FEW THAIS KNOW ABOUT THIS ANCIENT BUDDHIST SITE IN MADHYA PRADESH
LORD BUDDHA never honoured Sanchi Stupa with a visit but the World Heritage site is still regarded |as one of the outstanding Buddhism stupas in India.
The authorities in Madhya Pradesh designated the complex of stupas as a tourism site but it is not well known among Buddhists, notably ones from Thailand.
Some Buddhists from Southeast Asia countries such as Cambodia and Thailand have visited the site although very few of them made a second visit, according to a local tourist guide.
Besides monks and nuns from Sri Lanka who occasionally stay nearby and are isolated from the local community, there are no Buddhist religious activities in the area and there is no significant Buddhist population in Madya Pradesh state. Therefore, no Buddhist life or culture exists anywhere in the state, even at Sanchi.
Buddhists in Madya Pradesh are mostly neo-Buddhists, a sect established by BR Ambedkar in the 1950s, according to Anthony de Sa, chief secretary of the Madhya Pradesh government. “But they don’t believe and practice [in the same way] as people in the northeast of India who have practised the religion for more than 2,000 years or who are like what you see in Southeast Asia,” he said.
Sanchi Stupa has no religious function these days. It is a standalone Buddhist monument.
“Yes, people can come and worship here but neither flowers nor candles are allowed,” an official said.
People come here to see the architecture, as it is a masterpiece of Buddhist art and archaeological heritage, and not for religious purposes.
Originally built by the Mauryan Dynasty’s Emperor Asoka more than 300 years after the death of Lord Buddha, the stupa served a religious purpose until the 12th century.
Sanchi was not the home of Asoka, either, but the site was chosen since it was located on a hill or, as many have said, because it was the birthplace and home of his queen, Devi, who gave him a son, Mahindra, and a daughter, Sanghamitra. Asoka later commissioned his children as missionaries to Sri Lanka where they managed to convert the monarchy and others to Buddhism, and thus make Sri Lanka one of the Buddhism centres of the world today.
Unlike other Buddhism sites in India such Bodh Gaya and Savatthi, the Sanchi Stupa has a less direct connection to Lord Buddha because he never visited the area before or after becoming Lord Buddha.
It is believed that Asoka put Buddha’s relic in the Great Stupa, while the relic of two disciples of Buddha, Mandgalyayana and Sariputra, was found in the innermost chamber of stupa number three. The relic was sent to London during British colonial rule before it was returned to be kept in a modern temple built by the Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka, which is adjacent to stupa number three.
The temple is open to the public only once a year, on the last Sunday of November. “We are well aware that it is a relic of the two since Bali script records their names in stupa number three,” an official said.
If one misses the chance to see the relic, there are many other things to see in the Sanchi Stupa complex. The Great Stupa, also known as stupa number one, is regarded as the oldest stone structure in India – 36.5 metres in diameter and 16.4m high. At the four gateways, stories and symbols of Buddha and Buddhism are portrayed in sandstone.
Among many other things, the Asoka pillar lies close to the southern gateway of the Great Stupa. Emperor Asoka had a similar pillar elsewhere but this one is the finest. Unfortunately, it is said to have been broken down by a local landlord and the lion capital of the pillar is now kept in a museum. Four lions are the dominant feature on the Indian national emblem.
Adjacent to the western gate is a Buddhist Vihara, which was a place for monks to live and study. From the temple ruins, a path was paved to stupa number two, which stands at the edge of the hill. Its most striking feature is the stone balustrade that rings it.
For non-Buddhists and those not interested in the religious features of the stupas, the architecture reflects the close relationship between the Indian and Greek civilisations and is well worth viewing. Pillars and columns, as seen in many buildings in the stupa complex, were influenced by the Greeks. Even statues of Lord Buddha look like Greek’s gods, rather than the Indian native that he was.
Unlike many other attractive sites, Sanchi Stupa is rather quiet and calm as it is somewhat isolated from communities. No vendors can be found selling souvenirs outside the complex but it is still worth a look.