By 500 BC, Vedic society was slowly stratifying into a rigid class system
of the familiar four Varnas which exist in some form in Indian society even
today - the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The former, being the
priestly class, were gradually assuming dominance over society with a tenacious
grasp over tedious rituals that controlled every aspect of life. This added
a superfluous complication to the busy life of an increasingly urban social
In stepped two major reformers, Gautama and Mahavira, They made an impact on this scene when, almost contemporaneously, they founded new doctrines based loosely on existing Hindu precepts but denying the role of the priests as media between Man and God. In fact, Buddhism held that only the soul was of import - God was a metaphysical construct of Man's mind. Buddhism was destined to have mass appeal worldwide. Yet at the crucial point of its nascence, it was fortunate to initially receive the patronage of the mercantile class, and later, of a king who would provide vital support - Ashoka the Great. Ashoka proclaimed Buddhism as the state religion and spread its message to the four corners of the land through state-funded monasteries, grants, and his famous rock-edicts, which dot the face of modern Orissa and central India.
However, every religion needs an icon, and Buddhism was singularly unsuccessful in providing a God to worship. The next thing to a God was the Buddha himself, and his relics, or his (purported) mortal remains, scattered at various sites, became the objects of reverence and magnets for (religious) pilgrimage.
This is a story of how these pilgrimage points evolved into Buddhist centers of learning and penance.
The Buddhist Stupa
A trip through rural India reveals the countryside to be dotted with shrines of all sizes, shapes and denominations. (The more famous ones also have a certain notoriety, such that if you frequent them, people look at you a trifle askance!). However, if we look at the modest examples, we will find that they need not be masonry structures - a stone, a tree, a mountain or even an animal will suffice. A variety of natural objects have been conferred divinity because of their association - real or imagined - with a mythological event, or with the 'relics' of some historical/mythological figure.
Thus it was that during Ashoka's time, the first Buddhist 'shrines' were mere piles of stone or rubble containing relics of the Buddha. Over time it became necessary to 'upgrade' these structures, in conformity with Buddhism's rising status. As is common with ancient structures the world over - for structural reasons it was necessary to have a wide base, tapering towards the top. The form chosen for the Buddhist Stupa was that of a sphere - as much for the shape's metaphysical associations as for the fact that it was an antipode to the square/rectangular form of Hindu temples. According to Satish Grover, "The embryo of the most powerful architectural form of Buddhism, the famous Stupa, thus emerged for the first time under the architectural patronage of Ashoka". **
Sanchi - the center of the Heavens
After Ashoka, by 200 B.C., the royal patronage enjoyed by Buddhism was on the wane. Gradually, under a succession of kings, Brahmanism regained the prestige it used to enjoy. Under the circumstances, Buddhist monks retired from urban conglomerates to secluded spots, where they built their places of worship and in general led a life of penance and meditation. However, assistance from the mercantile class, who had little interest in Brahmanism, was still available, and thus the Buddhist monks could, over the years, transform their humble centers into truly magnificent works of art. The foremost among these centers was Sanchi, near modern Bhopal. Here craftsmen labored for over a hundred years to make Sanchi a point of pilgrimage for devoted Buddhists and scholars from all over Asia for centuries. The magnificent ruin still attracts a large number of tourists today.
The Symbolism of Sanchi
The Sanchi Stupa basically is a dome, surmounted by a finial or 'harmika', with a circumambulatory path around it, delineated by a railing or 'vedika'. As mentioned earlier, the spherical shape of the Stupa was a structural culmination of rubble masonry piled up, and also had metaphysical connotations with the apparent shape of the universe. The harmika on top represented the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha first gained enlightenment. And the path around provided a passage for monks who could circle the Stupa, chanting endlessly.
Minor deities of the Great Stupa
A structure as large as Sanchi Stupa attracted large numbers of monks for penance and meditation. In addition, there were a large number of visitors who made a pilgrimage to this, the most holy site of the Buddhists. A natural consequence was the gradual development of a large complex of buildings around the Stupa. These were typified by the vihara and the chaitya.
The vihara evolved from the humble cave dwellings of the monks. In plan, it essentially consisted of a large number of cubicles around a large central courtyard. In stark contrast to the Stupa, the viharas were models of austerity, with drab exteriors and bare interiors. This is actually not surprising - monks are not supposed to enjoy the pleasures and comforts of urban life!
The vihara was basically an extension of the urban dwelling with its open-to-sky courtyard and rooms around. The courtyard served as a community space, while the cells provided sufficient privacy for effective meditation.
It has been observed (Satish Grover, 1980) that the chaitya hall evolved due to the fact that the Sanchi Stupa was an outdoor structure - not permitting use in inclement weather. Hence the evolution of the chaitya as a sort of indoor Stupa. However, this reason seems to be a trifle strange - totally against the ethos of the monks of a life of penance and hardship. The author surmises that the chaitya served the purpose of a 'minor deity', so often found in large Hindu temples, where niches hold images of 'lesser' gods. The Buddhist monks, still a part of predominantly Hindu society, expressed this subconscious desire by building a number of chaitya halls around the main Stupa.
An examination of the chaitya hall architecture reveals the same determinants as in Vedic village architecture - the barrel vaulted roof, the horseshoe-shaped entrance, railings echoing the palisade walls outside Aryan villages. It was almost as if the craftsman, unfamiliar with the structural properties of stone, reverted to tried and tested forms with which he was comfortable - never mind that reproducing them in stone instead of wood involved far greater effort. This is a recurring feature throughout the history of Indian architecture - the lead time required before a new material is finally put to the best use possible, given its natural properties.
Although Buddhism finally waned in the land of its birth, yet it was destined to spread throughout Asia on the basis of the simplicity of its message and the humaneness of its teachings. However, the fertile land of the Gangetic plain was its progenitor. The formal and metaphysical principles evolved at Sanchi in India inspired countless generations of Buddhist architecture throughout South-East Asia. Sanchi, Nalanda, and Bodh Gaya are today world-famous, with countless Buddhists the world over making the pilgrimage to India to see the land where the Buddha gave his first sermon and set rolling the Dharma Chakra, or the Wheel of Truth.
- Ashish Nangia
January 18, 2001