Satdhara – Remembering Buddhist Glories


Satdhara (सतधारा) is located on the eastern bank of the Halali River, in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh. It is situated about 14 km from Sanchi. Satdhara with Sonari, Andher, and Murel Khurda completes the Buddhist circuit that developed around Sanchi. Some of the reliquaries found from these different sites bear names that correspond to those of the Hemavata monks listed in the reliquary inscriptions from Stupa 2 at Sanchi. This suggests that all these five sites were linked under the Hemavata school, which under the leadership of a teacher called Gopiputa, appears to have played a major role in the second propagation of Buddhism in the last quarter of the second-century BCE.1 Satdhara was in occupation from the Mauryan period starting from the third century BCE to the Nagas-Kushana period of the fifth century CE, and after that, it was abandoned for unknown reasons. Probably, the site was located far from the highways and inside a forest area and monks moved to Sanchi as the latter was situated on a highway and had developed into a major Buddhist center during that period. About the name Satdhara, Cunningham opines that it literally means “a hundred streams”, and the place most probably received its name from the number of streams that meet at this point.2 Vyas follows the same cue and suggests the present name Satdhara is a corrupt form of Sahastradhara, “a thousand streams”.3 Another opinion is that sat in Satdhara is सात, the Hindi word for seven, and thus means meeting point of seven streams.

The antiquities of the site were first reported by Alexander Cunningham in 1854. He tells the hill where these monuments stand forms a perpendicular cliff, beneath which flows the river and the view up the river is one of the most beautiful he had seen in India. In his small excavation, he inserted a shaft from the top of the main stupa and another stupa. He did not find anything from the main stupa however stupa 2 revealed reliquaries with inscriptions suggesting those were the body remains of the two most famous disciples of Buddha. This is of course of debate whether the attempt from Cunningham by inserting a shaft from the top did damage to the structure or was a scientific attempt in recovering reliquaries. Further explorations were made during the village-to-village survey program of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the year 1978-79. This revealed various rock paintings, stupas, and an ancient pathway leading to the stupas.4 The monuments of Satdhara were declared protected by ASI in 1989. In 1992, the then Director of the Bhopal Circle of ASI, Dr. R. C. Agrawal, brought the Japanese Funds-in-Trust and UNESCO to ASI and created a joint plan for the conservation and protection of the monuments at Sanchi and Satdhara. The excavations under this program started in 1993 and continued till 2000.

The first season of excavation at Satdhara was executed by the Bhopal Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India. The team comprises R C Agrawal, Narayan Vyas, Manoj Dubey, Khobragade, and R K Shrivastava. The first phase was to conduct a small-scale excavation with a view to exposing the brick stupa of the Mauryan period. Two mounds, Mounds 31 & 32, were taken up for excavation and it revealed those were remains of apsidal temples.5 The excavation continued in 1995-96 under the guidance of A K Sinha assisted by Manuel Joseph, Nitin Shrivastava, K K Rai, and C R Bhandarkar. The project till then had revealed as many as forty new stupas, fourteen rectangular structures in stone, and two apsidal temples. Out of these forty stupas, the main stupa (Stupa 1), the largest among all, was built on the top and the rest were strewn around at different lower levels. Two main monasteries were located on the west and north of the main stupa. All these structures were constructed within a span of a century, dateable to the second century BCE. Other significant findings include a fragmentary inscription bearing Brahmi letters in Shunga characters dateable to the second century BCE, fragments of two beautiful elephant figures in Chunar red sandstone with brilliant Maurya polish found from the packing between the veneering stone and the brick stupa, one figure was in the northern quadrant and another in the southern.6 The excavation continued in 1996-1997 and Stupa 1, 4,6, and 7 were taken up for excavation.7 In the 1997-98 season, the excavation around the Stupa 1 continued to understand the details of the staircase and the working levels of the stupa east of the main stupa.8 Excavation was halted in 1998 but continued for the season of 1999-2000 under the guidance of P K Mishra. The area taken under consideration was the northwestern corner of the large square platform at the location of Stupa 1. The aim was to ascertain the time of construction of the platform in addition to the working level of various phases.9 The excavation report was published long after by Narayan Vyas in the Hindi language.

Stupa 1

Pieces of railings

Stupa 1 – Cunningham estimated this stupa would be rivaling the Main Stupa at Sanchi in dimensions.10 This came true after the excavation and conservation activities were over. It is constructed over a huge stone-built platform measuring 91.9 m north-south and 32 m east-west with a maximum height of 5.85 m.11 This platform was necessary to level the ground and this has a varying height. Like the Main Stupa at Sanchi, this stupa also concealed an earlier brick-built stupa, the latter was probably built during the Mauryan rule of Ashoka. The brick stupa had a 3-foot wide pradakshina-path. The bricks used for this pradakshina-path were set in mud mortar. The discovery of two fragmentary elephant figures from the northern and the southern quadrant of this brick stupa suggests that there were four such elephant figures in each quadrant. Later, during the Shunga period, this brick structure was covered with stones accompanied by a balustrade railing on the ground, a medhi (terrace), and a three-tiered chhatravali (parasol) enclosed within a harmika at the top. The discovery of more than 60 inscriptions in the Brahmi letters of the Shunga period corroborated this hypothesis. It appears that the brick stupa suffered considerable damage at the hands of human agencies prior to its stone encasement. The final structure was enclosed by a railing, several pieces of that have been recovered from debris lying over the dome. Cunningham dig a perpendicular trench using a shaft from the top to about 10 feet deep however did not recover any reliquary.12

