Post 46 – Day 25 ‘Sanchi, and other ghosts’

Post 46a Post 46b Post 46c Post 46d Post 46e

It is a Wednesday and my night was untroubled by demons. I had, as some say, ‘gone out like a light’. I awoke to the melodious calls to prayer echoing out from a nearby mosque, the first time I’d heard the voice of an imam since my days at Varanasi. It is strangely reassuring. I have a cold shower, as there is no hot water. Someone in one of the other rooms is coughing his stomach up. Silly boy, shouldn’t party so much. The hotel restaurant staff are not yet ready to serve breakfast. 8 am is their normal time for the morning’s meal so I do not leave until 9 o’clock.

I am heading for the imposing Buddhist ruins at Sanchi. Driving through the city I first pass the incredible Taj-ul-Masajid mosque, then the site of the Union Carbide Company gas poisonings in 1984. Activist slogans, poetry and street art adorn high concrete walls either side of the road there. The pictures portray anguish and despair, the slogans anger, the poetry Hope. Written across one wall in perfectly executed typeface were the words:

“Union Carbide You Can’t Hide.
We Charge you with Genocide”.

Not a single piece of graffiti or mindless spray paint ‘tags’ defaced it.

There is no sense of defeat here, not even in death. Ghosts prick at one’s conscience. Here sits an obscenity as terrible as Katyn, or Belsen, but the presence of the walls masks and dilutes the outrage. It is not a place or time for humour, not even of the blackest kind. I take photographs but cannot see over the surrounding walls into the expanse of the factory complex hidden beyond. The site, this place, needs a viewing platform. My driver urinates by the roadside. I do not know if the timing of this act of bladder evacuation is a political statement or an artefact of human physiology. I do not ask.


The road north-east to Sanchi passes long dry and sparsely vegetated hills and ridges that remind me of inland Australia. Along the way I cross the Tropic of Cancer, stop by the roadside and pose for a photograph beside the sign.

Sanchi, like Konarak, is a World Heritage site, but situated near the town of Vidisha, on a hill top. On arrival it is devoid of tourists. I am almost alone. Only a few guards and guides are in attendance. The site is a spectacular assemblage of restored stupas and partially restored monastic buildings. The most splendid structure is the ornate gate that frames the entrance to Stupa 1, the Great Stupa at the hill’s peak, the hill giving a commanding 360o view of the surrounding landscape. It is a place of peace and seclusion, a counterpoint to the Bhopal disaster. I ramble casually about the ruins at will, criss-crossing from structure to structure, and then walk atop the remains of the furthest southern walls that look out to villages and lush green fields in the distance. There are voices below, of a man and a woman, standing in front of a cluster of huts. So far below, they are almost inconspicuous in size. Their voices rise to shouts, conveying heated argument. In common parlance, I am a voyeur to a ‘domestic’. I listen for some minutes, but the two people concerned rail ceaselessly in heated debate. No blows are delivered, however, neither of the two soften the intensity of their invective.

I step away from the wall, and the couple’s diatribe is at first muffled, then veiled completely by physical barrier and distance. I enjoy the renewed silence and the feeling of being back amongst nature, manipulated by man as it is here. A lone black and yellow coloured oriole flies past and alights at the upper-most branch of a tree. Numbers of Red-vented bulbuls, Pycnonotus cafer, a widespread resident species in India, forage below the protection of dense-foliaged shrubs. Pale encrusting lichen adheres to the sandstone masonry. Grey squirrels appear from crevices in the ruin’s stonework, call to each other, and then hurriedly disappear from view again. A brown bittern of some kind hunts in expectation of prey in the last remaining water puddle at the bottom of a large stone tank. Dragonflies cruise across the stale green water of a pool near the solitary Stupa 2, this situated down-slope to the west of the main complex of buildings, and a lone guard sits in watch of me. I explore a narrow side trail that leads from the isolated Stupa 2 back upslope to the main cluster of ruins. The ground either side of the path is dry, covered in part by brown leaves and an occasional pink-flowering grass-like herb. There are no small skinks, no ants, no apparent life of any kind excepting an occasional bird and the patrolling dragonflies at the pool.

