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Sanchi Stupa’s contribution to Indian architecture


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Sanchi Stupa

Mains level : Ancient Buddhist architecture

Sanchi Stupa

  • The Sanchi Stupa is one of India’s primary Buddhist sites and contains some of the oldest stone structures in the country.
  • One of the first accounts of the Sanchi Stupa came from the British captain Edward Fell in 1819.
  • It was a further 93 years before the site was ‘rediscovered’ by John Marshall, and an additional seven before it was restored to its current
  • The magnificent carvings and inscriptions, are reflective of Indian architecture from the Mauryan era (3rd century BCE) to its later medieval-era decline (around 11th century CE).
  • The Sanchi complex is famous for the Mahastupa (Great Stupa), the Ashokan pillar (with its inscriptions) and its signature ornate torans (gateways).
  • The style of the torans and fencing is said to mimic the bamboo craft of the surrounding areas.
  • If one looks at the design of the fencing around the stupa, as well as the way the torans have been designed they’re reminiscent of bamboo craft and tied bamboo.


  • Stupas are semi-spherical domes with square bases that contain small receptacles for relics. There is generally a path for circumambulation around the outer structure of the stupa. They were initially built outside monasteries by pilgrims.
  • Sanchi is regarded as one of the first monastic stupas.
  • Nestled in the Vindhya Range, 46 km from Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal, the historical city of Sanchi also boasts 50-odd other monuments, including temples and monasteries.
  • The Mahastupa was built by King Ashoka (304-232 BCE) in the 3rd century BCE to house the relics of Gautam Buddha (obtained by opening the eight primary stupas located at places relevant to Buddha’s life).
  • These were further scattered across 84,000 stupas to spread the influence of Buddhism.
  • Inscriptions on the southern toran vouch that the ivory workers of erstwhile Vidisha (now Besnagar) worked on these monuments, translating the same intricate talent onto stone.

Destruction and restoration

  • After the reign of the Mauryas, the Sanchi Stupa was vandalised by Pushyamitra Shungain the mid-2nd century BCE.
  • It was later encased in stone, rebuilt and expanded by future Shunga kings during 187-78 BCE.
  • The four signature torans – embellished with scenes from the Jataka Tales, Ashoka’s visit to the Bodhi tree, the war for Buddha’s relics, etc – were also later additions, constructed by the Satavahanas between the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE.

Connection with Buddhism

  • Interestingly, Buddha never visited Sanchi.
  • Neither did foreign travellers like Hiuen Tsang, who extensively documented the holy Buddhist circuit in India, but did not mention Sanchi in his writings.
  • Marshall in his The Monuments of Sanchi (1938), wrote that Sanchi was not as revered as other Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India.
  • Scholars like Alfred A Foucher say that the iconic depictions of Buddha (as the Bodhi tree, a rider-less horse, an empty throne, etc.) at Sanchi are products of Graeco-Buddhist architectural interaction.

Inspiration for future architects

  • The lion capital at Sanchi is similar to the one at Sarnath. The main difference between the two is that the monument at Sanchi depicts an abacus instead of a chakra.
  • However, the influence of the Sanchi Stupa on our national psyche goes beyond the lion capital; it inspired the design of several modern buildings, chief among which is the modern-day Rashtrapati Bhavan.
  • Architect Edwin Lutyens was asked by Lord Charles Hardinge to incorporate symbols of India’s architectural past into the building, and modelled the colonnade to carry a Sanchi-style dome and balustrade railing.
  • In 1963, the dome of Kolkata’s Birla Planetarium was constructed to mirror the one at Sanchi.

With inputs from:


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