Vihara 1

Vihara (Monastery) 1 – This monastery is situated to the northwest of Stupa 1. It is rectangular in plan and approachable from the south by a flight of steps. It also had another entrance in its northwest corner facing south however a storage well was constructed at some later point in time blocking this entrance. The discovery of terracotta tiles, dateable to the second-first century BCE, from the upper levels confirms the date of construction.13

Vihara 2

Vihara (Monastery) 2 – This monastery is situated to the west of Stupa 1. It faces east and is divided into two sections, one square section in the north and a rectangular section in the south. In the middle it had an open entrance from the east to the west, however, it was closed at some point in time. While the front portion of the monastery has survived, its backside portion is very much damaged beyond conservation.14

Apsidal Temple 1

Apsidal Temple 1 – Only the lowermost course of this temple has survived telling us that it was facing south and was apsidal in plan. Like other chaityagrhas, the apse of the temple might have contained a stupa however no remains of the latter have been found. The temple had a porch in front. The overall measurements of the temple are 11.5 m long and 5.6 m wide.15 This temple would have been built during the Shunga period.

Earthenware reliquary, found in Stupa 2 by Alexander Cunningham and donated to the Museum | © The Trustees of the British Museum
Steatite reliquary, found in Stupa 2 by Alexander Cunningham and donated to the Museum | © The Trustees of the British Museum
Steatite reliquary carrying inscriptions, found in Stupa 2 by Alexander Cunningham and donated to the Museum | © The Trustees of the British Museum

Stupa 2 – This stupa stands at 230 feet NNW of Stupa 1. The stupa is built in stone and measures 6.5 m in diameter. It is built over a 1.45 m high medhi. This allowed a 3- feet wide pradakshina-path. No remains of any harmika, chhatravali, or railings have been found here.16 A shaft sunken from the top by Cunningham had resulted in the discovery of two small steatite caskets. The discolored top of the stone suggests that the stupa had been opened in the past for treasures. The caskets are inscribed reading “(relics) of Sariputra” and “(relics) of Maha Mogalana”.17 

Stupa 6

Stupa 6 – The excavations revealed that the stupa was built over a medhi and a staircase was provided to reach the pradakshina-path above. The overall structure was raised over a rectangular platform measuring 23.5 m long, 17.5 m wide, and 1.6 m high. The height of the medhi is 1 m and the diameter is 7.4 m. From the back side of the Stupa, towards the east, a path leads to the painted rock shelter. In the Gupta period, paintings depicting Buddha and stupa were executed in these shelters. These paintings are inscribed with the Buddhist creed, Pratītyasamutpāda-gāthā.18

Stupa 7

Stupa 7 – This stupa is 24 feet in diameter and is raised over a 2 feet-wide medhi (terrace) with an overall height of 9 feet. Cunningham discovered a chamber, measuring 1 foot 8 inches by 1 foot 3 inches and 1 foot 6 inches deep, was discovered at a depth of 4 feet. The chamber was covered with a stone. Inside the chamber were found earthen pots. Inside these pots were found remains of small earthenware boxes and a steatite casket. As these carry no inscriptions therefore identity of relics could not be verified.19

1 Willis, Michael (2000). Buddhist Reliquaries from Ancient India. British Museum Press. London. ISBN 9780714114927p. 23
2 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. p. 320
3 Vyas, Narayan. Satdhara 1992-2000, part I (Hindi). Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p. 7
4 Indian Archaeology 1978-1979 – A Review. p. 15
5 Indian Archaeology 1993-1994 – A Review. pp. 71-72
6 Indian Archaeology 1995-1996 – A Review. pp. 48-50
7 Indian Archaeology 1996-1997 – A Review. pp. 65-66
8 Indian Archaeology 1997-1998 – A Review. p. 105
9 Indian Archaeology 1999-2000 – A Review. pp. 99-100
10 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. p. 321
11 Indian Archaeology 1995-1996 – A Review. pp. 49-50
12 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. p. 321
13 Indian Archaeology 1995-1996 – A Review. p. 50
14 Indian Archaeology 1995-1996 – A Review. p. 50
15 Vyas, Narayan. Satdhara 1992-2000, part I (Hindi). Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p. 39
16 Vyas, Narayan. Satdhara 1992-2000, part I (Hindi). Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p. 56
17 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. pp. 323-24
18 Vyas, Narayan. Satdhara 1992-2000, part I (Hindi). Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p. 61
19 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. pp. 325-326

Acknowledgment: Some of the photos above are in CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain from the collection released by the Tapesh Yadav Foundation for Indian Heritage.