When Ashoka converted to Buddhism, he embarked on a mission to spread the wings of Buddhism far and wide. Redistributing the mortal remains of Lord Buddha among the Buddhist monks he sent to Sri Lanka and Central Asia for establishing significant monuments of the faith, he also commissioned the construction of the one of the most important pieces of architecture in the history of India. The Great Stupa in the town of Sanchi, an hour's drive from Bhopal, is the oldest stone structure in the country.
One of the most well-preserved landmarks in India, this Sanchi site is a prime example of the flourishing Buddhist faith between the 3rd century BCE and 12th century AD. A central chamber holds the last relics of Siddhartha Gautama, while four intricately carved toranas, which are free-standing arched gateways, surround the Great Stupa.
Four stupas, divided by the four toranas, are spread across this holy location. Each gateway is embellished with carvings to emphasize a certain aspect of the faith. The Southern gateway is said to be the oldest and focuses on the relics of Buddha and Ashoka's vast role in the spread of the faith. The Northern gateway is best preserved and showcases the important life events of Siddhartha Gautama. The Eastern gateway is where one can learn of the miracles performed by the leader of Buddhism. And lastly, the Western gateway reproduces the story of Kushinagara, an important Buddhist pilgrimage location.
Modified over the years, this extravagant piece of history will take through the early chapters of India from the successful Mauryan Era to the highly influential Satavahana Period. This Mauryan marvel possesses one of India's most recognized symbol, the Pillar of Ashoka. Erected next to the main torana, this sandstone pillar contains inscriptions of the Edicts of Ashoka. The Satavahana's prominent impact is visible through the themes ornately carved onto the toranas. Various Jatakas, Buddhist moral tales depicting events from the life of the Buddha, along with numerous miracles made by him are also recorded.
The pillars at Sanchi also unravel Ashoka's desire to build the temple at Bodh Gaya in Bihar. It is believed that the celebrated Mauryan king was so devastated by the poor condition of the Bodhi tree in Bihar that he endeavoured to build a monument to protect it. The carvings at Sanchi show Ashoka grieving to his wives regarding the same.
Nearby Sanchi are other beautiful stupa sites which you should make a trip to. Satdhara, Bhojpur, Andher, and Sonari are four groups of stupas surrounding Sanchi within a radius of twenty kilometres. So, pack your bags and embark on your own stupa-hopping trip.