On the stairs leading back to Stupa 1 a teenage girl and boy sit in hushed conversation. I have interrupted some intimate moment. They ignore my customary salutation, and I continue on to a small kiosk located near the entrance gate. The young owner serves me plain tea in a cup, and relates heroic tales, all true I am assured, about the performance of his local cricket team.


Sanchi, also known as Kakanaya, represents an early example of Buddhist temple architecture, after which monastic complexes became progressively more elaborate. The Buddhist ruins that crown the hill top at Sanchi comprise the most well-preserved stupas in India. The origin of the Buddhist stupa probably traces to pre-Buddhist burial mounds constructed over sacred relics, either of Gautama Buddha himself or that of a saint. The earliest structures date from the 3rd Century BCE but the genesis of the site is of particular interest because there is no reference to it in the known life of the Buddha. It is a mystery. The early Sri Lankan texts, the ‘Mahavamsa’ and the ‘Dipavamsa’, record that Asoka, before he became the emperor of Maurya, married Devi the daughter of a merchant of the nearby town of Vidisa, now modern Vidisha, at that time the capital of eastern Malwa. It is likely that the religious establishment of Sanchi was later founded by Asoka, as emperor, when he had a stupa and a large pillar built there, the meditative serenity and seclusion of the site fulfilling the required conditions for a monastic life. Sanchi retained its significance long after the break up of the Mauryan Empire, its later prosperity owing much to the pious merchant community at Vidisa. Building activity continued during the reign of the later Sunga, Satavahana and Gupta dynasties, these periods seeing the stone encasement of Asoka’s original stupa, the reconstruction of individual temples and the building of additional stupas, and construction of elaborately carved gateways as additions to Stupas 1 and 3. However, the Scytho-Parthian and Kushan invasions, and consequent political upheavals, that preceded the Gupta revival of the 5th Century CE resulted in a dramatic reduction in building activity. Ultimately the Buddhist community at Sanchi was overwhelmed by the spreading force of Brahmanism and no Buddhist monuments are known there later than the 12th Century. There is no record as to how the end came, and from the 14th Century Sanchi was deserted, its ruins rediscovered in 1818. At this time Stupas 1, 2 and 3 were intact, but the interest that resulted from the discovery was to lead to immense damage by amateur archaeologists and looters. In 1822 poorly contrived archaeological excavations were made at Stupa 1, this leading to the collapse of the west gateway and part of the enclosing balustrade. Excavations in 1851 by Alexander Cunningham and F. G. Maisey at Stupas 2 and 3 found relics there but their operations, and the additional activities by villagers, brought about much destruction. The Asoka pillar was broken into pieces by a local zamindar so that he could use it as a sugar-cane press. Restoration work was begun in 1881, the excavation breach earlier dug into Stupa 1 was filled in, vegetation cleared away, and the fallen gateways and part of its railings were repositioned. The gateway in front of Stupa 3 was also repaired. However, it is believed that in the restoration of the gateways some of the architraves were reversed. Restoration to other monuments, and further restoration of Stupas 1 and 3, was carried out by Sir John Marshall, then Director General of Archaeology, between 1912 and 1919. Excavations in 1936 by Mohammad Hamid revealed well preserved monastery ruins. Later, and on-going, excavations have been carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India. These exposed clusters of votive stupas, walled enclosures and additional monastic structures.

As currently interpreted from excavations, the majority of the stupas and monastic ruins at Sanchi lie within an 11th Century stone circuit wall, this restricted to the small plateau forming the hill top. Down slope, and to the west of the plateau, are located the large Stupa 2, monastic ruins, and the remains of an ancient road paved with heavy slabs of stone. However, the central and most imposing feature is the Great Stupa, an imposing stone-faced dome. Round it circles a stone path, meant for processions, that is accessed through four intricately carved gateways. These are placed at each of the cardinal points; north, south, east and west. The existing stupa encases an earlier smaller one which suffered wanton damage sometime in the 2nd Century BCE. Extensive reconstruction followed; this involving stone encasement, steps, balustrades, and crowning stonework. Many of the structural embellishments were sponsored by devotees, the names of which are inscribed in the stonework. The final addition to the stupa was that of four seated images of the Buddha, these being added some time before 450 CE. The height of the attendant gateways is over 8.5 metres. These date to the 1st Century BCE and consist of two square pillars on which are set paired images of lions, elephants and dwarfs that support a superstructure of three slightly curved architraves with spiralled ends. Between the architraves are three carved uprights, the spaces between these occupied by carvings of elephants and riders on horseback.

