My old bus rattled from Bhopal northeast 46 kilometers to Sanchi, a long-running Buddhist pilgrimage site. The pious Emperor Ashoka built the hilltop Great Stupa in the 2nd century BC near the birthplace of his wife. Later people enlarged it and added other stupas, temples, and monasteries to the hill. Buddhism faded away after about the 10th century and the site lay neglected until an British army officer discovered it in 1818. I first visited the small museum of stone sculptures, then climbed an old stone path to the summit, stopping at the modern Chethiyagiri Vihara, built by Sri Lankans to house relics of the Buddha's two chief disciples, Sariputtha and Maha Moggallana. The Great Stupa has been restored to its former glory with four elaborate gateways leading to a path used by pilgrims to circumambulate the stupa. The gateways depict scenes of the Buddha's life and past lives along with Ashoka's life and a host of animals and dwarfs—a fascinating view into life of the far distant past. Of the other stupas, one also has a decorated gateway while a third features railings decorated by medallions of flowers, animals, people, and strange beasts.
Emperor Ashoka built Sanchi's Great Stupa here, then later rulers enlarged it and added the railings and four toranas (gateways).
Today the dome stands 16 meters high and 37 meters in diameter. This is the western torana, supported by potbellied dwarfs;
carved scenes tell stories of the Buddha in which he appears not as a human image, but as a stupa or tree.
The northern gateway has lots going on with stories of the Buddha's birth, temptation, and a past life.
Again, trees and stupas symbolize the Buddha.
A royal procession on a column of the northern gateway
Eastern gateway detail
Towering pillars of Temple 18 date from about the 7th century and once enclosed a prayer room or assembly hall.
Do you see classical Greek influence in the pillars?
Several historic sites lie around the town of Vidisha, just 8 kilometers northeast of Sanchi, so I hired an autorickshaw to take me to them. First I visited Bija Mandal, the ruins of a once huge 11th century Hindu temple, which Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed and built a mosque atop the base. Many temple pillars had been recycled. A once beautiful temple had become an ugly mosque.
Countless fragments at Bija Mandal hint at the splendor of the temple that once stood here.
Out in the countryside beside a river stands Heliodorus Pillar, named for a Greek ambassador from Taxila (now in northern Pakistan) who set up this pillar in honor of Vishnu around 140 BC. Now it's said that local fishermen come here on full-moon nights and chain one of the group to the pillar and that person then becomes possessed and can drive out evil spirits from the others.
Heliodorus Pillar, locally known as Khamb Baba
Lastly I stopped at Udaigiri Caves, famed for its 20 stone-cut shrines cut into a hill. A few have elaborate decorations to Hindu gods. I climbed to the hilltop to see a Jain temple, but it had been closed off and I could not even see inside. I did enjoy a fine panorama of the green fields all around.
Udaigiri Caves date from the reign of Chandragupta II (A.D. 382-401).
This is one of the Hindu caves. A few Jain are high up on the hillside, but were closed.
The sacred bull Nandi adores Shiva linga in this cave.
Varahi, Vishnu's boar incarnation, stands at the entrance to Cave 6 along with a host of gods.
From the hilltop above Udaigiri Caves, I had this view of a river lazily meandering past fields of rice.
On to New Delhi