Fascinating and world famous Stupa and other structures in Sanchi portraying brilliance of Buddhist art and sculpture attract attention of thousands of visitors round the year including national and foreign tourists, archaeologists and historians among others. The Hill of Sanchi is situated about 9 kilometres south-west of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, India. Vidisha is 60 Kms from Bhopal. Crowning the hilltop of Sanchi nearly 91 metres in height, a group of Buddhist monuments commands a grand view even from a distance. It is unique not only in its having the most perfect and well-preserved stupas but also in its offering a wide and educative field for the study of the genesis and decay of Buddhist art and architecture. Sanchi was Buddhist centre of attraction for a period of about fifteen hundred years, from third century B.C. to twelfth century A.D. According to chronicles of Sri Lanka, Mahendra, son of Asoka and queen Devi, had played key role in the development of Sanchi Stupa. Asoka had married Devi, daughter of a merchant of Vidisha. Mahendra had stayed at Sanchi for a month before his visit to Sri Lanka.
The foundation of the great religious establishment at Sanchi, was laid by the great Mauryan emperor Asoka (273-236 B.C.). He built a Maha stupa and erected a huge monolithic pillar. In addition to his marriage with a lady of Vidisa, the reason for his selection of this particular place may be due to the fact that the hilltop served as an ideal place for giving a concrete shape to the newly aroused zeal for Buddhism in the emperor, who is said to have opened up seven out of the eight original stupas erected over the body relics of Buddha and to have distributed the relics among innumerable stupas built by himself all over his empire. After a temporary setback following the break-up of the Maurya empire, when the stupa of Asoka was damaged, the cause of the Buddhist establishment of Kakanaya was taken up with a feverish zeal by the monks and the laity alike, not a negligible percentage of the latter being formed by visitors of Vidisa for trade and other purposes.
The religious fervour found its expression in vigorous building activity about the middle of the second century B.C., during which the Sungas were ruling and which saw the stone encasing and enlargement of the stupa of Asoka, the erection of balustrades round its ground, berm, stairway and harmika, the reconstruction of Temple 40 and the building of Stupas 2 and 3. The same intense religious aspiration and creative forces continued unabated in the next century as well, when, during the supremacy of the Satavahanas, new embellishments, in the form of elaborately-carved gateways, were added to Stapas 1 and 3. After a prolonged period of lassitude under the rule of Kashtrapas, there was revival of sculptural activity at Sanchi during the reign of the Guptas. Guptas conquered the kingdom of Kshatrapas (circa A.D. 400). They had established peace and prosperity.The discovery a few images in Mathura, sandstone executed in the early Gupta tradition, proves that Mathura continued, even in the fourth century A.D., to meet the demand of the clientele of Sanchi. But soon afterwards the local art of Sanchi once more came to the fore, and to this period belong the four images of Buddha seated under canopies against the berm of Stupa 1 facing the four entrances. But even in the best days of the Guptas the figures of Buddha from the ateliers of Sanchi fell short, in standard and number of their counterparts at such Buddhist centres as Sarnath.
The Gupta period, which ushered in a new epoch in the history of Indian Temple-Architecture, saw at Sanchi as well as resuscitation of structural activity. In Temple 17 which has withstood the ravages of time, we find one of the earliest Gupta temples noted for their well-balanced proportion, restraint in ornamentation and elegance. After the glorious days of the Guptas centrifugal forces became once more rampant. And then came the shock of the Huna invasions, which resulted in the seizure of a large part of western and central India by that tribe. But that occupation was short lived, to be shattered by Yasodharman’s victory over their chief Mihirakula in the first half of the sixth century. On the ashes of the Gupta empire rose a number of small kingdoms, none of which was powerful enough to bring any large part of India under its aegis, till Harshavardhana (A.D. 606-647) achieved some sort of political unity in north India. His espousal of the cause of Buddhism brought a fresh lease of life to that religion. The vestiges of the seventh and eighth centuries, which saw at Sanchi the building of several monasteries and temples, reveal a prosperous condition of the Buddhist community at the place. The number of the images of Buddha made during the period was fairly considerable; executed in late Gupta tradition, they, however, lack the charm and grace of their prototypes and are almost lifeless and mechanical. After the death of Harsha, northern India once, more became a prey to the ambitions of different dynasties. The Pratiharas, who had established themselves in the Malwa region by the eighth century, were followed by the Paramaras in the next century. But Sanchi seems to have been hardly affected by these political changes, as the existence of a number of medieval monasteries and temples testifies to a period of continued prosperity.
Temple 45, for example, which is now a mere shell bereft of its original splendour, has the same architectural pompousness and exuberance of decoration as would characterise the contemporaneous north Indian architecture. From the find of such images like Vajrasattva and Marichi, it is abundantly clear that Vajrayana did extend its roots here as well. It is not known how end came to the Buddhist establishment at Sanchi. No Buddhist monument can be assigned to the thirteenth century A.D. on the other hand, to this period belong a number of Brahmanical plaques containing representations of Vishnu, Ganesa, Mahishasuramardini, etc. We do not know if the Buddhists deserted the place or gradually lost their vital forces to maintain their individuality thus succumbing to the all absorbing force of Brahmanism, which was one of the potent causes of the extinction of Buddhism in the land of its birth.
Exploration and Preservation:
The relics of Sariputra and Maha Moggallana, the two foremost disciples of the Buddha, were found by Colonel Cunningham in 1851 in this stupa, enshrined at the centre of the dome on the level of the terrace. From the fourteenth century onwards, Sanchi was left deserted and unnoticed, till 1818. General Taylor brought it to public attention by discovering its ruins, of which he found Supas 1, 2 and 3 intact. The great interest which this discovery created accounts to a large extent for the immense damages suffered by the monuments at the hands of amateur archaeologists and treasure-hunters. In 1822, Captain Johnson, Assistant Political Agent in Bhopal, opened up Stupa 1.
The question of repairs and preservation was not, at all considered till 1881, when Major Cole took up the work in right earnest and succeeded, in the course of the next three years, in clearing off vegetation, filling in the breach in the dome of Stupa 1, setting up its fallen West and South Gateways and a part of its railing and restoring the gateway in front of Stupa V. The other monuments, however, were left uncared for and no attempt was made to expose the structures lying buried under debris. This work was later on undertaken creditably by Sir John Marshall, Director General of Archaeology in India, who, between the years 1912 and 1919, brought the monuments to their present condition.
His work entailed a large-scale clearance of jungle, excavation and thorough conservation of the edifices, which included the complete dismantling and rebuilding of the south-west quadrant of Stupa 1, setting up of its balustrades and erection of the crowning members, reconstruction of the dome, balustrade and crowning members of Stupa 3, resetting of the out-of-plumb pillars of Temple 18 repairs to the perilously decayed Temple 45, rebuilding of the retaining wall between the Main Terrace and Eastern Area, re-roofing and repairs of Temples 17, 31 and 32 and provision of an effective drainage. The site was next turfed and Planted with trees and flowering creepers. A small museum was also built to house the loose antiquities found in the course of these operations.
-Mylaram Narayana Swamy(MyNaa Swamy)