Sanchi: Popular Buddhist Pilgrim Site

By Kalinga Seneviratne

 SanchiSanchi located about 45 km from the north-central Indian city of Bhopal is not directly related with the life of Gauthama Buddha, but it is a popular Buddhist pilgrim site that attracts over 100,000 visitors a year. The reason is that it hosts one of the most well-preserved Buddhist stupas in India whose history goes back to the 3rd century BCE.

Built on top of a 90 metre hilltop with great views of the scenic countryside of green wheat and yellow mustard fields, the monuments provides a good insight into ancient Buddhist arts and architecture. The four stone-carved gateways of the stupas, which have been marvelously preserved, resemble some of the finest examples of Buddhist arts that attracts both Buddhist and non-Buddhist visitors to the site.

The gateways give a good account of the rise (and decay) of Buddhist arts over a period of 13 centuries beginning from 3rd century BCE to 12th century CE. Since Sanchi is not associated with the life of the Buddha it is not usually mentioned in Buddhist scriptures or accounts of Buddhist pilgrims in ancient times. But Sri Lankan chronicles Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa have mentioned it. These have mentioned that the great Indian Buddhist emperor Asoka in 3rd century BCE, before he became the Maurya emperor, had married the daughter named Devi of a merchant in Vidisha (nearby ancient city) who has later built a monastery at Sanchi. Emperor Asoka has subsequently built the stupas and erected a “Asoka Pillar” that is still there.

Archeologists say that inscriptions at Sanchi shows that a great Buddhist stupa and monasteries were built here due to the patronage of rich merchants of Vidisha, that helped Sanchi to flourish long after the Maurya empire declined following Emperor Asoka’s death. Between 14th to the 19th century CE Sanchi was deserted and remained unnoticed. The decline was due to aggressive Bhraministic revival in these parts of India beginning around the 13th century CE.

Excavations undertaken by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) since 1993 have exposed a number of buried structures that indicate a large complex of temples and monasteries.

The largest stupa is a circular dome (anda) of 36 metres in diameter and 16 metres in height crowned at the top with a triple-umbrella made in stone. These stupas were originally meant to be depositories of ashes of the dead. It also has a paved processional path around it at a level that includes a plight of stone steps of about 4 metres high. This may have been for walking meditation or ceremonial processions around the stupa.

The four gateways are the main attractions of Sanchi that dates to 1st century CE. Each gateway consists of two square pillars crowned by a set of 4 lions, elephants or pot-bellied dwarfs supporting 3 horizontal columns and two vertical columns, all carved in stone depicting Jataka stories (Buddha’s previous lives of compassion and generosity), life of the Buddha or the natural environment. Crown of the top horizontal column is a “dharma-chakra” that symbolize the “tri-ratna” the three pillars of Buddhism – Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

In the carvings depicting the Buddha’s life nowhere is he represented in human form. Buddha is represented as symbols such as a horse without a rider but an umbrella held above; a dharma-chakra; a throne; pillar or footprints. Even the “parinirvana” (death) of the Buddha in Kushinara between two sal trees is depicted by a stupa.

Sanchi is not a functioning Buddhst temple as such. But the Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka has built an adjoining temple for worship by pilgrims. The area has no Buddhist community.

The Sanchi village is interesting by itself to take a stroll through the narrow streets with its multi-coloured houses and small huts with clay walls. Some households also raise cows and goats. They have a number of local schools with each having its own uniform. There are a number of small Hindu temples as well as a functioning Jain temple. There is a community of about 10 Jain families.

The Madhya Pradesh state government is keen to develop Sanchi into a major tourist attraction and they have recently opened a family-oriented resort there. The only other accommodation in Sanchi is the Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka’s international guest house which is usually booked out by Sri Lankan pilgrims during the October-November and March-April period. The state government has also recently opened a new university just 10 km from the stupa – known as the Sanchi University of Indic Buddhist Studies – it aims to develop educational programs and intellectual exchanges with Buddhist countries across Asia.

