Sanchi – Buddham Dhammam Sangham

3. The Gateways (Toranas) – Northern Gateway


The most impressive feature, and for which this stupa is known worldwide, is the gateways, four in number, erected at the four cardinal directions. These are the latest addition to the structure and were erected in first century BCE during the reign of the Satavahanas. Satavahana rulers installed these four majestic gateways at the four cardinal points of the stupa. As per an inscription over one of the gateways, these were installed during the rule of Sri-Satkarni who has been identified with Satkarni II ruling in the first century BCE by Marshall and Dhavalikar. Four Buddha images near all the four entrances were installed during the Gupta period.

These graceful gateways or toranas are profusely carved all around with variety of motifs and narrative panels. All these four gateways are very similar in design and conception.Each gateway is formed by two square pillars, 2 feet 3 inches thick and 13 feet and 8 inches high, surmounted with heavy capitals. The capitals vary for each pillar but the height of each is 4 feet 6 inches. The total breadth of a gateway is about 7 feet.

Each pillar is crowned with a superstructure of three architraves with volute ends. The first architrave is 19 feet 9 inches in length with an arched rise of 4 inches in middle and a projection of 4 feet 5 inches on each side supported on brackets and shalabhanjika at terminals. Two more architraves are supported over the first by five uprights. These two architraves have diminishing measurements, second 2.75 feet in height and third 1.9 feet in height. Their projecting ends are also reduced to 4 feet 2 inches and 3 feet 11 inches respectively.

The intricate carvings on these gateways led Dhavalikar to suggest that it is not unlikely that these gateways were originally executed in wood and later replaced by stone. An inscription on the Southern Gateway records that it was executed by the ivory carvers of Vidisha. These ivory carvers would have utilized their skill on stone and the result was magnificent as even witnessed today, almost 2000 years later.

Northern Gateway - information of each panel


Northern Gateway – This is the gateway which you will encounter first if you approach from the ticket counter. However, it was not the main gateway in ancient times. This gateway is standing in situ and is most preserved one among all four. This is the finest and most complete gateway as well. The pillars have four-elephants capital. They have female mahouts.

Northern Gateway


The most remarkable are the shalabhanjikas – the beautiful damsels standing by or clinging to a tree. This is common motif in Indian art even in later period. Convention has it that an Ashoka tree flowers when kicked by a beautiful damsel. They are shown on most alluring postures, usually flexed, wearing heavy jewellery and complex headdress. With nestling breasts and swaying hips, they appear more sensuous. Moreover, they wear a diaphanous lower garment which reveals even the private parts. They are celestial nymphs.

East Pillar


East Pillar – Front Face


Top Panel


The top panel depicts the story of the Miracle of the Mango Tree. This is a part of the legend Miracle of Sravasti. It is said that in the presence of king Prasenjit, Buddha performed many miracles to profound the six heretical teachers and the miracle of the mango tree is one of those. In this miracle, Buddha caused a mango tree to grow to a great height. King Prasenjit could be the one among the four figures shown at bottom.


Jetavana (Story of Anathapindaka)


The panel below above probably depicts the story of Ananthapindaka. He was a wealthy merchant of Sravasti and became an ardent devotee of Buddha. He built a great monastery for Buddha for which he purchased a land from prince Jeta paying as many gold coins as would cover the entire land. These gold coins can be seen depicted as square pieces on ground. Ananthapindaka is probably the most prominent figure shown on right and prince Jeta on left. The three building are Buddha’s three favorite residences, Gandha-kuti, Kosamba-kuti and Karori-kuti.



The panel below above is identified with a similar panel at Bharhut where the latter is with inscription. However the representation at Bharhut is more convincing compared to the one at Sanchi. This panel has an imposing building with a vaulted roof and chaitya arches in front. Below the building are standing seven figures, six adults and one child. In between the building top and these figures is a broad band which probably represents the aerial path over which Buddha walked. This path is referred as chankama in inscriptions.

