The story behind Sanchi is one that both interests and inspires. Rising from the plains, 46 km northeast of Bhopal, Sanchi falls right at the heart of Madhya Pradesh. It is a rounded hill topped with some of India’s oldest Buddhist structures like the Great Stupa and other stupas, temples, pillars, gateways and monasteries.
These structures were built by the Mauryan King Ashoka in the 3rd-century BC after the Kalinga war. The gore and blood and absolute loss of lives in the war had saddened him to the core, and he repented having walked the path. As penance, he renounced everything, embraced Buddhism, and built what is today the centrepiece of Sanchi’s World Heritage Site – Great Stupa. It is a remarkably preserved domed edifice that houses religious relics. Encircling the stupa is also a wall with four beautiful carved toranas (gateways) that typically depict scenes from the Buddha’s life and are a fine example of Buddhist architecture in India.
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With time, Sanchi became the Buddhist monastic centre and over the following centuries further stupas and other monuments were added. After about the 13th-century it was abandoned and forgotten, until it was rediscovered and restored again in the 19th-century by a British army officer.
Other things to see at Sanchi also include this fine museum called the Archaeological Museum that has a small collection of sculptures from the site. One of the centrepieces is the lions-on-lotus sculpture while the other highlights include a yakshi (mythical fairy-like being) hanging from a mango tree, and a serene Buddha figures in red sandstone. There are also some interesting photos showing the site pre-restoration.
Yet another important site is Chetiyagiri Vihara (meaning a resting place), just outside the monuments compound, which was built to house the relics of Buddha’s disciples. The relics are brought out for public viewing for the Chetiyagiri Vihara festival on the last Sunday of November every year, an event that attracts tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and pilgrims from all across the globe.
Although you can visit Sanchi as a day trip from Bhopal, it’s best to spend a relaxed night at this crossroads village. There are several other historic sites that are accessible from Sanchi, like the Heliodorus Pillar and the Udaigiri Caves being especially worth the trip.