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Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Restoration of reverence

 
Restoration of reverence
The ancient stupa of Sanchi is restored to glory.
By Vinita Agrawal
On a cold December morning, I set out for Sanchi from Bhopal. Bhopal is the capital of Madhya Pradesh; the ancient town of Sanchi is 45km from this state capital. Most of the distance is a comfortable straight road through the countryside, on the outskirts of Raisen district. When I had met him earlier in Delhi, K K Mohammad, Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India, had told me about restoration work at the ancient stupa, carried out by a team he led. Now I was here – excited and keen to experience the fresh breath of life that had been infused into a monument built by emperor Ashoka in the third century BC.
The domes of two of the magnificent stupas loomed into my vision through the car windows about 5km before I reached the spot. It was a breath-taking sight! Soon the car took a gentle right turn and entered a narrow tree-lined road that led up to the incline of the stupa’s mound. Before ascending however, I halted at the Archaeological Museum at the base of the mound. Manoj Dubey, a scholarly man in charge of the four-galleried museum, was waiting at the steps, and suggested that we visit the museum before proceeding to the stupa. I agreed readily.
My host pointed out that the pretty bungalow to the left of the museum belonged to Sir John Hubert Marshall, who had worked on the restoration of the stupa from 1912 to 1919. Now the bungalow is a proposed site for an interpretation and information centre.
As a background to the treasures housed in the museum, Dubey narrated the life story of the Buddha, a favourite story of mine even though I had heard it innumerable times. There I stood in the bright December sunshine, in the light winter breeze, listening to the story of Buddha’s birth in the sal grove at Lumbini, his princely life in the kingdom of Kapilavastu, his momentous renunciation of worldly life, his ascetic resolve that brought him enlightenment under the Fig Ficus tree at Bodhgaya, his subsequent teachings about suffering and emptiness and his great parinirvana in Kushinagar at the age of 80 in 483 BC. All this came into sharp focus once again in this quaint little place nurtured exclusively by one of Buddha’s greatest followers, Emperor Ashoka. Ironically, for all the divine presence that one feels in the place, Buddha himself never set foot in this part of India.
He had however sent his closest disciples – Sariputta and Maha Mogallana. The relics of both these enlightened souls were found at Sanchi in Stupa 3. Every year for three days, from 26 to 28 November, the relics are taken out of a three-vault iron store and displayed for the public. People from all over the world arrive for a glimpse of these precious caskets containing ashes, cowries, gold leaves and lapis lazuli stored in thirteen layers of packing. On request, the authorities even allow devotees to touch the caskets to their head. Now that’s about as close as one can get to receiving blessings from the Buddha 2600 years after he graced the earth! It was acutely disappointing to discover that I had missed such a momentous occasion by only a few days.
Once inside the museum, the first thing that catches the eye is the lustrous four-lion head of the Ashoka pillar. Made of sandstone, it is prominently displayed at the far end of the main hall. The other two parts of the broken pillar lie near Stupa 1. A pair of swans is carved beneath the lions – symbols of love and peace. ‘Vigilant Bravery with Loving Compassion’ was the core of Ashoka’s philosophy; the thought came unbidden to my mind.
The museum has many statues of the Buddha dating back to the period prior to the 4th century BC. One statue of Gautam Buddha is particularly noteworthy. It is said that there 32 visible signs of greatness on the human body. The Buddha was apparently born with all these signs – a raised knowledge chakra at the apex of his head, joint eyebrows, a round mark on his forehead, three rings on the neck, chakras on fingertips and toes, long arms that touched his knees and many others – and this statue has depicts the signs of eminence on Buddha’s person.
The museum also houses a number of other figures of popular deities like Tara, Bodhisattvas like Vajrapani, Padampani and other well known figures like Yaksha, Kubera, Chunda (from whom Buddha accepted his last meal, which became the cause of his death), and Nairiti – the goddess of accidental deaths. Exquisite carvings on doorjambs and door-heads of those times also find pride of place in the museum. The gleaming ochre sandstone lids of the relic caskets of Sariputta and Mahamogallana are particularly mesmerising. I wanted to reach out and feel them but they were protected by a glass box.