Prasenjit's Royal Procession



There are many panels depicting a royal procession however not can be identified with certainty. Marshall suggests that this panel depicts the royal procession of Prasenjit, the king of Kosala. The king is shown entering into his capital, Sravasti, with his retinue. Residences with multiple stories are carved in the background. From the balconies and windows of these, people are shown peeping out to witness the royal procession. On the left most side is the city gate, evident from two large bastion-like structure supporting upper stories in which people or soldiers were stationed. One horse rider has entered half into the city as half of his portion is still shaded behind the city gate.


Life in a village


This panel depicts the common-day life activities where we see couples sitting in garden, people enjoying elephants in a pond. One couple is shown on right, the lady is seated on the thighs of the man who is holding a cup, probably for wine. A second couple is shown seated on right near a tree. The lady is seated little far from the man. Below this scene is shown a pond in which two elephants are shown plucking flowers. Mahouts are shown seated over them, a lady is shown climbing over the left elephant’s back. Both the elephants are decorated with bells.


East Pillar –West Face

Shakra's Visit



The top panel depicts Shakra’s (Indra) visit to Buddha’s Indra-shaila cave near Rajagriha. Buddha was staying in his rock-cut residence near Rajagriha when Shakra accompanied with his musicians visited Buddha. Few animals are shown nearby the cave which suggests that this residence of Buddha was nestled around wilderness. Many figures are shown standing below the cave in adoration and reverence.


Ajatshatru leaving for Jivaka


The panel below above shows a royal procession leaving from an imposing city gate. The chariot is already left the gate and led by a party of musicians in front. An elephant is following the chariot however the former is still within the city just approaching the exit gate. People are shown on upper balconies witnessing the procession. Marshall suggests that it could be representing Ajatshatru on a visit to Buddha in the mango grove of Jivaka.


Bamboo Garden of Rajagriha


The panel below above represent a bamboo garden at Rajgriha as suggested by Marshall. A Bodhi-tree is surrounded by worshippers, some are seated and some standing. All have folded their hands in reverence. There are many trees around the central Bodhi-tree which probably suggests that the tree is located inside a garden. A bamboo boundary is raised around the tree.




This robust guardian is shown wearing a dhoti which ends are tied in front and left dangling on either side. He is shown wearing heavy ornaments on his arms and a broad and heavy necklace over his chest. He is also adorned with very heavy ear-rings. He is holding a flower in his right hand while his left hand is resting over his waist. Trees are depicted in the backdrop of the panel.


East Pillar – East Face

East Face


Palmettes are raised on top of other in the middle of the pillar. This palmette chain is curtailed with a Tri-ratna symbol at the top and Buddha-pada (footprints of Buddha) at the bottom. On the side bands, jeweled necklaces are hanging over elephant-tusk like pegs. Among these necklaces, two varieties are found, one having thirteen amulets and one having seven. The thirteen amulets are Sun, Shukra, padmasara, ankushsa, Vaijyanti, pankaj,  mina-mithuna, srivatsa, parashu, darpan and kamal.


Bhagvato pamana lathi – on the east pillar – Epigraphia Indica vol II – written in Brahmi, language is Pali – Buddha’s measuring rod.


West Pillar


West pillar – Front Face

Miracle of Sankisa


This panel depicts the miracle of Sankasya (Sankisa) which Buddha performed after the Miracle of Sravasti. A ladder is shown standing vertically with two Bodhi-trees one at the top and one at bottom. Various people and couples standing on either side. As per the Miracle of Sankasya, Buddha vanished after the performance of the Miracle of Sravasti, and reached the Tryastrimsha heaven to preach abhidharma to his mother, Maya, who was reborn there. He stayed there for three months and descended via a staircase of beryl at Sankasya accompanied with Shakra (Indra) and Brahma.

The Great Departure



Marshall suggests that this panel depicts two scenes related to the life of Buddha. A chariot is shown coming out of the city gate, there is no one seated in the chariot which signifies the unseen presence of Buddha. A man is holding an umbrella above the empty seat of the chariot. A horse without any rider is shown in front of this chariot. Marshall suggests that it depicts the Four Drives of Gautama before he finally left the city in search of the eternal truth.

