Sāñcī 's extensive monastic complexes occupy a hilltop near the prosperous Indian town of Vidiṣa, where major road and river routes intersect. Its many freestanding pillars, stŪpas, temples, assembly halls, and monastic residences (vihāras) date from the reign of King AŚoka (third century b.c.e.) to around 1200 c.e., making it one of the oldest and most constantly occupied extant Buddhist sites. A small flat-roofed Gupta temple (ca. fourth century c.e.) is probably the earliest extant stone temple in South Asia. Many structures were erected on the foundations of earlier ones. Begun during Aśoka's rule, an apsidal temple complex (no.40) was enlarged in Śuṅga times (ca. second to first centuries b.c.e.) and again later. Four quadrangular dry-masonry vihāras belong to the seventh century c.e. Two of these were double-storied, while another incorporated a stone-faced temple with a northern-style tower in its eastern wall. As at AjaṆṬĀ, Sāñcī's early stūpas are unadorned and austere, while a Buddha image graces its Gupta stūpa. Here too, Buddha images do not replace stūpas; rather the two coexist.
Dominating the hilltop, the Great Stūpa's core of Mauryan bricks and the edict pillar beside it suggest Aśoka may have built it as part of his legendary redistribution of the Buddha's bodily relics (śarīra). During the Śuṅga period, the stūpa was doubled in size to its present diameter of thirty-six meters. A railed berm accessed by a double staircase was also added to the dome, and an identical but more massive stone railing with openings at the cardinal directions enclosed the sacred precinct. These unadorned railings defined circumambulatory passages where Buddhist devotees could perform the basic rite of worshiping their lord's relics.
In the Śātavāhana period (ca. 150 c.e.), towering gateways consisting of two pillars bearing three architraves were erected at each railing opening. Every surface was carved with tumultuous and naturalistic reliefs that constantly threaten to break free from their architecturally defined, linear frames and the rock matrix. In comparison with Bhārhut (first century b.c.e.), Sāñcī has proportionately more narrative scenes of Aśoka and of animals worshiping the Buddha's living presence in relics such as the bodhi tree and the stūpas, as well as more scenes from the Buddha's life and far fewer jĀtakas. Sāñcī's narratives typically include scenes of worshiping crowds moving freely in space. Style and meaning cohere in expressing the unself-conscious and unrestrained joyousness that often characterizes devotional worship (bhakti). Loaded up with auspicious actions, motifs, and figures, Sāñcī's gates simultaneously honor the sacred precinct and protect its liminal openings against negative powers seeking to enter. What better way to do so than by representing and invoking the power of worship?
The Great Stūpa's six hundred short inscriptions in Prakrit attest to a pattern of collective, multiple donation typifying early Buddhist patronage. Accounting for a third of all donations, monks and nuns form the largest donor group. Next come merchants crisscrossing the subcontinent. Donors include a guild of ivorycarvers and the Śātavāhana king's chief artisan.
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Dehejia, Vidya, ed. Unseen Presence: The Buddha and Sanchi: Bombay: Marg, 1966.
Maisey, Fredrick Charles. Sanchi and Its Remains: A Full Description of the Ancient Buildings, Sculptures, and Inscriptions (1892). Reprint, Delhi: Indological Book House, 1972.
Marshall, John Hubert. The Monuments of Sāñchī. London: Probsthain, 1940.
Marshall, John Hubert. A Guide to Sanchi, 3rd edition. Delhi: Manager of Publications, 1955.
Leela Aditi Wood