The best way to get to Sanchi is via Bhopal, which has a domestic airport and is a very busy intersection for express trains crisscrossing India. There are regular busses from Bhopal to Sanchi that takes about 1 hour and also a few local trains that stop at Sanchi. It is also possible to hire a taxi from Bhopal to Sanchi and vice-versa.

Recommended Text: World Heritage Series – Sanchi, by Debala Mitra, Archeological Survey of India, 2003.


Nalanda Without Buddhist Participation?

Published in AsiaViews (Indonesia), February-March 2011

Nalanda Without BuddhistsAt a symposium in November 2006 in Singapore to launch the project to restore the ancient Buddhist university of Nalanda in India, Singapore’s Foreign Minister, George Yeo said that this project was “about Buddhist values and philosophy which have become an integral part of East Asian civilization”. He added that as Asia re-emerges on the world stage, Asians could “look back to their own past and derive inspiration from it for the future”. Thus, Yeo, who is a Catholic, noted, “we should develop Nalanda as an icon of the Asian renaissance attracting scholars and students from a much wider region as the ancient university once did”.

India’s then President Dr Abdul Kalam delivering the keynote address via a live multimedia videocast from his office in New Delhi said that this project is a “model for evolving a happy, prosperous and peaceful society in our planet”, which he described as “Evolution of Enlightened Citizen”. He argued that this process would have three components, such as education with a value system, religion transforming into spirituality and economic development for societal transformation. “The mission of Unity of Minds is indeed gaining momentum from Bihar, the birthplace of ancient Nalanda” observed Kalam, who is a Muslim.

Since then a Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG) has been formed under the leadership of the 1998 Nobel Prize winner for Economics Prof Amartya Sen, a Bengali Hindu. The mentor group includes 3 prominent Indian scholars who are all based in the West, while it lacks any Buddhist scholar of repute from within Asia, such as from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar or Tibet, leading Buddhists countries which have carried the flame of Nalanda’s intellectual tradition after the ancient university was destroyed by Turkic Afghan invaders in the 12th century.

Nalanda was founded by Kumaragupta I of the Gupta dynasty during the golden age of classical Indian culture and it came into pre-eminence and a renowned centre of Buddhist scholarship from 5th to 12th century. Nalanda was the biggest university in India at the time, and at the height of its glory, it accommodated over 10,000 students / monks and 2000 teachers from across the region. The famous Chinese scholar Hsuan Tsang has spent some 12 years there, lecturing and writing his 3000 stanza work on the ‘Treatise on the Harmony of Teaching’. As a center of Buddhist theology and education, Nalanda university has been instrumental in the spectacular spread of Buddhism right across South East and East Asia during this period with scholars from countries like China, Indonesia and Korea studying there.

Nalanda was destroyed in the 12th century by Turkic Afghan invaders led by Muhammad Bakhtiar Khalji, who burned down the 7-stories high library and the buildings, and killed many of the monks and scholars who could not flee. Its seven story library was completely gutted, and if not for the writings of the Chinese scholar monk Huang Tsang, we may never have known about the existence of Nalanda. He has written vivid memories of his time there in the 7th century. In appreciation of his unique contribution the Chinese and Indian governments have jointly built an impressive Chinese style memorial centre close to the ruins of Nalanda, which was officially opened in February 2007. Thus, the revival of Nalanda University is seen by many as the restoration of the ancient intellectual exchanges between the two great civilizations of Asia – India and China.

Since the 2006 symposium in Singapore, the project to revive the ancient Nalanda University has gradually gathered momentum, with the Bihar State Government (where Nalanda is located) passing legislation in 2007 to establish the university and allocating 500 acres of land in Rajgir, close to the Nalanda ruins. The Indian government passed the Nalanda University Bill on August 21st last year. In October 2009, the 4th East Asia Summit meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand issued a joint press statement supporting the establishment of the Nalanda University as a “non-state, non-profit, secular and self-governing international institution” but it also noted that “Nalanda University was a great ancient centre of intellectual activity in Buddhist philosophy, mathematics, medicine and other disciplines”.