Preaching to Shakyas



A Bodhi-tree is standing in the middle and surrounded by many people seated around the tree. The panel depicts the preaching of the Shakyas by Buddha in the Nyagrodha-arama in Kapilvastu. Shakyas were Buddha’s own clan and when Buddha visited them they first were not convinced of his Dharma, however Buddha won over them and then taught his doctrines.

West Pillar - East Face



West pillar – East Face

Stupa Worship


The panel has a stupe in upper-middle region, the stupa is very similar to Sanchi Great Stupa having a gateway and balustrade. Kinnaras, with wings and feet of a bird, are shown flying around the stupa. Below is standing a part of musicians who wear very peculiar and foreign dress, half tunic, pointed headgear and cloaks. They are playing various kinds of musical instruments. One of the instrument is a double-flute or Pan pipe which is of the Greek origin. Marshall suggests that these foreign people could be the Mallas who were living in Himalaya region however Dhavalikar identifies these people with the Shakas (Scythians) of the Tigrakhauda clan who used to wear pointed headgear. Dhavalikar states that their presence in the Buddhist panel is very enigmatic however the religion was spread wide and far and probably these foreigners, who came from north-west of India, got converted into Buddhists.

Honey bowl offering by a monkey



A very large Bodhi-tree is shown standing on the left side of the panel. Among the various man and women, there are two monkeys. One of the monkey is shown holding a bowl and offering that to the tree. This panel depicts the honey offering story where a monkey offered a bowl of honey to Buddha when the latter was in Vaishali.

Miracle of Kapilvastu



This panel represents the visit of Shuddhodhana with his retinue to meet Buddha when the latter arrived at Kapilvastu after gaining enlightenment. It is mentioned that Shakyas were in dilemma on who should salute whom first as many of them were older than Buddha. Thereupon Buddha solved this difficulty by performing a miracle when he walked in mid air. Flying kinnaras are holding garlands above the Bodhi-tree in the panel.




This guardian is somewhat simpler in comparison to his counterpart on the opposite pillar. He is wearing his clothes in the same fashion as of his counterpart. His jewelry is also similar with the opposite guardian.


Architraves – Front

Architraves - Front



The topmost architrave has five stupas and two trees which probably represent seven Manushi Buddhas.  The trees are Ashvattha (Ficus religiosa) and Nyagrodha (Ficus indica) which are associated with Shakyamuni and Kashyapa respectively.

On the middle architrave we have seven trees depicting the seven Manushi Buddhas. The trees are, from left, 1) Patali (Bignonia shaveolus)) of Vipashyin, 2) Pundarika (Fig) of Shikhin, 3) Shala (Shorea robusta) of Vishvabahu, 4) Shirisha (Acacia sirisa) of Krakuchchhanda, 5) Udumbara (Ficus glomerata) of Kanakamuni, 6) Nyagrodha (Ficus indica) of Kashyapa and 7) Ashvattha (Pipal) of Shakyamuni. This identification was possible after finding a similar inscribed panel at Bharhut.

The lowermost architrave depicts the story of Vessantara Jataka. In this story the Bodhisattva was born as Vessantara (Sanskrit Vishvantara) to the king Sanjaya who was ruling the Sibi kingdom. Vessantara once donated an elephant who had supernatural powers of causing rains to the Brahmins of Kalinga who were facing a drought. However this angered the Brahmins of his own kingdom and they forced the king to vanish Vessantara of the Vanka mountain. Vessantara left the city in a chariot accompanied with his wife, Maddi, and his son and a daughter. Later on the way he donated his horses and chariot to the people who asked for those. He reached mount Vanka and started living in a hermitage provided by Shakra. Later he donated his children to Brahmin, Jujuka. He also gave his wife to Shakra who, however, later returned her. Shakra also reunited Vessantara with his father. His father got back his grandchildren from Jujuka by paying him ransom money. The story narrates the compassion feeling of Bodhisattva where he donated those who were the most loved ones to him.

