Throughout history, mankind has obsessed over the possibility that the world has a centre. Unfortunately, the experts do not always agree on where this centre is located. Wherever it is, I have decided I’d like to see it with my own eyes some day. Which is the reason why I’m on my way to Sanchi, 46 kilometres northeast of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. I’ve wanted to go there ever since I read in the Encyclopaedia Britannica that the cosmic axis or axis mundi, the line connecting heaven with the centre of the Earth, around which the universe revolves, may run right through the Sanchi Stupa. At least symbolically.
I’ve been looking for Earth’s centre for quite some time and have found that it is sometimes thought to be a physical place, other times a philosophical concept, and has even been the subject matter of science-fiction. In Athens, a few years ago, I took a bus to Delphi to see a big phallic stone known as the omphalos or the navel of the Earth, now kept at the archaeological site museum there. It once marked the Earth’s middle point according to the ancient Greeks, who liked to believe that their own country was the centre of the world.
In the fictional travelogue Journey to the Centre of the Earth, sci-fi writer Jules Verne imagined another centre, a physical core that could be found by climbing down a volcanic crater atop Snæfellsjökull in Iceland. Mind you, the original settlers of Iceland, the Vikings, believed that the world tree, Yggdrasil, was at the centre between the world of mortals and their gods (the exact location of this tree remains somewhat unclear). Very confusing, if you ask me. So when I read of yet another possible centre of the world—this time both symbolic and physical—at Sanchi, my interest was piqued.
The bus rattles through the slummy northern outskirts of Bhopal, but thereafter it’s smooth rolling along National Highway 86, through the pretty landscape, past the occasional village where bullocks rule the streets. Modern Sanchi, where I hop off the bus, isn’t much more than a village crossroads. Visible to the east is a prominent hillock. Strolling past sundry snack joints and a Madhya Pradesh Tourism lodge, I ask myself: Could this really be the centre of the Earth?
Sanchi’s historical importance is quite mind-blowing. It was here, in the third century B.C., that the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, after having butchered practically everybody in the great battle of Kalinga (in present-day Odisha), repented of his part in the enormous tragedy and rebranded himself as a Buddhist and promoter of peace. Over successive centuries, shrines and monasteries cropped up around the sanctuary he established at Kakanadabota, as Sanchi was then called. Today, Sanchi is considered among the most important sites of ancient Indian sculpture. In history, art, war, and religion have surprisingly often gone hand in hand.
Climbing the steps up the hill, I reach the Great Stupa. It may not match the Egyptian pyramids in size, nonetheless at about 70 feet, it is a towering construction. It is also 2,300 years old, the most ancient Indian stone structure still standing. It lay largely neglected from around the 13th century onwards, until 1818, when a bunch of enterprising British archaeologists came upon it and deemed it historically important.
I observe hordes of Japanese tourists, armed with their mandatory cameras, as well as a huge joint family of pilgrims from Sri Lanka and one French couple. It’s fascinating how far people are prepared to travel to stare at ancient stones. I join them, spending a memorable day climbing around the hill, studying the Great Stupa, the minor stupas, monastery ruins, and a famous communal food bowl cut out of one huge boulder, which was used by monks. Ashoka also left one of his important edicts at Sanchi. In the inscription, the emperor cautions monks and nuns from creating schisms within their community, threatening them with expulsion if they do so.
Through the day, I keep returning to the Great Stupa for another look. Its gateways face the four cardinal directions, and are adorned with elaborately carved panels, which depict the many lives of the Buddha. The intricate sculptures were done by ivory workers from nearby Vidisha. Further additions to the artwork were made over a millennium or so, mostly sponsored by the merchants of Vidisha. What we have here is a thousand years’ worth of ancient art.
My breath catches before one panel that shows the Great Stupa itself, with worshipping figures in it that are, according to a caption, apparently foreigners. This would suggest that the stupa was already an international tourist attraction by the time this particular carving was made (circa 1st century). I wonder who these foreigners were. Hardly French or Japanese, but maybe Sri Lankan, I speculate, for apparently Sanchi is referred to in the ancient texts of the island.
