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Hey Guys 🙂 Welcome to the fifth part of my Amazing Madhya Pradesh series 🙂 Hope you are enjoying my travel series 🙂 For those of you visiting me for the first time, I suggest going through my previous posts in this series. Here are the links:

Madhya Pradesh, The Heart of Incredible India

Amazing Madhya Pradesh (Part I):  Indore

Amazing Madhya Pradesh (Part II): Ujjain

Amazing Madhya Pradesh (Part III): Omkareshwar & Maheshwar

Amazing Madhya Pradesh (Part V):  Bhopal


Today’s post is on two important religious and archaeological sites of Madhya Pradesh – the Buddhist site of Sanchi, and the amazing 1600-year-old Hindu relief-sculptures at Udayagiri Caves.

So, sit back and enjoy 🙂



Situated 46 km from BhopalSanchi is a small village in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh, and is synonymous with age-old Buddhist Stupas – hemispherical structures holding relics of influential Buddhist monks.

One of the world’s most important Buddhist pilgrim centres, Sanchi is the centre of a region having numerous stupas. Other Buddhist sites within a few miles of Sanchi include Satdhara, Morel Khurd, Andher, Mawas and Sonari.

The emergence of Buddhism in India began here in Sanchi, when one of the greatest Indian Emperors, Ashoka (grandson of the founder of the Maurya Dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya), who reigned over the entire Indian subcontinent from 268 to 232 BC, erected a stone column and a brick stupa at this place. It was the first of the several stupas that were subsequently built in different places across his vast kingdom, to spread Buddhism.

Ashoka’s first wife Devi was a Buddhist, and the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Vidisha, which was a busy trading hub. Ashoka was only eighteen when he married her during a visit to Vidisha, of which he was the Governor. As Devi was not of royal birth, she was not acceptable to his father, Emperor Bindusura. She remained in Vidisha while Ashoka returned to his capital. Devi was the mother of Ashoka’s son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra, both of whom went to Sri Lanka, where they converted the king, queen and their people to Buddhism. After her separation from Ashoka, Devi chose this Sanchi hillock near Vidisha to establish a Buddhist monastery, where she spent the rest of her life. Later, Ashoka visited this place and built a monolithic pillar and a brick stupa. Over the centuries, the brick stupa grew and became this Maha Stupa (or Great Stupa)…


Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989, the Great Stupa (popularly called Sanchi Stupa) or Stupa I, is the grandest among the site’s numerous monuments – the monolithic Ashoka pillar, stupas, temples, monasteries, etc. dating from 3rd century BC to 12th century AD.

By the fourteenth century, with the decline of Buddhism in India, this site lost its importance and slipped into obscurity till a British cavalry officer General Taylor chanced upon it in 1818. He was the first known Western historian to document (in English) the existence of Sanchi Stupa which was in good condition till treasure hunters ravaged the site.  Restoration work was carried out between 1912 and 1919 under the supervision of Sir John Hubert Marshall, the then Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).  He established an archaeological museum in 1919, which was later transformed into the present site museum.


Open from sunrise to sunset, the site attracts thousands of visitors including national and foreign tourists, archaeologists and historians among others.

Sanchi can be reached by road from Vidisha (10 km), Bhopal (46kms), Ujjain (240kms), and Indore (240kms). The village has a small railway station too.

From Bhopal, it takes an hour and a half to reach Sanchi by road. I reach the place exactly at noon. Bad hour to explore an archaeological site on a hot summer’s day! The best time to visit is of course, during the winters – from November to March.

The car parking fee is 10 rupees and the entrance fee, 30 rupees.

Following the path, I catch my first view of two dome-shaped stupas. The Great Stupa or Stupa 1 (to the right) and Stupa 3 (to the left)…


The Great Stupa, 54 feet in height and 120 feet in diameter…


This grand 2nd century BC stupa has a plastered dome crowned by a triple umbrella within a railing and contains within its core the brick stupa built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, which was half the diameter of the present edifice. A circumbulatory path approached by a double stairway is built against its base. The ground balustrade marks another procession path around it, four gateways (1st century BC) provide access to the stupa from the cardinal directions.

