Impressions from Sanchi

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A video by Mahendra from an ancient place of Buddhist worship in Central India.

In winter 1992/3 I travelled India far and wide, particularly looking at ancient sites, which somehow managed not to get destroyed in spite of India’s changeful fate.

On the trip to Sanchi I was accompanied by my partner Mamta. We took the train from Chennai to Bhopal and arrived there in the middle of the night. We had been around a bit and knew that Bhopal, which was still suffering from the aftershocks of the 1984 gas leak disaster, would probably only fulfil the very basic needs for tourists, but the hotel outmatched our worst expectation. The bed sheets in the dimly-lit room were so dirty that Mamta refused to lay down. I asked for replacements but no clean sheets were available. After some discussion, the clerk decided to take the sheets from another room and proudly presented them to us. But they were just as greyish brown as the first ones. After being presented another equally dirty set, we finally were so exhausted that we sank into sleep on our lungis.

Next morning we took the local bus to Sanchi, no Westerners around anywhere. Looking at the people in the bus, we knew, we had once again hit the “real India”, the backward rural areas where life hadn’t been influenced too much by western civilization. The guys on the bus looked at us as if we’d just had come from the moon, and communication without any English speakers around become quite difficult.

The stupas and monastic ruins of Sanchi, even though already listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, were not on the national or international tourist routes yet. The only accommodation available was the government bungalow, where we were the only guests.

I went up on the hill at dawn to find one of my most stunning sunrise views, spent the whole day there and was rewarded with a wonderful sunset at the end. Perhaps 10 Indian tourists came by throughout the day, otherwise I was mostly alone with the parrots, bee eaters and chipmonks, enjoying the silence and serene beauty of the place tremendously. In the middle of the day I went down the hill to capture one of the passing long distance trains which were, and still are, my favorite way of transport in India.

Sanchi was founded in the days of the famous emperor Ashoka, the first conqueror of the whole Indian subcontinent. He felt remorse for this and converted to Buddhism. His only daughter and son, Sanghamitra and Mahendra, had become Buddhist monks at a young age and were probably involved in the construction of the original site. The main stupa, which you can see in the video, was erected as a solid round stone structure over a relic of the historical Buddha, who had lived some 200 years earlier. According to some stone inscriptions, Sanghamitra and Mahendra started their journey to Sri Lanka from Sanchi and this journey became quite momentous in two ways:

While Buddhism disappeared almost totally from India, it survived and flourished in Sri Lanka, from where it spread to Burma, Thailand and the whole of Southeast Asia.
Secondly, Mahendra took a seed of the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, under which Buddha became enlightened, to Sri Lanka and another huge Bodhi tree grew there. When the Bodh Gayan tree collapsed many centuries later, the monks brought back one of the seeds from Sri Lanka and a new Bodhi tree could be grown in Bodh Gaya. This tree is still worshipped today by thousands of Buddhists from around the world, when they do a pilgrimage to the enlightenment site.

Sanchi was expanded in the centuries that followed; more stupas were built and a monastery with lots of small cells grew around the main stupa. Also, the famous four gates of the central stone structure were added by excellent masons, who depicted many scenes from Buddha’s life and his past lives. Some of these you can see in the video.

After the Hindu revival around 800 CE the site was totally forgotten for many centuries until in 1818 British General Taylor, who happened to be a hobby archeologist, discovered and documented the site. Perhaps it was this long sleep that preserved the ancient vibe of the whole complex so well – I felt like I had been time travelling for a day back into the days of these Buddhists monks, getting a taste of their simple but happy lives.

The music track “Tenderness” by Medwyn Goodall and Terry Oldfield is from their 2006 album “Om”.

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MahendraMahendra (aka Ananya) grew up in Munich; after school he travelled to India overland and took sannyas in Pune. He ran the Vihan Center in Berlin, was a guard in the ashram, a DJ around the world, and also worked on the Ranch, video recording and more. Since 1993 he has been working in IT, video production, as a DJ, event organizer and chanter – and loves mountain hikes.

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