Less than an hour’s drive northeast of Bhopal, on a hill that overlooks the plains, the Great Stupa of Sanchi is one of India’s most evocative ancient sites. Sanchi is the oldest Buddhist sanctuary in existence anywhere and remains one of the most significant Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

Built by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in 262BC after his conversion to Buddhism, the ‘Great Stupa’ and other adjacent structures (monolithic pillars, palaces, temples and monasteries) remained a major Buddhist centre in India until the 12th century A.D.

A sandstone pillar fragment here carries Ashoka’s famous edict warning against schism in the Buddhist community. Stupa 1 was found empty, while relics of two disciples of Buddha enshrined in the adjacent Stupa 3 were taken to England.

The Gateways of Stupa 1, carved with stories of the Buddha’s life, are the finest specimens of early classical art. Don’t miss the Gupta Temple and the Archaeological Survey of India Museum which houses some of the earliest known stone sculptures in Indian art from the 3rd to the 1st century BC.

The fragments of railings and gateway arches are elaborately carved with some of the finest stonework known to survive from the ancient world.

Nearby attractions to consider

The adjacent town of Vidisha has a State Museum with important medieval sculptures and the Lohangi Hill monuments. Nearby, the 2nd century BC Heliodorous Pillar and the 5th century AD Udaygiri Caves are well worth a visit.

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