A place with a soul
As we drove up to the stupa, my host told me the story of how it was built. After the tragic battle of Kalinga, Ashoka visited Vidisha, an ancient town near Sanchi. He subsequently married the daughter of a rich merchant there. The daughter, whose name was Devi, was an intensely religious person. It was she who urged King Ashoka to build the stupa here. It is said that he also had the relics of Buddha dug out from original stupas and embedded them in all the major stupas that he had built. By that logic, the stupa at Sanchi must certainly hold a portion of his relics as well. But strangely, these relics have never been found. I remembered K K Mohammad mentioning lightly that perhaps the relics still lie hidden somewhere in the stupa, unfound, undiscovered. Was that the reason Sanchi had such an incredibly positive vibe to it? At least that was what I wished to believe. It gave an added impetus to my visit. Sanchi was a place with a soul.
As we proceeded to the stupa site, my host told me about the amazing depictions of the Jataka tales that I would see at the gates of the main stupa. The Satavahana dynasty is credited for installing the four magnificent gates around the stupa. He explained that the Jataka tales contained stories of the 547 past lives of Gautam Buddha. Out of these, five Jataka fables – the Chaddanta Jataka, the Sama Jataka, the Mahakapi Jataka, the Alambasa Jataka and the Vessantara Jataka – are engraved on the architraves of the gates.
The sight of the main stupa and the cultivated greenery around it is absolutely splendid. It is a gratifying icon of the restoration work that has been carried out at this UNESCO World Heritage site. The surroundings are lush green, and the hills on which the stupas rest are covered with perfectly manicured lawns. The restoration of reverence becomes obvious at the sight of these verdant, nurtured surroundings. On the left rests a modern rectangular structure where the relics of Sariputta and Mahamogallana are housed. The path to the main stupa is dotted with numerous tiny stupas with minute Buddha images. These are manavti stupas – mini stupas given in donation, or danam, by people whose wishes had been granted at the spectacular main stupa in bygone days. I was told that a pond of swans and lotuses had also been created and a cage containing rabbits had been constructed to engage children who might be too young to enjoy the joys of a historical monument.
A short climb later we stood before the magnificent north gate. Three architrave ribbons of ochre sandstone stand supported by a pillar on each side, all richly carved with animals, plants and human figures. A chakra is engraved at the end of each horizontal beam, symbolic of the wheel of life perhaps, or a cyclical rendering of the cause and effect of life resulting in numerable re-births. About twelve feet behind the north gate, on a berm separating it from the stupa, is seated a statue of the Buddha, a bit desecrated and chipped but utterly moving to behold.
The carvings on every gate and pillar around the stupa are breathtaking. Wherever the Buddha is referred to in the carvings, he is represented by a smooth rectangular stone slab – the sila – symbolic of his teachings, of the sal tree, of his birth and parinirvana, and of a footprint, a symbol of his everlasting presence. He has never been depicted as a human figure in these artworks. This was done to emphasise that his teachings were greater than his personality and his attributes greater than his body. The body may perish but the wisdom it taught lives on. The Buddha in his own words said, ‘The Dhamma and the discipline taught by me and laid down for you, are your teacher after I am gone.’ My host pointed out a particular inscription in Pali that stated that the artisans who carved these amazing stone gates were the same workmen who had great skills in ivory carving – one of the most delicate arts of the chisel and the hammer in the world.
The stupa itself is a rock-solid structure, a circular arrangement of small stone slabs to make a dome measuring about 16 metres tall and 36 metres across. The stupa is crowned by three stone chhatris, umbrellas symbolic of the divinity of this sacred place. All around the dome where stones had come loose due to the age of the structure, plaster had been slapped on to keep them together. I was informed at this point that in ancient days a special plaster was made using everyday things like jute, batashas (an edible flat white disc of sugar) and jaggery syrup to make a plaster strong enough to rival modern plaster made from harsh chemicals. I wondered fancifully if Buddha’s relics lay buried somewhere beneath this great structure, closed my eyes in reverence to the thought and took a deep breath to absorb the wonderful positive vibrations emanating from the stupa.
