Monuments at Sanchi are located over a red sandstone hillock, about 90 m high. There are evidences to suggest that some monuments existed at the site in the pre-Ashoka period. However the major construction was carried out during Ashoka’s reign. As per a legend, Ashoka gathered all the Buddha relics from the original seven out of eight stupas and redistributed those among the 64000 stupas which he himself is said to have built. Though this number is pretty far-fetched however it can be inferred that Ashoka provided a good deal of patronage towards Buddhism.
The Great Stupa – The Great Stupa at Sanchi is the most impressive and imposing Buddhist edifice in India, and in its magnificence, it can be compared with the best monuments in the world. It is constructed over the courtyard 450 feet in length and 300 feet in breadth. The main hemispherical dome is 106 feet in diameter, 42 feet in height springing from a plinth of 14 feet in height, thus making the total height of 56 feet. It has a projection of 5.5 feet from the base of building and a slope of 2.5 feet.
The dome is flattened on the top to support a square box-like structure (harmika) supporting an umbrella (chhatra). The terrace around the dome can be approached by double flight of steps connected with 10 feet square landing. Marshall suggests that this terrace was constructed around the dome after the dome was done however Cunningham and Dhavalikar are of the opinion that the dome rests on this elevated terrace. Cunningham writes that the base the dome is flattened into a terrace of 34 feet in diameter surrounded by stone railing. He counted 40 pillars and many would have been under the debris. Taking 1 feet distance between two pillars, 61 pillars would be required to make a circle around. These pillars are 3 feet 4 inches high, 9 inches broad and 7.5 inches thick.
Cunnigham mentions that this stupa was probably in existence before the Ashoka’s time and dated it between 500-250 BCE. As per him Ashoka extended the stupa with balustrade and other enhancements. However Marshall does not agree with Cunningham. He states that Ashoka built a brick stupa evident from the size of the bricks (40 x 25 x 7.5 cm) used in its construction which is also the opinion of Dhavalikar. An Ashokan pillar is still standing nearby this stupa which suggests that the stupa was constructed by Ashoka. Alexander Cunningham and Colonel Maisey excavated it in 1851 by inserting a vertical shaft in middle but they found no relic inside.
As per the tradition mentioned in Mahavamsa, a pillar is first installed at the place where the stupa is to be erected. However, once the stupa construction is started that pillar is destroyed or removed from its location. If Ashoka installed this pillar for the same purpose then why did he left it there when the stupa was finished? Or this pillar was not that ceremonial pillar probably. The inscription on the pillar does not talk about the stupa but the general rule for Dharma similar to other Ashoka inscriptions.
Marshall mentions that the stupa was reconstructed during the Shunga rule in the 2nd century BCE, where it was encased in stone masonry and stone terrace and the stairways. He suggests that it could be Pushyamitra who destroyed the original Ashoka brick stupa and it would be Agnimitra, his immediate successor, who would have rebuilt this stupa in stone. Dhavalikar however disagree with Marshall as his suggestion of Pushyamitra destroying the stupa is based upon literary evidences where the Shungas are portrayed as anti-Buddhists.
Dhavalikar suggests to revisit this assumption of the anti-Buddhist character of the Shungas and to support it he states that the major work on the stupas of Sanchi and Bharhut was carried out during the Shunga rule. They also replaced the original balustrade of the Great Stupa at Sanchi which was probably in wooden originally, by stone balustrade at three places; one at top, the second around the circumambulatory path at mid-level and the last on the ground around the stupa.
Inscriptions – There are many, over 1000, inscriptions found on the railings and gateways of this stupa. However most of these inscriptions are donative in nature. People from many regions have donated railings and panels of this stupa, few important inscriptions are given below. All these inscriptions are published in Epigraphia Indica vol II.
- Outer side of the top rail in the second row, outside and on the south side of the eastern gateway – Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum vol III – script is western variety of the Gupta alphabets, language is Sanskrit – dated in year 93 of the Gupta Era (411-12 CE) – The object of this Buddhist inscription is to record a grant by Amrakardava, son of Undana, of a village called Isvaravasaka. It also records grant of money to the Arya-Sangha at the Great Buddhist Convent of Kakanadabota, for the purpose of feeding mendicants and maintaining lamps. Amrakardava describes himself to be dependent of king Chandragupta II, whose another favorite name is Devaraja.
- केकटेयकपुतस धमसिवस दानं – The gift of Dhamasiva (Dharmashiva), son of Kekateyaka.
- अयपसनकस भिछुनो दानं – The gift of monk Aya-Pasanaka (Arya Pasanaka)
- नदीनगरा अचलय भिखुनिया दानं – The gift of nun Achala, from Nadinagara (Nandinagara)
- प्रातिठानस भिछुनो हाटियस अतेवासिनो दानं – The gift of Pratithana monk (i.e. the monk from Pratisthana), pupil of Hatiya
- धमरखिताय मधुवनिकाये दानं – The gift of Dhamarakhita (Dharmarakshita), inhabitant of Madhuvana
- तुबवना गह्हपतिनो पतिठियन्हुसाय वेसमनदताये दानं – The gift of Vesamanadata (Vaisravanadatta), daughter-in-law of Patithiya (Prathishthia), a gahapati from Tubavana (Tumbavana)
- उजेनिया वाकिलियाना दानं – The gift of Vakiliyas, from Ujjain
- यख़िय भिछुनिये वेदिसा दानं – the gift of nun Yakhi (Yakshi) from Vedisa (Vidisha)
- अरह्हदिनस भिखुनो पोखरेयकस दानं – The gift of monk Arahadina (Arhadatta), inhabitant of Pokhara (Pushkara)
- मह्हिसतिय देवभगस दानं – The gift of Devabhaga from Mahisati (Mahishmati)