5. The Gateways (Toranas) – Southern Gateway
This would have been the first and the earliest gateway of this stupa as evident from the presence of an Ashoka pillar near it. It was a custom, in the ancient times, to install a pillar at the site where a stupa needs to be constructed. However this pillar was usually removed once the construction starts on the site. It is also evident that it was the main entrance in the ancient times instead of the Northern Gateway which is the main entrance at present.
The pillar capitals have four lions, seated back to back and supporting the square abacus above their heads on which architraves are supported. Dhavalikar & Marshall mentions that the lions are far inferior in comparison to the Ashoka capital found at this site. This gateway was reconstructed by Major Cole in 1882-83 in which the whole jamb of the left pillar and half of the right pillar was replaced with new along with all uprights and ends of lowest and middle architrave. Marshall writes that during this reconstruction the architraves were put in opposite direction that more important sculptures now face the stupa rather than facing outwards.
West Pillar – Front (South) Face
The top panel represents the first sermon of Buddha delivered in Mrigadava (Deer Park) at Sarnath. A tapered pillar supports a dharma-chakra (wheel of law), the emblem of Buddha’s first sermon, having 32 spokes and same number of tri-ratna symbols. Deer near the base of this pillar provide hint in indentifying the panel with the first sermon of Buddha.
The middle panel has a chariot driven by two horses and followed by a retinue. An elephant is also seen behind the chariot. Marshall suggests that it could represent Ashoka’s visit to a stupa.
The panel below shows many figures. A couple is shown riding an elephant while on an adjacent elephant another female is riding with a child. There are other elephants with riders as well. Marshall identifies the male figure with Indra and one female as his wife Sachi. There is a horse rider below with many dwarfs in front. ASI information board mentions that these dwarfs are of the army of Mara.
West Pillar – East Face
The top panel shows a shrine with a vaulted roof with chaitya windows in front. The shrine has six pillars, three on each side, with an empty throne in middle. The throne has three tri-ranta motifs on top. A tree emerges from the roof of this shrine. Above the tree is an umbrella with two chhatras. The whole shrine is enclosed within a vedica rail. Marshall suggests that this temple was constructed by Ashoka around a scared tree in Bodh-Gaya.
The panel below shows a royal assembly where the king stands with his two queens. He can be identified with Ashoka as he mentioned in his visit to a stupa in one of his edicts. As per a story in Divyavadana, Tishyarakshita, a queen of Ashoka, was jealous of a Bodhi-tree which was much beloved of the king. Due to this jealousy, the tree started to wither. Ashoka was very sad on seeing this but the tree blossomed again with the care taken by the king. Ashoka built a shrine near that tree later. The peculiar attitude of Ashoka can be explained as he was fainted seeing the withering tree which he loved the most.
The panel below has many figures depicted in it. There is a chaitya shrine, with vaulted roof and a chaitya window in front, under which many people are shown assembled. Marshall suggests that it represents the Traystrimisha heaven, the Heaven of Thirty-three Gods, where Indra lives with rest of the gods. They worship Buddha hair and his chuda (headdress). As per a story in Buddhist tradition, Gautama discarded all his princely garments and cut off his hair with his sword casting both his hair and dress in air. The gods of this heaven kept his hair and headdress for worship in their abode. In the panel, there is some object placed inside a basket. An umbrella on top of that basket suggests that this object is of reverence.
Vedisakehi dantakarehi rupa-kammam katam – On the border of this panel – Epigraphia Indica vol II – written in Brahmi, language is Pali – the carving of this sculpture is done by the ivory carvers of Vedisa (Vidisha).
East Pillar – Front (South) Face
The present pillar is a replacement and the original panels are kept in Sanchi museum.