To the right of the north gate, one level below where we were, were the ruins of an excavated monastery where monks resided in the days that the stupa flourished as a major point of Buddhist worship. The two-piece remnants of the great Ashoka pillar lie adjacent to the east gate in a shed-like structure. I felt these pillars and was amazed at the granite-smooth feel that they still had over 2000 years after their construction.
At one corner of the site, towards the south gate, is a flat-roofed temple, a remarkable piece of Gupta architecture. There is no image inside the sanctum, but a faint image of the Buddha can be discerned in its lower portion. Significantly, this is the most ancient temple discovered in India. I walked inside the small sanctum of this structure and ran my hands along the alna, or alcove, on the left wall where butter lamps used to be lit. It still bore black marks of soot and smoke and caused a shiver to run down my spine.
A high, battered terrace runs along the stupa. It can be reached by a double stairway flanking the south gate. The terrace affords a marvellous view of the carvings on the south gate as it brings one almost eye-level with the lofty strips of stone. The carvings of the six-tusked elephants – a depiction of the Chaddanta Jataka tale – are superb. Beyond the gate lies the beautiful valley spread out sleepily below.
The west gate completed our circumambulation of the stupa. The bright light of the afternoon sun seemed to bring into sharp focus not just the engravings on the gates but an entire bygone era of days resplendent with the divinity of the Buddha, when he graced the earth and made undying disciples out of mere mortals, days when he taught fellow beings the path to nirvana, when he described how desire was the root cause of all suffering, when he ruled the hearts of great emperors like Ashoka, who did everything they could to spread his teachings far and wide and built stupas such as the one at Sanchi to lend splendid tangibility to a divine flow of deep reverence transcending the boundaries of time.
~ The author wishes to express gratitude to the Archaeological Survey of India, Bhopal Division for the pictures taken inside the museum and acknowledge the scholarly support of K K Muhammad and Manoj Dubey on this trip.
~ Vinita Agrawal is a Delhi based writer. She writes on spirituality and culture and can be reached at vinitaagrawal18@yahoo.co.in
By Vinita Agrawal
The ancient stupa of Sanchi is restored to glory.

The main stupa
The main stupa
On a cold December morning, I set out for Sanchi from Bhopal. Bhopal is the capital of Madhya Pradesh; the ancient town of Sanchi is 45km from this state capital. Most of the distance is a comfortable straight road through the countryside, on the outskirts of Raisen district. When I had met him earlier in Delhi, K K Mohammad, Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India, had told me about restoration work at the ancient stupa, carried out by a team he led. Now I was here – excited and keen to experience the fresh breath of life that had been infused into a monument built by emperor Ashoka in the third century BC.
The domes of two of the magnificent stupas loomed into my vision through the car windows about 5km before I reached the spot. It was a breath-taking sight! Soon the car took a gentle right turn and entered a narrow tree-lined road that led up to the incline of the stupa’s mound. Before ascending however, I halted at the Archaeological Museum at the base of the mound. Manoj Dubey, a scholarly man in charge of the four-galleried museum, was waiting at the steps, and suggested that we visit the museum before proceeding to the stupa. I agreed readily.
My host pointed out that the pretty bungalow to the left of the museum belonged to Sir John Hubert Marshall, who had worked on the restoration of the stupa from 1912 to 1919. Now the bungalow is a proposed site for an interpretation and information centre.
As a background to the treasures housed in the museum, Dubey narrated the life story of the Buddha, a favourite story of mine even though I had heard it innumerable times. There I stood in the bright December sunshine, in the light winter breeze, listening to the story of Buddha’s birth in the sal grove at Lumbini, his princely life in the kingdom of Kapilavastu, his momentous renunciation of worldly life, his ascetic resolve that brought him enlightenment under the Fig Ficus tree at Bodhgaya, his subsequent teachings about suffering and emptiness and his great parinirvana in Kushinagar at the age of 80 in 483 BC. All this came into sharp focus once again in this quaint little place nurtured exclusively by one of Buddha’s greatest followers, Emperor Ashoka. Ironically, for all the divine presence that one feels in the place, Buddha himself never set foot in this part of India.
