There were two areas in India that I had been looking forward to visiting. As a practicing Buddhist, that India contains three of the four main pilgrimage sites is exciting. Bodh Gaya is the location where it is said that Gautama Buddha obtained enlightenment. It is the most holy place in all the world for Buddhists. A sapling of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat is planted here (actually a sapling of a sapling of the original tree). The other site is in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught the Dharma and established a Sangha (community). I saw neither.
I’m just not that kind of Buddhist, or am I? The opportunity would have been lovely but I wasn’t attached to the outcome. Bodh Gaya turned out a challenge to travel to and from. Sarnath is outside Varanasi at a time when Chelle was suffering from a second intestinal illness. She was more disappointed then I was in the end. What I relished was the opportunity to see the places I never expected. Sanchi was one of those places. A small town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, is the location of several Buddhist monuments dating from the 3rd century. Home to the Great Gupta Temples.
Can a mound of dirt represent the Buddha, the path to Enlightenment, a mountain and the universe all at the same time? It can if it is a stupa. The stupa (Sanskrit for heap) is an important form of Buddhist architecture. It is generally considered to be a sepulchral monument—a place of burial or a receptacle for religious objects. At its simplest, a stupa is a dirt burial mound faced with stone. In Buddhism, the earliest stupas contained portions of the Buddha’s ashes, and as a result, the stupa began to be associated with the body of the Buddha.
If one thinks of the stupa as a circle or wheel, the unmoving center symbolizes Enlightenment. Many stupas are placed on a square base, and the four sides represent the four cardinal directions. Each side often has a gate in the center, which allows entry from any side. Each gate also represents the four great life events of the Buddha: East (Buddha’s birth), South (enlightenment), West (first Dharma lesson), and North (nirvana). One can’t enter a stupa as it is solid object. It is a meditational practice one would circumambulate the structure.
The two pillars on each gateway support three crossbeams. The images on these pillars and crossbeams give us great insight into ancient beliefs and customs. The relief sculpture depicts the events of the Buddha’s life, legends of his previous births, and other scenes important to early Buddhism. Stupas are permanent reminders of the Buddha and his teachings almost 2,500 years after his death.