- The sources that historians use to reconstruct this
exciting world of ideas and beliefs include Buddhist, Jaina
and Brahmanical texts, as well as a large and impressive
body of material remains including monuments and
- A Glimpse of Sanchi
Sanchi in the nineteenth century
The most wonderful ancient buildings in the state of Bhopal
are at Sanchi Kanakhera, a small village under the brow
of a hill some 20 miles north-east of Bhopal which we
visited yesterday. We inspected the stone sculptures and
statues of the Buddha and an ancient gateway … The ruins
appear to be the object of great interest to European
gentlemen. Major Alexander Cunningham … stayed several
weeks in this neighbourhood and examined these ruins
most carefully. He took drawings of the place, deciphered
the inscription, and bored shafts down these domes. The
results of his investigations were described by him in an
English work …
- what is the significance of this monument?
Why was the mound built and what did it contain?
Why is there a stone railing around it? Who built
the complex or paid for its construction? When was
- The mid-first millennium BCE is often regarded as a
turning point in world history: it saw the emergence
of thinkers such as Zarathustra in Iran, Kong Zi in
China, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Greece, and
Mahavira and Gautama Buddha, among many
others, in India. They tried to understand the
mysteries of existence and the relationship between
human beings and the cosmic order. This was also
the time when new kingdoms and cities were
developing and social and economic life was changing
in a variety of ways in the Ganga valley
- The sacrificial tradition
There were several pre-existing traditions of thought,
religious belief and practice, including the early Vedic
tradition, known from the Rigveda, compiled between
c.1500 and 1000 BCE. The Rigveda consists of hymns
in praise of a variety of deities, especially Agni, Indra
and Soma. Many of these hymns were chanted when
sacrifices were performed, where people prayed for
cattle, sons, good health, long life, etc.
At first, sacrifices were performed collectively.
Later (c. 1000 BCE-500 BCE onwards) some were
performed by the heads of households for the wellbeing
of the domestic unit. More elaborate sacrifices,
such as the rajasuya and ashvamedha, were
performed by chiefs and kings who depended on
Brahmana priests to conduct the ritual
- The Message of Mahavira
The basic philosophy of the Jainas was already in
existence in north India before the birth of
Vardhamana, who came to be known as Mahavira,
in the sixth century BCE. According to Jaina tradition,
Mahavira was preceded by 23 other teachers or
tirthankaras – literally, those who guide men and
women across the river of existence.
The most important idea in Jainism is that the
entire world is animated: even stones, rocks and
water have life. Non-injury to living beings, especially
to humans, animals, plants and insects, is central
to Jaina philosophy. In fact the principle of ahimsa,
emphasised within Jainism, has left its mark on
Indian thinking as a whole. According to Jaina
teachings, the cycle of birth and rebirth is shaped
through karma. Asceticism and penance are required
to free oneself from the cycle of karma. This can be
achieved only by renouncing the world; therefore,
monastic existence is a necessary condition of
salvation. Jaina monks and nuns took five vows: to
abstain from killing, stealing and lying; to observe
celibacy; and to abstain from possessing property
- The spread of Jainism
Gradually, Jainism spread to many parts of India. Like
the Buddhists, Jaina scholars produced a wealth of
literature in a variety of languages – Prakrit, Sanskrit
and Tamil. For centuries, manuscripts of these texts
were carefully preserved in libraries attached to
Some of the earliest stone sculptures associated
with religious traditions were produced by devotees
of the Jaina tirthankaras, and have been recovered
from several sites throughout the subcontinent.
- The Buddha and the Quest
One of the most influential teachers of the time was
the Buddha. Over the centuries, his message spread
across the subcontinent and beyond – through
Central Asia to China, Korea and Japan, and through
Sri Lanka, across the seas to Myanmar, Thailand
How do we know about the Buddha’s teachings?
These have been reconstructed by carefully editing,
translating and analysing the Buddhist texts
mentioned earlier. Historians have also tried to
reconstruct details of his life from hagiographies.