He had however sent his closest disciples – Sariputta and Maha Mogallana. The relics of both these enlightened souls were found at Sanchi in Stupa 3. Every year for three days, from 26 to 28 November, the relics are taken out of a three-vault iron store and displayed for the public. People from all over the world arrive for a glimpse of these precious caskets containing ashes, cowries, gold leaves and lapis lazuli stored in thirteen layers of packing. On request, the authorities even allow devotees to touch the caskets to their head. Now that’s about as close as one can get to receiving blessings from the Buddha 2600 years after he graced the earth! It was acutely disappointing to discover that I had missed such a momentous occasion by only a few days.
Once inside the museum, the first thing that catches the eye is the lustrous four-lion head of the Ashoka pillar. Made of sandstone, it is prominently displayed at the far end of the main hall. The other two parts of the broken pillar lie near Stupa 1. A pair of swans is carved beneath the lions – symbols of love and peace. ‘Vigilant Bravery with Loving Compassion’ was the core of Ashoka’s philosophy; the thought came unbidden to my mind.
The museum has many statues of the Buddha dating back to the period prior to the 4th century BC. One statue of Gautam Buddha is particularly noteworthy. It is said that there 32 visible signs of greatness on the human body. The Buddha was apparently born with all these signs – a raised knowledge chakra at the apex of his head, joint eyebrows, a round mark on his forehead, three rings on the neck, chakras on fingertips and toes, long arms that touched his knees and many others – and this statue has depicts the signs of eminence on Buddha’s person.
The museum also houses a number of other figures of popular deities like Tara, Bodhisattvas like Vajrapani, Padampani and other well known figures like Yaksha, Kubera, Chunda (from whom Buddha accepted his last meal, which became the cause of his death), and Nairiti – the goddess of accidental deaths. Exquisite carvings on doorjambs and door-heads of those times also find pride of place in the museum. The gleaming ochre sandstone lids of the relic caskets of Sariputta and Mahamogallana are particularly mesmerising. I wanted to reach out and feel them but they were protected by a glass box.

The modern structure housing relics.
The modern structure housing relics.
A place with a soul
As we drove up to the stupa, my host told me the story of how it was built. After the tragic battle of Kalinga, Ashoka visited Vidisha, an ancient town near Sanchi. He subsequently married the daughter of a rich merchant there. The daughter, whose name was Devi, was an intensely religious person. It was she who urged King Ashoka to build the stupa here. It is said that he also had the relics of Buddha dug out from original stupas and embedded them in all the major stupas that he had built. By that logic, the stupa at Sanchi must certainly hold a portion of his relics as well. But strangely, these relics have never been found. I remembered K K Mohammad mentioning lightly that perhaps the relics still lie hidden somewhere in the stupa, unfound, undiscovered. Was that the reason Sanchi had such an incredibly positive vibe to it? At least that was what I wished to believe. It gave an added impetus to my visit. Sanchi was a place with a soul.
As we proceeded to the stupa site, my host told me about the amazing depictions of the Jataka tales that I would see at the gates of the main stupa. The Satavahana dynasty is credited for installing the four magnificent gates around the stupa. He explained that the Jataka tales contained stories of the 547 past lives of Gautam Buddha. Out of these, five Jataka fables – the Chaddanta Jataka, the Sama Jataka, the Mahakapi Jataka, the Alambasa Jataka and the Vessantara Jataka – are engraved on the architraves of the gates.
The sight of the main stupa and the cultivated greenery around it is absolutely splendid. It is a gratifying icon of the restoration work that has been carried out at this UNESCO World Heritage site. The surroundings are lush green, and the hills on which the stupas rest are covered with perfectly manicured lawns. The restoration of reverence becomes obvious at the sight of these verdant, nurtured surroundings. On the left rests a modern rectangular structure where the relics of Sariputta and Mahamogallana are housed. The path to the main stupa is dotted with numerous tiny stupas with minute Buddha images. These are manavti stupas – mini stupas given in donation, or danam, by people whose wishes had been granted at the spectacular main stupa in bygone days. I was told that a pond of swans and lotuses had also been created and a cage containing rabbits had been constructed to engage children who might be too young to enjoy the joys of a historical monument.
