The four gateways are installed at four cardinal directions of the stupa. They have a common design; two square pillars surmounted by three parallel architraves. All sides of the columns and the rear and front are profusely carved. You could mistake the carved panels for wood or ivory. Reportedly, the workers were ivory carvers of Vidisha.
All the gateways are replete with a wide array of motifs and human figures. You see riders on horse back, mahouts on elephants, ladies on a first floor balcony, men and women in crowds, trees, flowers, an archer, a rich person with a parasol. I was amazed at the range of animals depicted. There are exquisitely carved elephants, horses, lions, peacocks and swans which are almost lifelike.
The beautifully carved Yakshis or Shalabhanjikas were particularly entrancing. Kalidasa who had spent sometime in VIdisha perhaps had seen them…In his poem Meghaduta he offers a wonderful description:
“With deep navel, slow of gait by the weight of the hips and slightly bent…she is the best in the creation of the feminine beauty by the Creator”.
Writing about these lovely figures Anand Coomraswamy writes in History of Indian and Indonesian Art:
“the intrinsic quality of early art is realistic and sensuous…the theme is anything but Buddhist. Or if we recognize in this very sensuousness, a true religious feeling, it is religious in the very sense of the ancient culture of mother goddesses and fertility spirits, not in the sense of great enlightenment.”
Buddha is not depicted as a human figure. He is represented as a lotus flower when born, as a horse when he left the palace, as a tree when he attained enlightenment. There are other panels depicting everyday life and different symbols pertaining to Buddhism. There are also depictions of people in various facets of Buddha’s life, but strangely his wife Yashodhara doesn’t figure in any of them!
The contrast between the ornate gateways and the unadorned Stupa takes your breath away. The gateways are brilliant. The Stupa is spare, meditative, it’s curving outer wall a striking backdrop for the intricate figures surrounding it. On climbing the Stupa, one is treated to an amazing view of the surrounding plains. Enclosing the Stupa are beautiful gardens providing a serene green tinge to the entire complex.
One of the famous Asoka pillars with four lion heads, the national emblem of India every Indian is so familiar with, can also be seen in Sanchi. However, it no longer stands tall - the beam rests near the stupa, and the famous lion heads that once was atop the beam is preserved at the museum. The reason for this sad state of the pillar is another amazing story, courtesy our guide. The local vassal of this region was so impressed by the smooth texture of the stone pillar that he decided to use it as a crushing device; the pillar was brought down and although I don’t know whether it was ever used for the purpose. It lies forlorn on the side of the stupa.
Besides the main Stupa and the ornate gates, there are several other structures that merit attention. The most interesting to me was a structure that resembled the Parthenon, at the back of the Stupa. I believe it was used as a place for congregation and study. On the valley below, there are remains of a vast monastery. There is also another Stupa dedicated to Sariputra, the most eminent disciple of Gautam Buddha who is very highly revered among the Ceylonese Buddhists.
I was humbled by the majestic architecture and its exquisite beauty of Sanchi. It was an ethereal experience to be in the same precincts that hundreds of years ago Devi, wife of Emperor Ashoka had spent her time. This was the place where Sanghamitra and Mahindra, the twins of Asoka had received their lessons on Buddhism before they spread it far and wide.
Here in Sanchi, the past and the present fuse seamlessly in a rich tapestry of extraordinarily enriching experience....