Architraves – Front
The top architrave depicts a nativity scene which probably represent the birth of Buddha. As per a legend, Buddha was bathed by two nagas in sky, one pouring hot and another cold water. As Buddha cannot be shown in his anthropomorphic form hence his mother Maya is shown. She is shown standing over a lotus and holding a lotus stalk in her hand. However instead of naga we see here two elephants which makes it tempting to identify with Gajalakshmi motif of the Hindu pantheon. However as Sanchi is a Buddhist site hence such an identification would be wrong. The square blocks have animal riders. The square block between the top and the middle architrave, both at left and right are shown stupas worshipped by people around it.
The middle architrave represent the story of Ashoka’s visit to Ramagrama stupa. It is said that Ashoka opened up the seven of the original eight stupas which contained the relics of Buddha. Stupa of Ramagrama was the last stupa which Ashoka wanted to open as his mission was to collect all the relics and distribute among many stupas, 84000 in number as per a tradition, which he planned to construct. However the stupa of Ramagrama was jealously guarded by the naga inhabitants of that city. Ashoka is shown coming from left on his chariot while his retinue is following him. Stupa is shown in middle. Nagas of Ramagrama are shown on right, the males having five hoods and females having single only. Few naga females are engaged in worshipping the stupa. Two naga couples is are shown inside water. It is said that Ashoka failed to get relics from this stupa because of the resolute opposition of its devoid guardians, the nagas.
rano Siri Satakanisa avesanisa Vasithiputa Anamdasa danam – On the stupa dome – Dates of the Votive Inscriptions on the Stupa at Sanchi – written in Brahmi, language is Pali – Gift of Ananda, the son of Vasithi (Vasishthi). the foreman of the artisans of king Siri Satkani (Satakarni) – this king Siri Satakarni has been identified as Satakarni II, of the Satavahana dynasty, who ruled in first century BCE
The square blocks have animal riders. The square block between the top and the middle architrave, at left is shown a couple riding over an elephant and passing through a city and at right is shown nativity scene, Maya seated on a lotus.
The lowest architrave depicts a very regular Buddhist theme, dwarfs with garlands and flower creepers. Creepers are emerging out of mouths of these dwarfs. The square blocks have animal riders.
Architrave – Back
The top architrave shows three stupa and four trees, representing seven Manushi Buddhas. These trees are Shirisha of Krakuchchhanda, Udumbara of Kanakamuni, Nyagrodha of Kashyapa and Pipal of Shakyamuni. On the extreme terminal panels is shown the Great Departure of Buddha when he left the city of Kapilvastu in search of the eternal truth. He left the city with his horse, Kanthaka, and his attendant, Chandhaka. After passing Anoma, he sent back Chandaka with the horse. On left terminal the horse is shown leaving the city with an umbrella on top while on the right end the horse is shown coming back without any umbrella on top.
The middle architrave depicts the story of Chhadanta Jataka. On the extreme left, Chhadanta is shown swimming with his two wives. Other elephants are shown holding umbrella on top of him suggesting his royal status. On further left he is shown sporting in a forest. Further left he is shown wounded and a hunter is seen hiding behind rocks. The square blocks have animal riders as a regular theme observed on all gateways.
The lowest architrave represents the siege of Kushinagar. After the Mahaparinirvana (death) of Buddha, the Mallas, rulers of Kushinagar, took possession of Buddha’s body relics after his cremation. However there were seven other claimants of these relics. These were, 1) Ajatashatru of Rajagriha, 2) the Shakyas of Kapilvastu, 3) the Bulis of Alakappa, 4) the Koliyas of Ramagrama, 5) the Mallas of Pava, 6) the Lichchhavis of Vaisahli and 7) a Brahmana of Vethadvipa. A wise brahmana, Drona, pacified all and divided the share into eight equal parts. All the eight claimants took their part and erected stupas in their cities.
The fortified city of Kushinagar is depicted in middle with a ditch around it. The city is under siege as a large army can be seen standing outside the city limits. This army has horses, elephants, foot-soldiers etc equipped with various arms and flags. Archers can be seen on the upper stories of the buildings inside the city. Graphical details of this panel surpass all other similar themes found in India. As per an inscription on it, it was carved by the ivory carvers of Vidisha.