This whole story of Vessantara Jataka is depicted on the lowest architrave front and back, except for the right protruding end of the former. The story starts on the front right side where Vessantara is shown riding an elephant inside the city. It might be the same elephant which is donated to the Brahmins of Kalinga. Next he is shown coming out of the city gate on a chariot driven by four horses. Next he is shown with his wife, Maddi, who is carrying a child on her hips, given away his chariot and horses. The backside shows many villagers doing their daily chores like holding bows, hunting, carrying their hunt etc. Next is shown Vessantara sitting outside a hut, the hermitage on Vanka mount. Next is shown Vessantara standing with his wife and a child nearby.

The right protruding end of the lowest architrave depicts Ambulasha Jataka. As per this jataka, Buddha was born as an ascetic with whom a doe fell in love. Later it gave birth to a child who was a normal human except a horn on his overhead which he inherited from his mother. This child was named Isisinga and like his father he became an ascetic. His power rose to a great extent which disturbed Shakra in heaven above. He sent a nymph, Ambulasha, to lure Isisinga. She was successful in her mission however she kept her secret and stayed for three years with Isisinga. After three years she revealed her identity. Isisinga, being a compassionate Bodhisattva, forgave the nymph and allowed her to go to the heaven. In the panel we see an ascetic seated inside his hermit and a doe seated facing him. The doe is shown above giving birth to a child who has a horn on his forehead. Isisinga is shown on right side of the hermit, bathing in a lotus pond.


Architraves – Back

Architraves - Back



The top architrave depicts the story of Chhadanta Jataka. As per this story, Bodhisattva was born as a six-tusked elephant named Chhadanta living in a lake in Himalaya region. He had two wives, Mahasubhadda and Chullasubhadda. The latter was very jealous of the former as she thought that the former was much beloved by her husband. To teach her a lesson, Chullasubhadda prayed to Pratyeka Buddha that she should be born as a beautiful maiden married to the king of Varanasi. Her prayers were answered and she was born and married to that king. She became the most beloved queen of the king. Under a pretext of an illness she asked the king to order a hunter to bring her the tusks of the Chhadanta elephant. The king commissioned a hunter named Sonuttara for this job. The hunter wounded the elephant. Chhadanta allowed the hunter to cut his tusks because of compassion and charity. When the hunter presented the tusks to the queen, she fainted and died of remorse.

A better depiction of this story is seen on the Southern Gateway as many details of this story are omitted in the present panel, such as the hunter Sonuttara is absent in the present panel.


Back Architrave



The middle architrave depicts two events of Buddha’s life. On left we see Sujata offering food to Buddha who is symbolized with a Bodhi-tree in the panel. Sujata is accompanied by few ladies and children in the panel. On left of this is depicted Mara’s temptation to Buddha. Mara is shown seated on a throne with his son and daughter on either side. Mara was Buddha’s cousin who put many obstacle in his path. Once he sent his six daughters to lure Buddha away from his meditation. When unsuccessful in this, he sent his army of demons to terrify Buddha. In this panel he is shown directing his army and the army is shown on his right.

The lowest architrave continues the Vessantara Jataka story of its counterpart on the front face. On the leftmost is depicted the typical life activities in and around a hermitage. Vessantara is shown seated with his wife and making offerings to the fire in front. On right he is shown donating his child to Jujuka. Further right he is shown donating his wife to Jujuka. Rightmost we see the reunion of Vessantara who is shown seated on an elephant with his wife and child.

On top of these architraves, there is Dharma-Chakra (Wheel of Law) supported on four elephants standing along the side. This Dharma-chakra is broken at present. On either side of it were standing two male guardians one of which has survived. Above the square brackets of the architraves is Tri-ratna symbol. Two winged lions are set on the two terminal ends of this top.

Inscription –

……-kapalakarisa vemalapadi…….-riya karakana cha gati-gachheya yo ito – Epigraphia Indica vol II – written in Brahmi, language is Pali

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