Some carvings on the gateways depict scenes from stories of the innumerable past lives of Gautama Buddha, these not being births solely in the form of man, but also that of bird and beast. For example, on the architraves on the South Gate is the story, or ‘Jataka’, of Buddha as the Bodhisattva Chhaddanta, a six-tusked elephant. Chhaddanta lived with his two wives, Mahasubhadda and Chullasubbhadda. Chullasubbhadda became very jealous of Mahasubhadda and prayed that she be reborn as a beautiful wife to the king of Varanasi so that she may take revenge on Chhaddanta, who she felt was fonder of his other wife. Reborn as the queen of Varanasi Chullasubbhadda pretended to be ill and persuaded the king to employ the hunter Sonuttara to bring her Chhaddanta’s tusks. Chhaddanta took pity on Sonuttara and helped him cut off his own tusks, and the queen, Chullasubbhadda, on seeing the tusks, died of remorse.

Other gateway carvings represent scenes from Buddha’s life. On the North and West Gateways are depicted the assault and temptation by the demon Mara. When Gautama Buddha took his seat under the Bodhi-tree, and was determined not to rise until he had attained enlightenment, the evil Mara sought to destroy Gautama’s purpose by acts of temptation and also assault by his army. Throughout this Gautama remained unmoved on his seat and called upon the Earth to bear witness to his right to remain on it. Mara was silenced by the Earth and fled. That night Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. Further scenes on the gateways depict symbolic representations of the ‘Manushi-Buddhas’, these being immediate predecessors of Gautama Buddha, as well as miscellaneous subjects such as glimpses of heavenly life and mundane depictions of men, women, animals and fabulous creatures.


I have seen Sanchi. And in this place of world heritage architecture and seminal achievements in the history of Buddhism, I end my visit with a discourse on sport with a young vendor of refreshments, and purchase bananas from a roadside stall near the car park. No riotous events, no angry beggars, no family photographs; just me wandering about on an idyllic hill top for a few hours, a far-off domestic argument that could have been happening anywhere but here, and a handful of bent fruit for lunch. Somehow I managed to resurrect the ordinary from the magical.


It is a short thirteen kilometre drive from Buddhist Sanchi to the rock-cut cave Hindu sanctuaries at Udaigiri near the town of Vidisha. These are carved into a low sandstone hill adjacent the River Bes, the hill formed by a series of broken terrace-like ledges that progressively rise to a flat summit. The site has important inscriptions dating from the times of the Gupta kings, Chandra Gupta II (382-415 CE) and Kumargupta (415-455 CE). In addition to the cave sanctuaries water systems, fortifications and other ruined buildings are located there. The man-made caves are numbered, apparently in the sequence in which they were excavated, and are ornamented mainly with simple statues; unfortunately most are damaged, and because of the softness of the stone Nature has been unkind, eroding away much of the original detailed workmanship. Unlike the polished finish uniformly achieved at Barabar, here some of the stone has been coarsely finished with no attempt to polish back the sculptor’s pick marks. Nevertheless a stark grandeur has been achieved.