A short climb later we stood before the magnificent north gate. Three architrave ribbons of ochre sandstone stand supported by a pillar on each side, all richly carved with animals, plants and human figures. A chakra is engraved at the end of each horizontal beam, symbolic of the wheel of life perhaps, or a cyclical rendering of the cause and effect of life resulting in numerable re-births. About twelve feet behind the north gate, on a berm separating it from the stupa, is seated a statue of the Buddha, a bit desecrated and chipped but utterly moving to behold.
The carvings on every gate and pillar around the stupa are breathtaking. Wherever the Buddha is referred to in the carvings, he is represented by a smooth rectangular stone slab – the sila – symbolic of his teachings, of the sal tree, of his birth and parinirvana, and of a footprint, a symbol of his everlasting presence. He has never been depicted as a human figure in these artworks. This was done to emphasise that his teachings were greater than his personality and his attributes greater than his body. The body may perish but the wisdom it taught lives on. The Buddha in his own words said, ‘The Dhamma and the discipline taught by me and laid down for you, are your teacher after I am gone.’ My host pointed out a particular inscription in Pali that stated that the artisans who carved these amazing stone gates were the same workmen who had great skills in ivory carving – one of the most delicate arts of the chisel and the hammer in the world.
The stupa itself is a rock-solid structure, a circular arrangement of small stone slabs to make a dome measuring about 16 metres tall and 36 metres across. The stupa is crowned by three stone chhatris, umbrellas symbolic of the divinity of this sacred place. All around the dome where stones had come loose due to the age of the structure, plaster had been slapped on to keep them together. I was informed at this point that in ancient days a special plaster was made using everyday things like jute, batashas (an edible flat white disc of sugar) and jaggery syrup to make a plaster strong enough to rival modern plaster made from harsh chemicals. I wondered fancifully if Buddha’s relics lay buried somewhere beneath this great structure, closed my eyes in reverence to the thought and took a deep breath to absorb the wonderful positive vibrations emanating from the stupa.
To the right of the north gate, one level below where we were, were the ruins of an excavated monastery where monks resided in the days that the stupa flourished as a major point of Buddhist worship. The two-piece remnants of the great Ashoka pillar lie adjacent to the east gate in a shed-like structure. I felt these pillars and was amazed at the granite-smooth feel that they still had over 2000 years after their construction.
At one corner of the site, towards the south gate, is a flat-roofed temple, a remarkable piece of Gupta architecture. There is no image inside the sanctum, but a faint image of the Buddha can be discerned in its lower portion. Significantly, this is the most ancient temple discovered in India. I walked inside the small sanctum of this structure and ran my hands along the alna, or alcove, on the left wall where butter lamps used to be lit. It still bore black marks of soot and smoke and caused a shiver to run down my spine.
A high, battered terrace runs along the stupa. It can be reached by a double stairway flanking the south gate. The terrace affords a marvellous view of the carvings on the south gate as it brings one almost eye-level with the lofty strips of stone. The carvings of the six-tusked elephants – a depiction of the Chaddanta Jataka tale – are superb. Beyond the gate lies the beautiful valley spread out sleepily below.
The west gate completed our circumambulation of the stupa. The bright light of the afternoon sun seemed to bring into sharp focus not just the engravings on the gates but an entire bygone era of days resplendent with the divinity of the Buddha, when he graced the earth and made undying disciples out of mere mortals, days when he taught fellow beings the path to nirvana, when he described how desire was the root cause of all suffering, when he ruled the hearts of great emperors like Ashoka, who did everything they could to spread his teachings far and wide and built stupas such as the one at Sanchi to lend splendid tangibility to a divine flow of deep reverence transcending the boundaries of time.
~ The author wishes to express gratitude to the Archaeological Survey of India, Bhopal Division for the pictures taken inside the museum and acknowledge the scholarly support of K K Muhammad and Manoj Dubey on this trip.
~ Vinita Agrawal is a Delhi based writer. She writes on spirituality and culture and can be reached at vinitaagrawal18@yahoo.co.in

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