Coordinates: 23°28′46″N 77°44′23″E / 23.479410°N 77.739616°E / 23.479410; 77.739616


The Great Stupa at Sanchi
General information
Type Stupa and surrounding buildings
Architectural style Buddhist
Location Sanchi Town, Madhya Pradesh, India
Construction started 3rd century BCE
Height 12.2816.46 m (54.0 ft) (dome of the Great Stupa)
Diameter 32.3236.6 m (120 ft) (dome of the Great Stupa)
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Type Cultural
Criteria (i)(ii)(iii)(iv)(vi)
Reference 524
UNESCO region Asia-Pacific
Coordinates 23°28′46″N 77°44′23″E / 23.47941°N 77.739616°E / 23.47941; 77.739616Coordinates: 23°28′46″N 77°44′23″E / 23.47941°N 77.739616°E / 23.47941; 77.739616
Inscription history
Inscription 1989 (13th Session)
Location of Sanchi in India#India Madhya Pradesh.
Location of Sanchi in India#India Madhya Pradesh.

The Buddhist vihara at Sanchi, famous for its Great Stupa, is located at Sanchi Town in Raisen District of the state of Madhya Pradesh, India. It is 46 km north-east of Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi is the oldest stone structure in India[1] and was originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. Its nucleus was a simple hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha. It was crowned by the chatra, a parasol-like structure symbolising high rank, which was intended to honour and shelter the relics. The construction work of this stupa was overseen by Ashoka's wife, Devi herself, who was the daughter of a merchant of Vidisha. Sanchi was also her birthplace as well as the venue of her and Ashoka's wedding. In the 1st century BCE, four elaborately carved toranas (ornamental gateways) and a balustrade encircling the entire structure were added. The sanchi stupa built during Mauryan period was made of bricks

Maurya Period

Remains of a Pillar of Ashoka with four lions capital at Sanchi.

The 'Great Stupa' at Sanchi is the oldest structure and was originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BCE.[2] Its nucleus was a hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha.[2][3] It was crowned by the chatra, a parasol-like structure symbolising high rank. The old stupa was later covered when it was expanded under the Shungas.

A pillar of finely polished sandstone was also erected. The bottom part of the pillar still stands. The upper parts of the pillar are placed under a canopy nearby. The pillar has an Ashokan inscription (Schism Edict)[4] and an inscription in the ornamental Sankha Lipi from the Gupta period.[2]

Shunga period

Constructions of the Sunga period: reinforcement of the stupa and balustrade.

On the basis of Ashokavadana, it is presumed that the stupa may have been vandalized at one point sometime in the 2nd century BCE, an event some have related to the rise of the Shunga emperor Pushyamitra Shunga who overtook the Mauryan Empire as an army general. It has been suggested that Pushyamitra may have destroyed the original stupa, and his son Agnimitra rebuilt it.[5] The original brick stupa was covered with stone during the Shunga period.

During the later rule of the Shunga, the stupa was expanded with stone slabs to almost twice its original size. The dome was flattened near the top and crowned by three superimposed parasols within a square railing. With its many tiers it was a symbol of the dharma, the Wheel of the Law. The dome was set on a high circular drum meant for circumambulation, which could be accessed via a double staircase. A second stone pathway at ground level was enclosed by a stone balustrade with four monumental gateways (toranas) facing the cardinal directions.

The buildings which seem to have been commissioned during the rule of the Shungas are the Second and Third stupas (but not the highly decorated gateways, which are from the following Satavahana period, as known from inscriptions), and the ground balustrade and stone casing of the Great Stupa.

Satavahana period

Carved decoration of the Northern gateway to the Great Stupa of Sanchi. Torana Panels: Chhaddanta, Sujata's offering, Vessantara Jataka, East Columns: Shakra's visit, Royal procession, Bimbisara's visit, West Column: Foreigners, Monkeys, Kapilvastu.

From the 1st century BCE, the gateways and the balustrade were built and colored, the work being apparently commissioned by the Satavahana.[2] 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".[6]

DC Sircar observes that palaeographically the Hathigumpha record is slightly later than Naneghat record whereas the letters of Sanchi inscription of Satakarni resemble the script of Hathigumpha inscription. Kharavela in his inscription mentions one Satakarni, who is identified as Satakarni II, who is also identical to the one who inscribed in Sanchi. If this is true, then the dating of Sanchi gateway and balustrade belong to the much earlier period of 180-160 BC.

Satavahana decorations on a gateway at Sanchi. The Buddha is never directly represented, due to the early aniconism in Buddhism.

Although made of stone, they were carved and constructed in the manner of wood and the gateways were covered with narrative sculptures. They showed scenes from the life of the Buddha integrated with everyday events that would be familiar to the onlookers and so make it easier for them to understand the Buddhist creed as relevant to their lives. At Sanchi and most other stupas the local population donated money for the embellishment of the stupa to attain spiritual merit. There was no direct royal patronage. Devotees, both men and women, who donated money towards a sculpture would often choose their favourite scene from the life of the Buddha and then have their names inscribed on it. This accounts for the random repetition of particular episodes on the stupa (Dehejia 1992).

On these stone carvings the Buddha was never depicted as a human figure, due to aniconism in Buddhism. Instead the artists chose to represent him by 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. The human body was thought to be too confining for the Buddha.

Foreign devotees

Foreigners on the Northern Gateway of Stupa I.

