Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 02/13/13 12:01 PM

Travel: Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh

Buddha’s Delight

Sheila Kumar emerges almost as peaceful as the Enlightened One after a quiet day at Sanchi.



Buddhism has always appealed to me since I’m a sort of middle-of-the-roader myself. Not one to glut on excesses in deprivation or indulgences, I go my way trying to live like a decent human being and leaving others to do the same.


Which is why a day spent by the stupas of Sanchi seemed a good way to detox myself of all the accumulated poison of city living.


The day itself was promising, fleecy white clouds riding a very blue sky, and winter sun gilding everything with a balmy warmth. The 68 kilometres from Bhopal to Sanchi became a two-and-three-quarter hours’ ride, thanks to the state’s notorious tracks that try to pass themselves off as roads.


Bone-rattling, spine-jarring are what come to mind when I relive that journey but I won’t dwell on it: that is not a way to rack up merit.


Well maintained shrine

The shrine itself is one of the best kept in the country, and I doff an unworn cap to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). I take the steps that curve up a small hillock rather than driving up to the stupas.


More merit that way. At the top, all is miraculous silence. Well, almost. The air is occasionally rent by shrill voices babbling in Bengali but are quickly hushed… it would seem tourists instinctively fall into a meritorious way of ‘doing’ Sanchi.



The great stupa

The great stupa, the oldest stone structure  in India, is awesome. Some 120 feet in diameter and about 54 feet high, the brick-and-mud structure was built by Emperor Ashoka after he famously turned peacemaker and, later, kept in good condition by the early Gupta rulers.


There are about eight stupas and a total of 50 monuments at Sanchi, all built between the 3rd century BC and 12 century AD. A lot of stupa building, that; pity the beneficial effects didn’t remain, either in the hearts of the rulers or the populace.


In the early part of the last century, restoration work was undertaken at Sanchi; repairs were made in sandstone and those worthies surely gained a lot of merit for making this the pristine heritage monument that it is today.

It has to be noted that some of the merit was acquired by the Brits; Col Cunningham, Capt Maisey, Capt Johnson, Sir John Marshall and General Taylor were some Raj officials closely associated with excavation and restoration work here.


Of course, some relics originally belonging to Sanchi are now in England: that probably takes away the merit accrued.

The hillock holds the monuments in a shelves pattern; Stupa 2 comes first, then, at a higher level, stand Stupas 1 and 3, and a couple of ancient Gupta temples dating back to the 5th and 7th centuries.


Even higher is an expansive monastery or rather, what remains of it. The stupas were originally burial mounds but now stand as symbols of peace, love and devotion. Most are mere shells of their former splendour; besides one or two stupas, you find statues of the Enlightened One sitting in the Lotus pose, calm and contemplative.


The carved gateways and pillars are excellent examples of Buddhist art and architecture. Down below is the ASI Museum, a must for those following the Buddhist trail.


The toranas

The gateways or toranas depict scenes from the life of the Buddha. The Eastern Gateway is breathtaking in its ornamentation. Since direct depictions of the Buddha were not permitted at the time, his presence was alluded to through symbols such as the bo tree, the wheel of law or his footprint.


The stupa, thus, became a symbol of the Buddha. The balustrades fencing the stupas are plain and austere, some with floral ornamentation on them. There is an Ashoka pillar near the Great Stupa that is worth a dekko.


Did the Buddha visit here? No. Did anything of significance vis-à-vis Buddhist history happen here? The answer, again, is no. However, once you set foot on this hillock, even the most materialistic of humans will breathe in the intense air of spirituality.


Miracle Number one

There are people sitting on the wooden benches dotted about the sprawling site. Some are opening lunch packets and that’s when I realise there is another miracle quietly taking place: not one piece of oil-stained paper or plastic packet mars the shrine and its surroundings.


Of course, ‘Use Me’ kangaroos are placed within easy reach but even then, Indians not littering is what I call a miracle. Maybe they are racking up merit, too.


Onto Miracle Number Two

Visitors to the stupas seem to be really studying the inscriptions, the motifs, the ornamentations. There is none of that ‘okay-seen-this-now-what’ haste we traditionally distribute in most impartial fashion to all the monuments we visit, be it the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower or the Jewel Room in the Tower of London.


The all-pervading ambience is one of intense serenity, with (sorry for the cliche but it’s true) birdsong sounding extra loud in the quiet. It’s not yet spring but here and there, trees have already begun putting out new shoots; some of these trees stand beside 3rd century meditation rooms, a stark contrast in medieval and modern.


Below us glitters a carpet of emerald, fields of paddy. Two rivers, the Betwa and the Bes run close by but cannot be glimpsed from up here. And as I descend the steps (once you start a good thing…), I hear bhajans from the temple down below.


Now there’s someone else racking up merit. Peace be on us all.


On the trail of the Buddha
• The Ajanta and Ellora caves in Aurangabad, Maharashtra
• The monasteries atop the Nagarjunakonda hill near Hyderabad in AP
• The Great Stupa at Amravathi near Vijayawada in AP
• Ashoka’s rock edicts, dating from 260 BC, at Dhauli, 8 km from Bhubaneshwar, Orissa
• The caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri, dating from 2nd century BC, six km from Bhubaneshwar, in Orissa
• The holy tree at Bodhgaya, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, in Bihar
• Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first sermon and
Kushinagar, where he attained Parinirvana. Both in UP
• Nalanda, ancient site of learning, in Bihar• Vaishali in UP, where the Buddha preached his last sermon, and announced his impending Nirvana

This ran in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS of 31  Mar  2007.

All photos  by Sheila Kumar and subject to copyright.
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Sheila Kumar • February 13, 2013

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