Lonely Planet review
The Great Stupa’s four gateways were erected around 35 BC, but had all fallen down by the time the site was rediscovered. They have since been repositioned. Scenes carved onto the pillars and their triple architraves are mainly tales from the Jatakas, episodes from Buddha’s various lives. At this stage in Buddhist art he was never represented directly – his presence was alluded to through symbols. The lotus stands for his birth, the bodhi tree for his enlightenment, the wheel for his teachings, and the footprint and throne for his presence. The stupa itself also symbolises Buddha.
The Northern Gateway , topped by a broken wheel of law, is the best preserved of the toranas . Scenes include a monkey offering a bowl of honey to Buddha, who is represented by a bodhi tree. Another panel depicts the Miracle of Sravasti – one of several miracles represented here – in which Buddha, again in the form of a bodhi tree, ascends a road into the air. Elephants support the architraves above the columns, while delicately carved yakshis (maidens) hang nonchalantly on each side.
The breathtakingly carved figure of a yakshi, hanging from an architrave on the Eastern Gateway , is one of Sanchi’s best-known images. One of the pillars, supported by elephants, features scenes from Buddha’s entry to nirvana. Another shows Buddha’s mother Maya’s dream of an elephant standing on the moon, which she had when he was conceived. Across the front of the middle architrave is the Great Departure, when Buddha (a riderless horse) renounced the sensual life and set out to find enlightenment.
The back-to-back lions supporting the Southern Gateway , the oldest gateway, form the state emblem of India, which can be seen on every banknote. The gateway narrates Ashoka’s life as a Buddhist, with scenes of Buddha’s birth and another representation of the Great Departure. Also featured is the Chhaddanta Jataka, a story in which Bodhisattva (Buddha before he had reached enlightenment) took on the form of an elephant king who had six tusks. The less favoured of the elephant king’s two wives was so jealous of the other that she decided to starve herself to death, vowing to come back to life as the queen of Benares in order to have the power to avenge her husband’s favouritism. Her wish came true, and as queen she ordered hunters to track down and kill the elephant king. A hunter found the great elephant but before he could kill it, the elephant handed over his tusks, an act so noble it led to the queen dying of remorse.
Pot-bellied dwarves support the architraves of the Western Gateway , which has some of the site’s most interesting scenes. The top architrave shows Buddha in seven different incarnations, manifested three times as a stupa and four times as a tree. The rear of one pillar shows Buddha resisting the Temptation of Mara (the Buddhist personification of evil, often called the Buddhist devil), while demons flee and angels cheer.