Many of these were written down at least a century
after the time of the Buddha, in an attempt to
preserve memories of the great teacher.
- Hagiography is a biography of
a saint or religious leader.
Hagiographies often praise the
saint’s achievements, and may
not always be literally accurate.
They are important because
they tell us about the beliefs of
the followers of that particular
- The Teachings of the Buddha
The Buddha’s teachings have been reconstructed
from stories, found mainly in the Sutta Pitaka.
Although some stories describe his miraculous
powers, others suggest that the Buddha tried to
convince people through reason and persuasion
rather than through displays of supernatural power.
For instance, when a grief-stricken woman whose
child had died came to the Buddha, he gently
convinced her about the inevitability of death rather
than bring her son back to life. These stories were
narrated in the language spoken by ordinary people
so that these could be easily understood.
According to Buddhist philosophy, the world is
transient (anicca) and constantly changing; it is
also soulless (anatta) as there is nothing
permanent or eternal in it. Within this transient
world, sorrow (dukkha) is intrinsic to human
existence. It is by following the path of moderation
between severe penance and self-indulgence
that human beings can rise above these worldly
troubles. In the earliest forms of Buddhism,
whether or not god existed was irrelevant.
The Buddha regarded the social world as the
creation of humans rather than of divine origin.
Therefore, he advised kings and gahapatis (see also
Chapter 2) to be humane and ethical. Individual effort
was expected to transform social relations.
The Buddha emphasised individual agency and
righteous action as the means to escape from the
cycle of rebirth and attain self-realisation and
nibbana, literally the extinguishing of the ego and
desire – and thus end the cycle of suffering for those
who renounced the world. According to Buddhist
tradition, his last words to his followers were: “Be
lamps unto yourselves as all of you must work out
your own liberation.”
We have seen that Buddhist ideas and practices
emerged out of a process of dialogue with other
traditions – including those of the Brahmanas, Jainas
and several others, not all of whose ideas and
practices were preserved in texts. Some of these
interactions can be seen in the ways in which sacred
places came to be identified.
From earliest times, people tended to regard
certain places as sacred. These included sites
with special trees or unique rocks, or sites of aweinspiring
natural beauty. These sites, with small
shrines attached to them, were sometimes
described as chaityas.
Buddhist literature mentions several chaityas.
It also describes places associated with the
Buddha’s life – where he was born (Lumbini), where
he attained enlightenment (Bodh Gaya), where he
gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and where he
attained nibbana (Kusinagara). Gradually, each of
these places came to be regarded as sacred. We
know that about 200 years after the time of the
Buddha, Asoka erected a pillar at Lumbini to mark
the fact that he had visited the place
- “Discovering” Stupas
The Fate of Amaravati and Sanchi
Each stupa has a history of its own – as we have
just seen, some of these are histories of how they
were built. But there are histories of discoveries as
well, and let us now turn to some of these. In 1796,
a local raja who wanted to build a temple stumbled
upon the ruins of the stupa at Amaravati. He
decided to use the stone, and thought there might
be some treasure buried in what seemed to be a
hill. Some years later, a British official named Colin
Mackenzie (see also Chapter 7) visited the site.
Although he found several pieces of sculpture and
made detailed drawings of them, these reports were
In 1854, Walter Elliot, the commissioner
of Guntur (Andhra Pradesh), visited
Amaravati and collected several
sculpture panels and took them away
to Madras. (These came to be called the
Elliot marbles after him.) He also
discovered the remains of the western
gateway and came to the conclusion that
the structure at Amaravati was one of
the largest and most magnificent
Buddhist stupas ever built. By the
1850s, some of the slabs from Amaravati
had begun to be taken to different
places: to the Asiatic Society of Bengal
at Calcutta, to the India Office in
Madras and some even to London. It was
not unusual to find these sculptures
adorning the gardens of British
administrators. In fact, any new official
in the area continued to remove
sculptures from the site on the grounds
that earlier officials had done the same.