Some of the friezes of Sanchi also show devotees in Greek attire. The men are depicted with short curly hair, often held together with a headband of the type commonly seen on Greek coins. The clothing too is Greek, complete with tunics, capes and sandals. The musical instruments are also quite characteristic, such as the double flute called aulos. Also visible are carnyx-like horns. They are all celebrating at the entrance of the stupa. These men would be foreigners from north-west India visiting the Stupa, possibly Mallas, Sakas or Indo-Greeks .[7]

Later periods

Statue of Lord Buddha seen at the main entrance of Great Sanchi Stupa

Further stupas and other religious Buddhist structures were added over the following centuries until the 12th century AD. Temple 17 is probably one of the earliest Buddhist temples as it dates 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 are plain and undecorated but the front and the pillars are elegantly carved, giving the temple an almost ‘classical’ appearance (Mitra 1971).

Temple 45 was the last Buddhist temple built during the mid - late 9th century.[8] Also at this time the monuments were enclosed within a wall. With the decline of Buddhism in India, the monuments of Sanchi went out of use and fell into a state of disrepair. In 1818, General Taylor of the Bengal Cavalry recorded a visit to Sanchi. At that time the monuments appear to have been left undisturbed for a long time and in generally good preservation.

Western rediscovery

A Gate to the Stupa of Sanchi 1932
Mapping of the Great Stupa with measurements.

A British officer in 1818, General Taylor, was the first known Western historian to document (in English) the existence of Sanchi (Sāñcī). Amateur archaeologists and treasure hunters ravaged the site until 1881, when proper restoration work was initiated. Between 1912 and 1919 the structures were restored to their present condition under the supervision of Sir John Marshall.[9]

Today, around fifty monuments remain on the hill of Sanchi, including three stupas and several temples. The monuments have been listed among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1989.

Chetiyagiri Vihara and the Sacred Relics

The bone relics (asthi avashesh) of Buddhist Masters along with the reliquaries, obtained by Maisey and Cunningham were divided and taken by them to England as personal trophies.[10] Maisey's family sold the objects to Victoria and Albert Museum where they stayed for a long time. The Buddhists in England, Sri Lanka and India, led by the Mahabodhi Society demanded that they be returned. Some of the relics of Sariputta and Moggallana were sent back to Sri Lanka, where they were publicly displayed in 1947.[11] It was such a grand event where the entire population of Sri Lanka came to visit them. However, they were later returned to India. But a new temple Chetiyagiri Vihara was constructed to house the relics, in 1952.[12] In a nationalistic sense, this marked the formal reestablishment of the Buddhist tradition in India. Some of the relics were obtained by Burma.[13]


The last two letters to the right of this inscription in Brahmi form the word "dǎnam" (donation). This hypothesis permitted the decipherment of the Brahmi script by James Prinsep in 1837.

Sanchi, especially Stupa 1, has a large number of Brahmi inscriptions. Although most of them are small and mention donations, they are of great historical significance. James Prinsep in 1837, noted that most of them ended with the same two Brahmi characters. Princep took them as "danam" (donation), which permitted the decipherment of the Brahmi script,.[14][15]

An analysis of the donation records [16] shows that while a large fraction of the donors were local (with no town specified), a number of them were from Ujjain, Vidisha, Kurara, Nadinagar, Mahisati, Kurghara, Bhogavadhan and Kamdagigam.

The inscriptions include those from Maurya, Shunga/Satavahana (175 BC-15 AD), Kushana (100-150 AD), Gupta (600-800 AD, see Sanchi inscription of Chandragupta II). The Ye Dharma Hetu inscription in Temple 45 may be dated to 9th century.

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sanchi.


  1. Buddhist Art Frontline Magazine May 13–26, 1989
  2. 1 2 3 4 World Heritage Monuments and Related Edifices in India, Volume 1 p.50 by Alī Jāvīd,Tabassum Javeed, Algora Publishing, New York
  3. The Butkara Stupa is an example of such an hemispherical stupa structure from the Maurya period, that was extensively documented through archaeological work
  4. Buddhist Architecture by Huu Phuoc Le, 2010, p.155
  5. "Who was responsible for the wanton destruction of the original brick stupa of Ashoka 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 Shunga kings (184-148 BC), 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, p. 38. Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing (1918).
  6. Original text "L1: Rano Siri Satakarnisa L2: avesanisa vasithiputasa L3: Anamdasa danam", John Marshall, "A guide to Sanchi", p. 52
  7. "A guide to Sanchi" John Marshall. These "Greek-looking foreigners" are also described in Susan Huntington, "The art of ancient India", p. 100
  8. Reconstructing a Latina Temple Spire: Temple 45, Sanchi, Dissertation submitted to Cardiff University, Fiona Buckee, 2010
  9. John Marshall, "An Historical and Artistic Description of Sanchi", from A Guide to Sanchi, Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing (1918). Pp. 7-29 on line, Project South Asia.
  10. Brekke, Torkel, Bones of Contention: Buddhist Relics, Nationalism and the Politics of Archaeology, Numen, Volume 54, Number 3, 2007 , pp. 270-303(34)
  11. Ceylon Allowed To Keep Sanchi Relics Till May 8, Indian Express - Apr 28, 1947.
  12. BUDDHA DISCIPLES WILL BE REBURIED; Relics of Followers of Ancient Leader to Be Reinterred at Rites in India Saturday, THE NEW YORK TIMES, November 25, 1952
  13. Sariputta and Moggallana in the Golden Land: The Relics of the Buddha's Chief Disciples at the Kaba Aye Pagoda, Jack Daulton, Journal of Burma Studies, Volume 4, 1999 pp. 101-128
  14. Indian Epigraphy : A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages, Richard Salomon, Oxford University Press, 1998
  15. Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor, Charles Allen, Little, Brown Book Group Limited, 2012
  16. A study of inscribed reliefs within the context of donative inscriptions at Sanchi, Author: Milligan, Matthew David, Thesis, p.77


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