We’d spent the night in Bhopal, on the basis that we thought we’d have wanted to spend more time in Ujjain, and that the easiest way to get to Sanchi – our next stop – was via Bhopal. With only four trains a day, our options were limited. So an overnight in Bhopal it was.
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Bars in Old Bhopal
Only go to bars in hotels said the Internet in its wisdom, you won’t be welcome in other bars. So, we thought as we headed to the dark dingy Eco Bar and Restaurant attached to a hotel, that we’d be welcome. I guess Nigel might have been, but this was definitely a no-woman place – they led us out to the air-conditioned bar, that looked like a bar, had beer for 180 INR and had the usual Indian bar dodgy lighting (i.e. you can’t see anything) but no air con.
We snacked on bad snacks, we drank a few beers and we walked back through the busy, busy, garbage strewth streets. Those same packed busy streets were empty the next morning at 0730. Of everything and everyone apart from the garbage. This was a new low in garbage. Or should that be high? It was everywhere.
The quickest route back to the station took us down small alleys where we dodged open sewers, foraging cows, and of course lots of used cow forage.
That was quite long enough in Bhopal. I know the areas around stations aren’t the nicest of places to visit, but leaving Bhopal really was the best part of it – and so, next stop, Sanchi.
Taking the Sleeper from Bhopal to Sanchi
It was our first experience of the sleeper carriage – our “supposed to be 43-minute, but actually around an hour” train from Bhopal to Sanchi. So I figure that while the seats 15 and 16 (side upper and lower) might have had our names on, it didn’t actually mean that we got them to ourselves, but it was only an hour and we at least tried it and wouldn’t again.
USING TRAINS IN INDIA
Arriving at Sanchi Railway Station
Sanchi railway station is a delight. Clean, empty, two platforms.
Most trains don’t stop here, but rattle through at high, horn-tooting speed. There was one auto-rickshaw guy, who walked across the track to try and get our business – showing a card that I can only assume was for a hotel, or maybe his auto-rickshaw touring services in Hindi. But Sanchi is small, we’re staying for the day and then moving on late this afternoon.
Leaving Bags in the Cloakroom at Sanchi
The cloakroom service is provided in the actual station office, where you can see the switching board, the inside of the ticket office, and the 1980’s style computer reservation system and where the ticket lady takes your 15 INR per bag and stores it next to her desk.
Sanchi Railway to the Buddhist Monument
Walking out of the Railway Station, its a straight road, that leads you over the main road at right angles, then to the Madhyar Pradesh Government Gateway Cafeteria for a fab Indian breakfast, then to the ticket office, the museum (ack, closed on Fridays – that’s today) and up the hill to the Buddhist sites that we’re here to see.
Ticket costs to enter Sanchi
Our tickets are 250 INR each (10 INR if you’re an Indian or from one of the SAARC countries), and our questions about the audio guide gets an answer of “Stupa, Stupa”, which of course means nothing to us.
Hiking up the hill, takes us 15 minutes and we’re at the entrance gate – buying a discounted Indian Archaeological Society booklet for Sanchi – they’re a superb resource and much better than the audio guide that we could find no evidence of – perhaps it’s in the closed museum. There may also be human guides here, but no one wanted to talk to us, so we went with the excellent value 60 INR guide book. (we’d met it’s brother at Champaner-Pavagadh recently)
Sanchi is Peaceful
We haven’t heard a horn beeping since breakfast. I know that’s only a matter of a few hours, but in Indian hours that’s a lifetime. It is gloriously peaceful up here. Sure there are people here, there’s a group of older French tourists, with their own French guide. There are several Indian families with loud Indian tour guides and there are several groups of brightly sari’d women all seemingly amused that I’m wearing my raincoat, have a hat on and I’m holding my brolly.
Yes. It’s raining.
But it’s still glorious up here. Did I already say that?
It’s a world and a half away from Ujjain and Bhopal. The grounds are immaculate. The carvings on the gateways to Stupa’s 1 and 3 are magnificent. This emptiness, this well maintained state. This is a wonderful example of Unesco at it’s best. Preserving the culture for the future.
The Most Well Preserved Stupa in India
Sanchi has the most perfect and well-preserved stupas anywhere in India. They record, says the guide, the “genesis, efflorescence and decay of Buddhist art and architecture over a period of thirteen hundred years from the third century BC to the twelfth century AD”.
