Sanchi is a small and charming central Indian town. It is so small, that wherever you decide to stay, the Buddhist stupas are walking distance. They are on a low hill and can be seen from the National Highway running through Sanchi, from the trains that pass through Sanchi, even from the pool in our hotel!
The Great Stupa at Sanchi
The most enduring image of Sanchi has to be of the Great Stupa and its toranas (gateways). Begun by emperor Ashoka in the 2nd century BC, it was added to by succeeding dynasties. Till the 13th century, Sanchi was a spiritual centre where Buddhists would come from far and wide. Monasteries, temples and stupas were built here, patronised by the prosperous merchants from nearby Vidisha. Now a lot of them are in ruins, but they are well preserved. The site is a World Heritage Site and is protected by the ASI.
Temple 18 - that's what its called. Quite an uninspiring name for those towering pillars which look uncannily Greek.
Stupas have a terrace where devotees circumabulate. This is the medhi or terrace of stupa 3 (again, that's what its called)
So what were we doing in Sanchi? We were there for a work trip for a book that we were doing with Madhya Pradesh Tourism – Buddhist Circuit in Central India. Apart from Sanchi, we also had to visit some Buddhist sites around it, which are not part of the regular tourist circuit – Sonari, Satdhara, Andher and Murelkhurd. Getting to these sites is an adventure in itself. Except Satdhara, the others are not connected by motorable road and are well-guarded by jungle, hills are streams.
The people of Sanchi are courteous and always willing to help. Even though Parvati and I walked to and from the stupas at odd hours, we never felt uneasy. If you’re the lazy type there are always autos at the base of the hill willing to ferry visitors up and down for a small sum. But for those who have the time and inclination, there are the ancient stone steps leading up the hill. The walk is a good way to meet people: other travellers and locals.
Sanchi Town at dusk from the Stone Steps
Pilgrim-travellers, Monk-guide. This is a group from Sri Lanka with their guide. Lots of pilgrims from Sri Lanka visit Sanchi annually, and most stay at the Mahabodhi Society-run Guest House
Sonari was where we went next. The car would only go as far as Sonari village from where the stupas were a three kilometre walk – over two hills and across one stream. Our guide, Surender Singh Baduria navigated through the shrubbery.
In Sonari Village. A woman and her house.
Phew. The uphill task
Our guide took this picture of the stream on the way. Notice the two river nymphs perched on the rocks.
There were times when the landscape looked completely untouched by any human presence, not even small huts in the distance. Would it have looked just the same 2000 years back when the Buddha’s followers trod over the same hills to reach the stupas? Or would there have been cart tracks, and footprints and frequent human settlements?
There are two main stupas at sonari and a monastery. The site is on a clearing, which is surrounded by unending forests on every side. The caretaker of the site, Bhagwan Singh, came to greet us with his dog. The only resident on the site, he has lived here for a year now and says he will never leave.
Mr Surender Singh, Bhagwan Singh and Parvati who's taking notes
Of the four, only Sonari and Satdhara were accessible, so Satdhara was our next destination. Parvati and I were tossed about in the car during the drive (which can only be done in a four-wheel drive). There are some 8 stupas here set in some really breathtaking natural beauty. The stupas overlook a river which flows in the valley below.
Mr Surender Singh showed us some ancient paintings on a rock-face on the mountainside which takes a somewhat steep climb downwards. Parvati wouldn’t come, so I risked my life alone (and barefoot). Here is the proof:
See? The rockface is twice as tall as Surenderji. The photographs of the rock paintings are in the book
The Grand Stupa of Satdhara
Our book is almost out on the stands. The Buddhist Circuit in Central India will appeal not only to Buddhist pilgrims, but to anyone interested in Buddhism, Madhra Pradesh, our built heritage, Sanchi, the excursions from Sanchi (like Gyaraspur and Udaigiri)….
Here’s the cover, so that you know what to look for when you reach the bookstore: