Friday, June 14, 2013

Video: The Great Stupa of Sanchi

Buddhistdoor International
Raymond Lam
Rising from the earth’s womb on the hill of Sanchi, in Madhya Pradesh, India, is a breathtaking monument that testifies to the power of a world religion and the devotion of an emperor. The so-called Great Stupa of Sanchi is only one of several memorial structures in the area, but it is certainly the most venerable and awe-inspiring.
There are many rock-cut masterpieces in India, ranging from vast caves to ancient temples. But there few such monuments that boast such intricate, painstaking detail, and the sheer scale and spiritual ambition of this landmark, which dates from the 3rd Century BCE, could only have come from the greatest Buddhist monarch India has ever known: Ashoka.
Stupas have traditionally served as the quintessential tombs of important Buddhist figures. They are unique to this religious tradition. They are imagined to have begun as simple mounds of earth piled over the urns that contained the Buddha’s physical remains and relics. As the memory of the Buddha grew dimmer down the centuries, the primitive stupas became became hemispherical brick structures, and Buddhist artisans began decorating their constructions with new images rich in symbolism.
The Great Stupa is crowned by the chatra, a parasol or canopy that has traditionally symbolized Indian royalty, and was intended to similarly honour and shelter the relics. The perimeter wall has a gateway at each cardinal direction, and the carvings on these entrances depict events from the Buddha’s past lives and final rebirth.
The Great Stupa hails from a time before the Buddha statues that still sit near the gates because in all the gates’ friezes. We know this because in the artwork of the stupa gates, the Buddha or Prince Gautama is depicted as simply a tree or a stupa. This is the fabled aniconism of pre-anthropomorphic Buddhist art, a time when the Buddha was only represented by symbols before the influence of Gandharan and Mathuran art changed the literal face of the Buddha for the next two millennia. These symbols at the Great Stupa mainly consist of: the lotus flower or an elephant marking his birth, a bodhi tree to represent his enlightenment, a wheel signifying his teachings, and a stupa to denote his enduring presence on earth.
The Great Stupa is extraordinary because it fulfils the functions of several different kinds of stupa: housing the relics of the Buddha, commemorating the previous and final life of the Blessed One, commemorate visits and reward pilgrimages, and symbolize the Buddhist universe itself. It is therefore all at once a relic stupa, a commemorative stupa, a votive stupa, and a theological stupa. Such ambition could only have been financed and realized by a ruler as influential as Ashoka. That is why his project here was less political than religious. He was animated and spurred on by his new Buddhist vision of suffering, compassion, and what it means to be a sentient being in this world of death and rebirth.
Each entrance leads to a walkway built halfway up the mound; the faithful would use this to circle the stupa clockwise to pay homage to the central relics interred within. These were used to impart Buddhist ideas to a mostly illiterate group of people, and such carvings could transmit Buddhist morals better than any written text. What an experience it must have been for the first pilgrims to raise their heads and bask in the glory of this stupa. Be they aristocrat or commoner, there is no doubt that they would have felt a great sense of wonderment as well as heartfelt, profound reassurance that the Blessed One would always remain with them.
The Great Stupa has captured the imagination of archaeologists, Indologists, pilgrims, and historians all over the world. It is, as with so many great heritage sites around the world, a testament to the devotion of a powerful ruler. Once lost to the wild jungles after a millennia of Hindu and Muslim domination, it was restored between 1912 and 1919, along with the rest of Sanchi, under the supervision of Sir John Marshall. It is difficult to imagine what its heyday would have been like, but we only know that its survival alone, along with the partial survival of its friezes and stone art, is a miracle that must always be protected.

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