Perhaps magnificent is the wrong word. But, to be honest, I certainly underestimated the significance, size and beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage site – The Buddhist Monuments – Sanchi Stupas in Madhya Pradesh, India.
When researching about the site, I found a lot of great descriptive, historical and technical information about the stupas. However, I don’t recall reading any information about how to explore the site once you reach there. So, in this post, I am choosing to focus on how to go about exploring the site (in my opinion of course : ) ).
It was going to be a short trip. We reached Sanchi in the afternoon. Our plan was to explore the area that afternoon and evening and perhaps the next morning and then continue our onward journey. As “chief itinerary planner”, I decided on this timeline because everything that I read led me to believe that the stupas look their best during dawn or dusk times. Well, I was wrong. To properly explore the entire site and the museum close by, you need at least 3 to 4 hours and better, if you can afford it, 5 to 6 hours to explore thoroughly.
As you enter the site, the first thing you will see is the Great Stupa (also called Stupa 1). It is the focal point of the entire site and guides that you hire spend the most time here (almost 1 ½ hours to 2 hours). This is good and bad… good because there is so much history associated with this particular stupa and it has the best carvings but bad because by the time you are done exploring the Great Stupa you may realize you have run out of time to explore the other parts of the site. So, depending on how much time you have to spare, leave this site till the end.
The entire site is on four planes, each accessible via stairs. The Great Stupa (Stupa # 1) and Stupa # 3 along with some other ruins are located in the 2nd plane (where you enter the site). Looking at the Great Stupa, if you walk towards the left, there are stairs that lead you to the top plane where the ruins related to the monasteries are located. It is a vast area and has a temple as well.
From the Great Stupa, if you walk towards the right, there are a flight of stairs that lead you down towards another set of ruins of monasteries (plane # 3). This set is much smaller compared to the top plane ruins. The main attraction here is the large stone bowl.
From here, located at the far right corner are another flight of stairs that lead you down towards the bottom plane where Stupa # 2 is located. Unfortunately, this Stupa is not visible from above due to the greenery surrounding it. You have to walk down to explore. Because it is not easily accessible, many people do not bother visiting this stupa.
Warning: To visit the top plane, 3rd plane or the bottom plane, you need to be able to climb up and down stairs without difficulty.
How to Explore
Depending on what time you arrive, I would recommend you do the following:
Option 1 – you have 4 to 5 hours to spare
Upon entering the site, turn towards right and explore the monastery ruins on plane # 3 and Stupa # 2 on the bottom plane. I recommend doing this first because it will take you about ½ hour to 45 minutes to complete exploring these two planes and since you are beginning with these two planes, climbing down and then up again will not tire you out too much.
Next, depending on when you are exploring, do the following:
If you are going in the morning
After that, explore the Great Stupa. Plan to spend about two hours exploring the Great Stupa and stupa # 3. While you can walk around and explore on your own, it would be useful to hire a guide. They may seem a little expensive but the history they describe and the little things they show makes the whole experience worth it.
Once you are done exploring this plane, head to the top plane to explore the monastery ruins. This will take you about ½ hour to 45 minutes.
If you are going in the afternoon (eat lunch and then explore)
The Great Stupa does look very pretty as dusk approaches. So, if you are going in the afternoon, would recommend you explore the top plane with the monastery ruins first before coming back down and exploring the Great Stupa. If you are still there around 6pm, then I would recommend you hang around and watch the light and sound show in the evening before calling it a night.
Option 2 – if you have 2 hours or less to spare (or are unable to climb up and down stairs)
Upon entering the site, turn towards the right and view the monastery ruins on plane # 3 which are visible from the above. Unfortunately, Stupa #2 will not be visible, but at least you will be able to see a bit more than just the main stupa.
IF possible, explore the top plane briefly to see how the monasteries were setup.
Then, explore the Great stupa and Stupa # 3 to your hearts content before heading out.
Option 3 – split the visit over two days (need to buy tickets for each day separately)
You can do what we did: Visit the Great Stupa, Stupa # 3 and the ruins on the second plane in the evening, stay back enjoy the light & sound show. The next day, come back and visit the monastery ruins in the upper plane and 3rd plane along with visiting Stupa # 2 on the bottom plane. Later visit the temple and ASI Museum before heading to your next destination. To do this of course, you need to stay overnight in Sanchi.
After exploring the main UNESCO site, once you exit the fenced off area, you can visit the Chaitygiri Temple after climbing up a few flights of stairs.
ASI Museum – Sanchi
Located at the base of the hill, next to the area where you have to purchase the entrance tickets to the Sanchi Stupa is the ASI Museum where there are quite a few artefacts that were uncovered during the restoration of the stupa area. It is well worth buying the extra ticket to visit this museum if you have the time to spare. It takes about ½ hour to 45minutes to get a good look at all of the artefacts.
Study of Indian history would be incomplete without learning about Emperor Ashoka the Great. His transformation from being a ruthless king to becoming one of the most successful people who helped spread Buddhism beyond the Indian borders is legendary. And in this story, the Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi play an important role. Even today, many followers of Buddhism visit the Stupas at Sanchi to pay their respects.
As an UNESCO World Heritage site, it is very well maintained. The museum and the evening light & sound show make the site even more endearing. The recommendation to visit the monuments during dawn or dusk makes sense. However, please also remember that to do justice to the site, you will need at least 5 to 6 hours to explore the site, so please plan accordingly. The only drawback is that there are very minimal food and drink options available nearby. So, either start exploring right after breakfast and finish before a late lunch or have an early lunch and explore till the end of the day.
Worth visiting? Definitely!