Watch my video: Sanchi Stupa

Fifty years after the death of Ashoka, the last Mauryan Emperor was killed by his army general who took over power, laying the foundation of the Shunga Empire. According to the ancient Sanskrit text Ashokavadana, which details the birth and reign of Ashoka, the Stupa was probably destroyed during the second century BC, but later re-constructed. Both happened during the Shunga period, when several edifices came up at Sanchi and its surrounding hills. The original brick structure of the Great Stupa was covered with stone. It doubled in size. The original chatra, a parasol-like structure symbolising high rank, which was intended to honour and shelter Buddhist relics buried beneath, gave way to three superimposed umbrella-like structures symbolizing the Wheel of Law or ‘dharma’. To enable circumambulation, the sacred dome was set on a high circular drum. A double staircase was built to reach the drum. A stone pathway at ground level was enclosed by a stone balustrade.

In the 1st century BC, the Satvahana kings renovated the Great Stupa, built the four elaborately carved gateways facing the cardinal directions and the ornamented balustrade and one gateway to Stupa 3.

Carved with stories of the Buddha’s life, the gateways are the finest specimens of early classical art. The Eastern Gateway depicts the young prince, Gautama, leaving his father’s palace on his journey towards enlightenment. The Western Gateway portrays the seven incarnations of the Buddha. The rich carvings on the Southern Gateway relate to the birth of Gautama, while those on the Northern Gateway depict the miracles associated with the Buddha as described in the Jataka Tales.

The Northern Gateway to the Great Stupa…


The inscriptions on the gateways mention donors from all over northern India. They would choose their favourite scene from the life of the Buddha and then have their names inscribed on it. Special mention is made of ivory workers of Vidisha who sculpted the stone with the precision of jewellers.

Some of the friezes are of everyday happenings and include men in Greek attire to show foreigners from north-west India visiting the stupa, as well as animals like elephants and monkeys.

The Buddha was never depicted as a human figure, due to the early aniconism in Buddhism. Instead he was represented by certain attributes, such as the horse on which he left his father’s home, his footprints, or a canopy under the Bodhi Tree at the point of his enlightenment. The human body was thought to be too confining for the Buddha.

Stupa 3, crowned by a single umbrella and with one gateway…


The second structure erected by Ashoka – the monolithic pillar of Chunar sandstone, stands close by. Ashoka installed a series of such pillars with lion capitals across his kingdom. The lion capital, which is the national emblem of India, is a sculpture of four lions standing back to back. The one put up here is named Pillar 10. The lower portion of it is grounded next to the Great Stupa, while the upper portion is kept under a canopy nearby.


The lion capital of the pillar is exhibited at the site museum. The pillar has two inscriptions, an Ashokan edict and a shell inscription from the Gupta period. The former is Ashoka’s warning of expulsion to those monks and nuns who try to create schism in the Buddhist community.

From the second to fourth century AD, Sanchi and Vidisha came under the Kushanas and Kshatrapas. Structural activities were on a slow pace during this period.

In the 5th century AD, the Gupta kings installed four images of Buddha on the drum of the Great Stupa. Some more temples were built and sculptures were added displaying the unique art of the Gupta Age. One of the earliest temples of the Gupta period is a flat roofed square sanctum with a portico and four pillars. Called the Gupta Temple or Temple 17, it is a small, plain structure but for the front façade and carved pillars. It was hailed by Sir John Marshall as one of the most rationally organized structures in Indian architecture. Though small, it was a herald of all principles which went into the engineering of an Indian temple in the early medieval period.

Next to it is this 7th century AD Temple 18, which was built on the foundation of a hall from Maurya or Shunga period.


Sanchi flourished during the 7th – 12th centuries AD when the Pratihara kings and Paramara kings of Malwa ruled over the region. Several temples and monasteries were built displaying harmonious co-existence of Hindu and Buddhist faiths.



