Sanchi, the stupa village, is situated 45 km away from Bhopal. The ancient trade route connecting Ujjain with rest of the ancient north India passed through it. In course of time few more stupa villages such as Andher, Murel-Khurd and Sonari sprang in the vicinity of Sanchi.
During Sunga times, several edifices were raised at Sanchi and its surrounding hills. The Asokan stupa was enlarged and faced with stones and decorated with balustrades, staircases and a harmika on the top.
It was accepted that the structure at Sanchi are the most organized construction which went into the engineering of Buddhist monuments at Sanchi. The carvings here are done with the precision of Jewelers. Despite the damage and restoration work done the great Stupa of Sanchi is the most evocative and attractive Buddhist site in India. The fact Sanchi Stupa is primarily a place of Stupas and pillars but the gorgeous gateways add grace to the place. These gateways are beautifully carved and carry scenes from the life of Buddha or Ashoka. The images carved on the pillars and the stupas tell moving story of the incidents form the life of Buddha.
ORIGIN OF THE STUPA IN THE BUDDHIST TRADITION
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra (an ancient Buddhist text describing the last days of the Buddha) claims that after the Buddha passed away, his followers divided his cremated remains into eight portions. Each of the eight kingdoms in which the Buddha had lived received one portion of the relics, and a stupa was erected in each kingdom in order to house the remains. Buddhist sources claim that during the 3rd century BCE, the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka the Great ordered these eight stupas to be opened, further distributed the relics of the Buddha into 84,000 portions, and had stupas built over them all over the expanding Buddhist world.
The relics of the Buddha were not merely considered a commemorative symbol by the Buddhist community; they were believed to be the living presence of the Buddha, a depository of his protective powers and living energy. Early in the Buddhist tradition, clergy and laity alike practiced the veneration of stupas and the relics in them in order to gain spiritual merit. The importance of the stupas gradually increased as a result of both the emphasis of the Buddhist relic-cult and their multiplication during the time of Ashoka.
It should be noted that the veneration of stupas is not unique to Buddhism. This practice had its origin in Indian traditions pre-dating the emergence of Buddhism. From pre-historical times, burial mounds containing the remains of the dead were a common funerary practice in some Indian societies: in these mounds, the living paid homage to their dead, just like Buddhists would do for their saints centuries later.
STUPAS & EARLY BUDDHISM
The earliest archaeological evidence for the presence of stupas in North India dates to the late 4th century BCE. These are all pilgrimage stupas, which means that they were built outside the domains of monastic complexes, at pilgrimage sites. Although we have no material evidence of earlier stupas, Buddhist scriptures claim that stupas were built at least a century earlier. It is possible that before this time, stupas were built with non-durable materials such as wood, or even as burial mounds, in which case archaeological detection would be nearly impossible.
The earliest evidence of monastic stupas dates back to the 2nd century BCE. These are stupas that were built within Buddhist monastic complexes. It is possible that these stupas replaced older stupas made of wood: some of their architectural components were shaped imitating wooden parts. Unfortunately none of these left any visible trace.
ARCHITECTURAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE STUPA
During early Buddhist times, stupas were composed of a semi-spherical dome with a parasol placed on top. The dome covered a square base with a small receptacle in the centre containing relics, while a space for circumambulation was defined around the dome. This basic format underwent changes as stupas were introduced in other cultures.
Why build a stupa?
There are many reasons people build a stupa. From creating a place people can gather to give respect to Buddha a central area people can practice their faith.
Many others create stupa’s to either be born again at a higher level eg from peasant to royalty. Others still believe it will give them clairvoyance to understanding Buddhism. Perhaps one of the more popular reasons is to remove all signs of negative karma from ones life by building a stupa.