In the last 2 years, the NMG led by Prof Sen has been tirelessly lobbying governments and philanthropic Buddhist organizations for funds to create a USD 1 billion endowment. . Singapore government has so far pledged USD 5 million, and Indian, Japanese and Australian governments have also pledged undisclosed amounts. On January 21st this year, the Chinese ambassador to India is reported to have announced a contribution of USD 1 billion to help build the university after meeting the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in Delhi. At a meeting in Singapore last month, a member of the NMG said that a wealthy Singapore Buddhist organization – the Singapore Buddhist Lodge – has pledged USD 5 million to build the Nalanda library.

Recently there has been much criticism among followers of Tibetian Buddhism in both Asia and the West, that the exiled Tibetian spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who lives in India, has not been assigned any role in the Nalanda University revival project. They have pointed out that since the burning down of Nalanda University, it was the Tibetians who kept alive the Nalanda tradition and teaching of Buddhism’s Mahayana sect. In a recent article in the Sri Lankan Guardian, the retired Indian Additional Cabinet Secretary B. Rahman has claimed that the Dalai Lama has been sidelined on the instigation of Singapore because of “misplaced deference to the sensitivities of China”. When the question was posed to Prof Sen recently, by Indian journalists, his response was that “being religiously active may not be the same as (being) an appropriate person for religious studies.”

While Singapore has been playing a leading role in collaboration with its Indian partners in getting the Nalanda project off the ground, the fact that Singapore is not seen as a Buddhist country in the region, has also raised certain question marks about Singapore government’s own intentions among some Buddhists in the region. Some idea about Singapore’s thinking could be extracted from the report by Vibhanshu Shekhar of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi titled ‘Revival of Nalanda University: Key Players and their Soft Power Diplomacy’. Referring to Singapore’s catalyst role, the report says the project fits into Singapore’s politico-strategic framework because of its own fear of India and China getting into a conflictual mould, and it could also act as a facilitator of “partnership of countries in the region and hopefully in the management of the university”.

Giving the keynote address at the 98th Indian Science Congress in Chennai on January 4th, Prof Amartya Sen said “had it not been destroyed and had it managed to survive our time, Nalanda would be, by a long margin, the oldest university in the world”. He pointed out that Nalanda was more than 600 years old when the oldest European university of Bologna was established, and Oxford and Cambridge were founded long after Nalanda was burned down.

Prof Sen made a strong argument that the Buddhist intellectual tradition of gathering knowledge through argumentation is very much part and parcel of science today. “The faculty and students in Nalanda loved to argue, and very often held argumentative encounters” he noted, “it is part of the scientific tradition as well, to seek arguments and defences, refusing to accept positions and claims on grounds of faith”.

The new university will initially be set up as a postgraduate institution with Schools of International Relations and Peace Studies; School of Business Management and Development Studies; School of Information Sciences and Technology; School of Historical Studies; School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religion; School of Languages and Literature; and School of Ecology and Environmental Studies. A Nalanda University office has already been set up in Delhi, with the appointment recently of its first vice-chancellor eminent Indian sociologist Prof Gopa Sabharwal. On February 4th this year, the Bihar state government has officially transferred 500 acres of land to the university.

In late January Prof Sabharwal spoke about the emerging Nalanda University at a seminar organised by the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the National University of Singapore, where she was questioned by Buddhists in the audience about the lack of involvement of Asian Buddhist scholars and educational institutions in the project. When it was pointed out by one audience member that the question of West-centric modernity needs to be challenged by the new university, and indigenous Asian Buddhist scholars, rather than Asians with PhDs from American and European universities, should be intimately involved in the Nalanda University revival process, her response was that “we don’t want this to be an anti-western institution”.

If Nalanda is going to realise its true potential, the challenge facing its initiators is not to make it a clone of Harvard or Cambridge located in Asia with an Asian cover page. For too long Asian intellectuals have been used to going to the West to obtain their PhDs to gain recognition back home, and in return they have been churning out western ideas and theories, especially in humanities, economics, healthcare, environmental and developmental studies, without critically examining it. We have been brainwashed to think that such critical examination is “anti-western”. One hopes that the revived Nalanda University would be able to start this process of “de-colonising” the Asian mind.