'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sanchi - In General

Note: The Sanchi Stupa and its history is reasonably well documented in Wikipedia. A very useful resource for travelers is the slim - and highly economical -volume "Sanchi" published by the Archeological Survey of India. A very good online (pictorial) intro is here:

A quick historical summary: Asoka built the Great Stupa atop the Sanchi hill and also erected a grand stone pillar inscribed with edicts - in 3rd century BC. The stupa suffered from vandalism shortly thereafter but in 1st century BC, the Satavahanas (who also built the contemporaneous Amaravati Stupa almost a thousand kilometers away in AP), rebuilt it and commissioned 4 grand triumphal archways (Toranas) - each over 20 feet tall - around the Stupa. A couple of more stupas sprang up in the vicinity. Work on the site continued almost until 1000 AD when it was abandoned. Rediscovered by the British in mid 19th century, the stupa and the toranas were meticulously restored by John Marshall and his team. Now, Sanchi is a World Heritage Site.

We visited Sanchi expecting to be impressed; and the experience turned out to be way above the merely impressive!

Several of the Jataka stories on previous incarnations of Buddha are depicted as relief carvings on the Toranas. These include the Monkey King (Mahakapi), the Six-Tusked Elephant (Chhaddanta) and the over-generous Prince (Vessantara). There are also episodes from the life of the Historical Buddha, mostly miraculous stunts (walking on water, materializing a 'stairway to heaven' and making a trip up there,...); there are also 'non-stunt miracles', like, for instance, a monkey who brought honey for the Master...

A remarkable feature in all this artwork is a persistent refusal to show Buddha in human form(*) - he is always shown symbolically, as a Bodhi tree or Stupa or... But this symbolism applies only to Buddha himself and his other human incarantions ('Manushi Buddhas') and not to other human beings or to his own other incarnations. Not sure what prompted this strange restriction...

Each Torana panel shows a rich profusion of figures (human and beastly). Formal religious episodes are but a small minority of these - there are processions, armies on the march, royal darbars, everyday scenes, battles, cityscapes - complete with multi-storeyed builings and balconies,...

Some highlights:

1. A group of over a dozen grotesque dwarfs (Yakshas, or maybe the minions of Mara?) of various ages and sporting a range of facial expressions. To me, this crowded panel, merely 5 foot by a foot and a half, is right up there with the best of Brueghel - 'Proverbs', 'Peasant Wedding'... and till the other day, I did not even know such a piece of art even exists in this country!

2. An amazingly fluid battle scene, about the same size as (1) - an elephant being goaded on by its handler, a chariot, a cavalryman, bowmen, pikemen, even a dwarf cutting down an adversary with a trident,...

3. An immense variety of animal images: Elephants (browsing, uprooting trees, luxuriating in ponds, 'saluting', at war - mostly shown in profile, some frontally...) deer and antelopes, lions, cattle, buffaloes, horses (in harness, being ridden...), geese, alligators,... I could readily sense the deep debt the splendid animal figures of Mahabalipuram ('Arjuna's penance' etc.. ) owe to these at-least-half-a-millennium-older works.

Two details on the animals: The elephants are being prodded on with very 'modern' goads. The riders atop some of the horses use toe stirrups (which support only the big toe), some clearly use full foot-stirrups and some use none at all, the complete range! Btw, the stirrup is a very old concern of mine and elsewhere on this blog, there is an article on it.

5. Remarkable 'load-bearing' figures. dwarf/yakshas(the most impressive of the lot), lions (just like on the Saranath Pillar, India's National emblem), elephants,...

6. 'Genre scenes' showing common people simply minding their business - grinding cereals, trading, picking fruits, simply lazing around under lush trees, a happily married couple with two children, a couple chatting in a small hut, another couple sitting outside a hut, tending to a fire...(these are said to show stages of Prince Vessantara's life).

7. The Grand Stupa has a very neat looking 'fence' surrounding it. Nearly 10 feet in height, this fence was made by fitting together rows of stone blocks, each block well over a quintal in weight, with regular gaps between rows. The job was so expertly done that the fence was intact even when the ruins were rediscovered in mid-19th century (judging from photographs taken round about that time and now on display in a small museum at the foot of the hill).

Among the other architectural relics are a small Gupta period temple (said to be the oldest surviving structural edifice in India), a double storied temple from a later era, a structural Chaitya hall - of which only a dozen or so tall pillars remain, the foundations of a large monastery,...

Judgement: Artistically, the Sanchi Toranas rank, at the very least, with the Ghiberti's 'Gates of Paradise' in Florence (indeed, I am tempted to rank Sanchi alongside the Sistine ceiling!). I first heard about the Italian masterpiece when I was 10 years old - and have had to *discover* the Desi one in middle age.


  • At 8:32 AM, Blogger LuvfromIndia said…

    thanks...well written and great information plus excellent observations and comparisons.


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