- Chaitya may also have been
derived from the word chita,
meaning a funeral pyre, and by
extension a funerary mound.
- The development of Mahayana
By the first century CE, there is evidence of
changes in Buddhist ideas and practices. Early
Buddhist teachings had given great importance
to self-effort in achieving nibbana. Besides, the
Buddha was regarded as a human being who
attained enlightenment and nibbana through
his own efforts. However, gradually the idea of
a saviour emerged. It was believed that he
was the one who could ensure salvation.
Simultaneously, the concept of the Bodhisatta
also developed. Bodhisattas were perceived as
deeply compassionate beings who accumulated
merit through their efforts but used this not to
attain nibbana and thereby abandon the world,
but to help others. The worship of images of the
Buddha and Bodhisattas became an important
part of this tradition.
This new way of thinking was called Mahayana
– literally, the “great vehicle”. Those who adopted
these beliefs described the older tradition as
Hinayana or the “lesser vehicle”.
- Major Religious Developments
c. 1500-1000 BCE Early Vedic traditions
c. 1000-500 BCE Later Vedic traditions
c. sixth century BCE Early Upanishads; Jainism, Buddhism
c. third century BCE First stupas
c. second century Development of Mahayana Buddhism, Vaishnavism,
BCE onwards Shaivism and goddess cults
c. third century CE Earliest temples
- Landmarks in the Discovery and Preservation of Early
Monuments and Sculpture
1814 Founding of the Indian Museum, Calcutta
1834 Publication of Essay on the Architecture of the Hindus,
by Ram Raja; Cunningham explores the stupa at Sarnath
1835 -1842 James Fergusson surveys major archaeological sites
1851 Establishment of the Government Museum, Madras
1854 Alexander Cunningham publishes Bhilsa Topes, one of the
earliest works on Sanchi
1878 Rajendra Lala Mitra publishes Buddha Gaya: The Heritage
of Sakya Muni
1880 H.H. Cole appointed Curator of Ancient Monuments
1888 Passing of the Treasure Trove Act, giving the government
the right to acquire all objects of archaeological interest
- Twentieth century
1914 John Marshall and Alfred Foucher publish The Monuments
1923 John Marshall publishes the Conservation Manual
1955 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru lays the foundation stone
of the National Museum, New Delhi
1989 Sanchi declared a World Heritage Site
Answer in 100-150 words
1. Were the ideas of the Upanishadic thinkers
different from those of the fatalists and
materialists? Give reasons for your answer.
2. Summarise the central teachings of Jainism.
3. Discuss the role of the begums of Bhopal in
preserving the stupa at Sanchi.
4. Read this short inscription and answer:
In the year 33 of the maharaja Huvishka (a
Kushana ruler), in the first month of the hot
season on the eighth day, a Bodhisatta was set
up at Madhuvanaka by the bhikkhuni Dhanavati,
the sister’s daughter of the bhikkhuni
Buddhamita, who knows the Tipitaka, the female
pupil of the bhikkhu Bala, who knows the
Tipitaka, together with her father and mother.
(a) How did Dhanavati date her inscription?
(b) Why do you think she installed an image of the
(c) Who were the relatives she mentioned?
(d) What Buddhist text did she know?
(e) From whom did she learn this text?
5. Why do you think women and men joined the
Write a short essay (about
500 words) on the following:
6. To what extent does knowledge of Buddhist
literature help in understanding the sculpture
7. Figs. 4.32 and 4.33 are two scenes from Sanchi.
Describe what you see in each of them, focusing
on the architecture, plants and animals, and the
activities. Identify which one shows a rural
scene and which an urban scene, giving reasons
for your answer.
8. Discuss the development in sculpture and
architecture associated with the rise of
Vaishnavism and Shaivism.
9. Discuss how and why stupas were built.
10. On an outline world map, mark the areas to which
Buddhism spread. Trace the land and sea routes
from the subcontinent to these areas.