Asoka’s Pillar and Foundation
There was nothing that occurred in the Buddha’s life that happened here, and the only reference to Sanchi is in the Sri Lankan Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa chronicles which record that Asoka’s son Mahendra visited his mother here and remained for a month prior to departing for Sri Lanka. The foundation of Sanchi as an important center of Buddhism was probably laid by Asoka when he built a stupa and laid a pillar here. It’s a primary reason why this is one of the most famous temples of North India.
Sanchi Was Deserted until 1818
Sanchi was deserted and forgotten from around the fourteenth century, coming back into the public domain in 1818 when a General Taylor discovered the ruins of several of the Stupas – which he found intact. It was subsequent excavations and explorations that were to damage them prior to their future repair.
Sanchi from 1818 to 1912
Between 1818 and 1912 various attempts were made to discover more about the Stupas which led to their collapse and it wasn’t until 1912, when Sir John Marshall, the Director General of Archeology in India took over that they were restored to their present condition.
The plan of the monuments is pretty simple.
Once you’ve got to the top of the hill and gone through the entrance, the dominant Stupa is number 1, number 3 is to your left as you head up the slope. Stupa 2 is found on the Western slope (on your right as you walk towards stupa 1) – its a 7-8 minute walk down to it, and a slower walk back up.
Sanchi Stupa 1:
This stupa is 36 metres in diameter and 16.46 metres high. It’s crowned with an “umbrella”, surrounded by a balustrade which you enter by four beautifully carved gates.
Two sets of steps at the south entrance (opposite where you first see it from) lead to a terrace – where it’s auspicious to walk around in a clockwise direction.
Sanchi Stupa 1 Gateways
The gateways all date to the first century BC, with the south being the earliest and principal entrance. (Asoka’s pillar and the steps to the terrace indicate this being the case).
Each gateway has two square pillars, which are crowned by sets of lions, elephants, or my favorite, the pot bellied dwarfs, each with different expressions, which then hold three spectacularly carved architraves.
The carvings on the gateways depict scenes from the Buddha’s life, events in Buddhist history, and scenes from the Jatakas – the AIS guide book gives exquisite detail on each gateway and what it depicts.
Down the Steps from Stupa 1
Leave Stupa 1 through the western gateway and walk down the steps, at the bottom of the slope you’ll find the second stupa, after passing “Monastery 51” – or at least the remains of it. As you leave the monastery behind, you’ll also walk past a giant stone bowl – formed through the scooping out of a giant boulder.
Stupa 2 doesn’t have a gateway, and is very simple. The balustrade is decorated and well preserved with four entrances.
The Southern Area of Sanchi
Returning back up the slope, and turning to the right of Stupa 1 is the Southern Area. This is where you’ll find a profusion of ruined temples and monastery remains. There’s also glorious views over the surrounding countryside.
Eating in Sanchi’s Cafe
There’s also a small cafe serving snacks and hot and cold drinks. They also provide entertainment in the form of squirrels. These squirrels will jump up your legs and onto your lap in search of sustenance.
We left Stupa 3 until last. Much smaller than the first, and with a single gateway, this stupa was almost entirely ruined prior to conversation. The AIS guide contains some great photos. It was the archeologist Alexander Cunningham who discovered the enshrined relics of Sariputra and Maudgalyayana here. They’re two of the Buddha’s foremost disciples.
Two stone boxes with inscriptions on their lids were found with the relics inside. The lids are now in the museum.
The relics were removed to London.
The site here is quite lovely. Quiet, like the village itself. It’s well kept. You could whistle round here in an hour or so, but we’ve spent most of the day, because our train is at the end of the day. There are seating areas throughout the site, under the shade of glorious old trees. Wonderful in bloom bushes and flowers make this an extremely pleasant place to visit. If you can’t walk up the hill, then locals will offer you a ride up on the back of their motorbike. For a fee.
This has been a lovely and easy day, despite the fact that it’s rained. And that of course our outbound train is running late. We’ve eaten well (again) at the Gateway Cafeteria. Now we’re sitting at the little coffee place just before the station. We’re checking that our train is really only 90 minutes late and not more.
It’s been like a balm on the burn that was Ujjain and Bhopal.
Sublime and soothing for the soul – yes, that’s Sanchi.
UNESCO Sites to Visit in India
If you like visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites, then you’ll love our guides to India’s best World Heritage sites
- Champaner Pavagadh, in Gujarat
- The Taj Mahal in Agra
- The Ajanta Caves
- Ellora Caves
- Khajuraho’s Temples
- Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
- The Hill Forts of Rajasthan
- The Darjeeling Hill Railway
- Qutub Minar in Delhi
- The Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya
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