Temple 45 was the last Buddhist temple built during the mid to late 9th century…


Reliefs of two of Buddha’s earliest disciples – Sariputta and Mahamoggallana…



After discovery of the site, British archaeologists found the Great Stupa to be empty. Reliquaries containing the bone relics of Sariputta and Mahamoggallana were discovered in Stupa 3. British archaeologists, Maisey and Cunningham, carried away to England the two Buddhist reliquaries and two others found in the stupas of the surrounding Buddhist site of Satdhara. Maisey’s family sold the Sanchi reliquaries to Victoria and Albert Museum where they stayed for a long time till the Buddhists in England, Sri Lanka and India, led by the Mahabodhi Society demanded that they be returned. The relics were sent to Sri Lanka in 1947. Some of them were returned to India in 1952. They are enshrined in the modern temple of Chetiyagiri Vihara (or Chaitya Vihar) at Sanchi site.

Chaitya Vihar…


The Archaeological Survey of India site museum has a fine collection of antiquities from the 3rd to the 1st century BC, discovered on site including the lion capital of the Ashokan pillar. But being a Friday, the museum is closed.

Back in car, the driver tells me that visitors to Sanchi also proceed to Udayagiri Caves which is just 18 KM away. The cave temples feature some of the oldest Hindu sculptures dating to the 5th century AD, he says. Very interesting…


Udayagiri Caves


It’s a 15-minute drive from Sanchi to Udayagiri Caves. The ancient city site of Vidisha is just 4 KM away.

Built during the reign of Chandragupta II (also known as Chandragupta Vikramaditya, one of the most powerful emperors of the Gupta Empire who ruled between 380 and 415 AD), Udayagiri Caves are a series of rock-cut sanctuaries, finely carved images and rare wall inscriptions. A fine example of the unique Gupta Art, the caves were first conserved by the Gwalior archaeological department in 1921 during the reign of Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior kingdom. Today it is an archaeological site under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India.

Udayagiri consists of two low hills alongside the River Bes. Nearing the place, the driver points out two Jain temples belonging to the site. I climb down for a quick look, but they are closed…


There’s nothing else to see, so I follow the narrow, stone staircase going up the hill, assuming that it leads to an old temple or something. Ten minutes later, I find myself on top of the deserted hill. A small path bordered by rocks assures me that I‘m proceeding in the right direction.  I had assumed the ancient Hindu cave temples to be somewhere here, but there’s no sign of any structure on this dry terrain. A phone call from the driver, waiting downhill, clears my doubts. He tells me that the caves are on the way down, on the other side.

The short trek has been very refreshing and I’m glad I decided upon it. It is very hot, but there’s a nice breeze in the air.

The dry, rocky hill terrain…


Watch my video: On Udayagiri Hill

The hilltop offers a lovely view of the surroundings…


Watch my video: View from Udayagiri Hill

The small village at the foot of the hill is Udayagiri, which literally means the ‘mountain of the sunrise’. It feels wonderful being all alone on the hilltop.

Watch my video: Climbing down Udayagiri Hill

After a bit of look around, I proceed downhill in the direction that I think leads to the caves. Ten minutes later, I’m climbing down the roughly-cut rock steps of a passage with ornamental inscriptions carved on the walls…


The ‘passage’ has a series of niches containing sculptures of male figures in standing pose…


But my attention is captured by a cave housing a large figure of Lord Vishnu resting on the coil of Sesha Naga (or Ananta Sesha) – the king of all snakes and one of the primal beings of creation in Hindu mythology.


I have seen the sleeping posture of Lord Vishnu on the bed of Sesha Naga in the temples of South India, but I’m surprised and thrilled to find one at this serene place with no other visitor in sight. A more than 1600-year-old stone relief! Sadly, the head is not visible. The door grill is locked and the image is too long to completely fit in my camera screen.


