ( yes, we Indians measure distance in time’s unit). 

Bhojeshwar is an unfinished temple and has a Shiva Linga measuring 18 feet in height. It has a serene setting and is super beautiful. 

Do check my Youtube video –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfGzJoXqMvQ

Bhimbetka Rock Shelters and Cave Paintings – 

This lies close to Bhojpur. Bhimbetka caves contain myriads of rock paintings left behind by cavemen who inhabited this place about thousands of years ago.

More about Bhimhetka cave paintings here – Click Here 

Tropic of Cancer – 

Tropic of Cancer falls at a spot en route Sanchi. You blink, and you miss it! Be vigilant, and you will be thrilled to see something we had so dearly learnt in our Geography lessons.

Tropic of Cancer
Tropic of Cancer running through MP

Udayagiri Caves – 

Udaygiri caves lie ahead of Sanchi. 

After seeing the Sanchi Stupa so well maintained at Udaigiri caves, you would wonder what sin did this place commit! What went wrong? That is how pathetic the condition of this place is. It is like a village with a few houses. Suddenly you find a fenced gate that opens up to some stunning figurines. 

Though it is not in a very charming position, I strongly recommend you to go check out the magnificent sculptures. 

Here are some pictures from the cave – Udaygiri Caves

Where to Stay

Bhopal has some interesting heritage properties to stay at. Other options include staying around the Upper Lake. The lake scenery is picturesque plus the place is busy with a lot of activities. 

Bhopal is a clean and neat city with wide roads and safe places to walk around freely. There is no harm in choosing where you want to put up.

You can also choose your choice of stay here – Click here to book hotels at Bhopal

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  1. The sculptures on the Toranas are simply breathtaking! Wish to visit it some day. Thanks for the blog post though. This just made my desire to visit this timeless beauty a lot stronger. Keep writing. <3

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