Udaigiri is an important Hindu ritual site carved in the late 4th and 5th Century CE, during the period of the Gupta Empire. Cave 1 represents an early phase in the development of temple architecture in India, possessing a small shrine and porch front. Cave 4 has a large smooth-polished Shiva-linga, this with the face of Shiva bedecked with long locks of hair that cascade to either side. Cave 6 has an image of Durga slaying the Buffalo Demon, Mahishasura, and an early representation of Ganesha. Cave 8 is empty except for a carved lotus on the ceiling and a damaged inscription composed by Virasena, a minister to Chandra Gupta II, stating he had come here in the king’s company; the king being engaged in a campaign of world conquest. Chandra Gupta’s conquests fell a little short of world domination. Beside Cave 8 is a natural cleft forming a broad passage to the top of the hill, in which there are a number of stone-cut steps, inscriptions and lesser sized caves. Only a few of these contain sculptures, all of which are damaged or are worn by exposure to the weather. Cave 13 contains a large reclining figure of Narayana, synonymous with Vishnu, and alongside is a figure kneeling in devotion; this possibly being that of Chandra Gupta.

The most imposing cave, Cave 5, harbours a carved image of Vishnu in his avatara as the boar-headed Varaha, and this is the iconic sculptural centre-piece of Udaigiri. Varaha is Lord Vishnu’s third avatara. He appeared in the form of a gigantic boar so as to defeat the demon Hiranyaksha who had taken the Earth Goddess, Bhu Devi, to the abyss of the Cosmic Ocean. The battle between Varaha and Hiranyaksha, in which Varaha was victorious, is said to have lasted a thousand years. The carvings in Cave 5 illustrate Varaha rescuing Bhu Devi from the engulfing Ocean, while gods and sages surround Varaha in recognition of his victory. During the Gupta period the symbol of Varaha was used as a symbol of loyalty. Six large, grey-coloured dragonflies rested squadron-like and motionless on the wall near Varaha’s left foot. I assumed they enjoyed the coolness of the shaded rock surface and maybe found comfort in the sharing of each other’s company. But of any deeper significance or meaning to their congregation, this ‘Brotherhood of the Order Odonata’, I was ignorant. Maybe they were joined in the silent incantation of philosophical tracts best known only to their own kind. Who knows? Regardless, I thought they looked pretty, grey as their colour plainly was.

Saying goodbye to the dragonflies, their collective image recorded by my camera, I walk alone to the top of the hill. It is an easy walk, along a wide but unsealed path, this passing by several stark, white-trunked trees with which I am unfamiliar, their foliage just starting to unfurl for surely they must be deciduous. Along the way I discover two more caves, both small and unprotected by metal grills, their existence contrary to the assurances of my driver that no further caves or ruins were to be found. One is empty, the other is home to a carving of Ganesha, not vandalised as it turns out. At the summit I have the vista to myself though, in contrast to the lush agricultural lands that surround, the vegetation at my feet is dry and sparse.

Satisfied, and mindful that my driver is likely wondering about my fate, I quickly explore the remainder of the summit. To my surprise I discover the ruins of a building. These turn out to be of a 6th Century Gupta Period temple. The ruins once had a stone sign indicating their lineage, but this had been long broken, the sign’s remnants not sufficient to resurrect any meaning. However, only the lower foundations and stone courses remained. Several ornamented pieces of masonry lay carelessly thrown about, these including a double, lion-topped capital discarded on the ground. Elsewhere lies a massive, but broken, column. And someone had freshly painted ‘Happy New Year’ on a fallen rectangular-shaped block of stone. My solitude is disturbed by the appearance of five young men. They are keen that I take their photo. I acquire a certain air of apprehension in their presence. Noting their army is much larger than mine, and mine is some distance away in total ignorance of my location and potential situation, I oblige their request, bid the young men good fortune, and stage a polite and strategic retreat. My driver greets my return to the vehicle with relieved concern.


We drive back through Bhopal, skirting the broad expanse of its Upper and Lower lakes, for the moment averting the return to the relative luxury of my hotel. I spend the late afternoon on the porch of a lakeside restaurant admiring the exotic scenery, the small boats at anchor below restaurant, and the sublime vision of the encompassing city, its furthest buildings and hills shrouded in a pale brown haze. I sip at a freshly roasted coffee and lay back in the comfort of a compliant deckchair, enjoying the breeze. I think simple thoughts as to how pleasant the day was, contemplate memories of past locations, and again take the cool air for granted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s