Lord Vishnu’s feet…





Exiting the ‘passage’ area, I find the site entrance right ahead. To my disappointment, all the caves are locked. A few moments later, the site caretaker comes up. I hadn’t entered through the site entrance gate, so my visit had gone unnoticed.

The site covers some 20 rock-cut caves, but most of them are shallow niches or empty chambers. The caretaker gives me a quick tour of the main attractions – those with sculptures, architecture and inscriptions. He starts with the ‘passage’, which has ornamental inscriptions, the largest examples of this kind of writing known in India. The inscriptions have not been fully deciphered. I take a good look at the sleeping figure of Lord Vishnu again, before following the caretaker to the next cave.

Cave 4 is a small rectangular chamber flanked by rock-cut pilasters and two dwarapalas (or door-keepers). Inside, set on a rock-cut plinth is this beautifully carved image on Shiva linga…


Hair tied into a topknot with long locks cascading on the shoulder…


My pictures don’t do justice to the exquisitely carved 1600-year-old sculptures. That’s because the strong summer heat has affected my camera. I haven’t been able to get clear pictures since the past few days.

Cave 3 has a rock-cut image of Lord Kartikeya or Skanda – the god of War, on a monolithic plinth…


Next is Cave 5, which houses this masterpiece, also the most famous relief of Udayagiri Caves…


The monumental relief is of Lord Vishnu in his incarnation as the boar-headed Varaha, rescuing Bhudevi (or Mother Earth), who is shown clinging to the boar’s tusk, as described in Hindu mythology.



To my eye, these figures look like Persians, Greeks or Assyrians but definitely not Indians…


Yours truly…


Directly beside Cave 5 is Cave 6…


Doorkeepers flank the entrance and beside them, on either side, are figures of deities.

Lord Ganesha is seated to the extreme left of the cave entrance…


The image is said to be the oldest datable Gaṇesha in India.


To the right, Goddess Durga vanquishing the buffalo demon, Mahishasura – one of the earliest representations of the popular legend of Hindu mythology.  In the centre, Lord Vishnu…


Lord Vishnu…


It’s depressing to see these beautiful more than 1600-year-old sculptures wearing away with time, unprotected and exposed to natural elements.

Inside the cave, is a Shiva linga set on a rock-cut plinth…


There are two 5th century AD inscriptions on the wall…



Cave 8 is of historical importance. It is excavated into a dome-shaped rock surmounted by massive horizontal slab…


The supports of the slab were added sometime in the 1930s by the Department of Archaeology, Gwalior State). The ‘passage’ is next to it, to the right, where the rock-cut steps can be seen.

Two carved door-keepers flank the cave entrance. The chamber is empty, but for this inscription on the wall which is of great historical importance…


The inscription is a historical record stating that “the Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II has visited this cave during his conquest, and that the cave was made by Virasena, his Minister for War and Peace”. Amongst all the Gupta inscriptions and antiquities, this is the only record that documents the actual presence of a Gupta king at a particular place.

Carving on the ceiling of the cave…


Watch my video: Carved ceiling and wall inscription in Cave 8

I wonder where the ancient sculptures of this cave are right now. Most definitely, there must have been an exquisite image directly below the carving on the ceiling.

It’s so sad that despite being one of India’s most important archaeological sites from the Gupta period, Udayagiri Caves have not been studied in detail.

Watch my video: Udayagiri Caves

I just can’t thank Lady Luck enough for helping me explore this beautiful incomparable archaeological treasure of the country. First, the accidental hill trek, and then, the exquisite cave temples. Wow, a truly beautiful experience…



Guys, I really hope you all enjoyed this post 🙂 My next post is on the ancient fortress town of Mandavgarh, popularly known as Mandu, perched on a rocky spur of the Vindhya mountain range, about 100 KM from Indore. The fortress is one of the finest examples of fusion of Hindu and Afghan style of architecture, and famous for the romantic saga of Rani Roopmati and Baz Bahadur.


So, see you soon… till then, do take very good care of yourself 😉


Coming soon: Amazing Madhya Pradesh (Part VI):  Mandu