And what about its reputation as the centre of the world? The elevated stupa indeed gives the impression of reaching for the sky. The picture becomes clearer from some distance away and with a little context. It is said that the axis mundi runs right through the structure, connecting with the UFO-like antenna atop it. Some believe this is the real prime meridian, which means that everything east of Sanchi is The East, everything west of it is The West, and so on. Hence, the four gateways around the stupa are the gates into the four directions of the world.
It is also interesting to note that Ashoka didn’t choose this spot at random, but out of love. For it so happened that he fell for a beautiful girl named Devi, from nearby Vidisha. According to ancient Lankan chronicles, she had no intention of moving to the imperial capital at Pataliputra (present-day Patna in Bihar), because her father ran a prosperous business in Vidisha and she was involved with the local Buddhist cause. So Ashoka had no option but to come to Vidisha if he wanted to spend time with his great love. It is thanks to this romance that we find many Buddhist monuments here. In fact, Devi is said to be responsible for the construction of some of the oldest viharas in the area. Personally, I find it very sweet that what lies at the centre of the Earth is—love.
I catch another bus, and travel nine kilometres up the road to Vidisha, where I check in to a simple but friendly lodge near the railway station. Although once an important city, modern Vidisha is somewhat unspectacular. Still, its laid-back streets are sufficiently pleasant to explore over a few days.
I drift in the bazaars and browse all manner of merchandise: the usual pots and pans, fruit and fans that you find in markets. Stopping outside the bigger shops, I imagine that they must be akin to Devi’s father’s establishment. This businessman’s grandchildren, Ashoka and Devi’s son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra, would eventually spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka, which accounts for why Sanchi is particularly sacred to Buddhists from there. In 251 B.C., Mahindra took a fleet from Sopara, outside what is now Mumbai, to the island nation. In about 245 B.C., his sister followed him, carrying a sapling of the bodhi tree from Bodh Gaya, Bihar, to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. The tree still stands there today, believed to be the oldest historically documented tree in the world.
Save for some fragments in the state museum behind the railway station, there is little remaining archaeological evidence to create a picture of Vidisha as a prosperous city ruled by Ashoka and later by the north Indian Sungas. Little evidence, that is, until I learn that there’s an “old” Vidisha some four kilometres west of the modern town.
I rent a bicycle and ride on a rural road, crossing bridges over two rivers (one of them is the meandering Betwa). But when I reach my goal, I discover that the only thing to gawk at, amidst fields, is a stone pillar known as the Heliodorus Column. It is almost two storeys high, and to cover it with my camera I need to take some four or five snaps from bottom to top. It was erected circa 150 B.C., in front of a temple (a pile of stone blocks indicate its position nearby), by the Greek traveller-cum-ambassador Heliodorus, to celebrate his conversion to Vaishnavism. This was perhaps the first recorded example of a Westerner adopting an Indian faith. Interestingly, the pillar itself is now sacred to local fishermen, who know it as Khambha Baba.
The adventurous Heliodorus was born in Taxila (in present-day Pakistan), which at that time was a Greek colony. He was probably a descendant of the troops who came to India with Alexander in 326 B.C. Although Alexander turned back at the Beas River, he left colonies behind at the northwestern edges of the Indian subcontinent. An Indo-Greek ruler, Antialcidas, is named on the pillar as the person who sent Heliodorus to Vidisha. The nature of his mission and what exactly Heliodorus achieved, apart from converting to an Indian faith, remain unclear to me, but it is likely that Vidisha was an important enough trading centre for him to investigate. And taking interest in a local religion was, in those days, always good for business. It strikes me that Heliodorus could be one of the foreigners depicted on the panel I saw at Sanchi, worshipping at the Great Stupa.
Cycling back, I make a detour to the Udaygiri Caves, a few kilometres south of the road leading from Vidisha to the Greek pillar. These are a series of temples and monasteries carved out of a rocky hill, around A.D. 400, under the orders of the illustrious emperor, Chandragupta II. Unlike the Buddhist art at Sanchi, these caves are fine examples of Hindu Gupta art. They too were created by artisans from Vidisha, most likely relatives of those who worked at Sanchi.
The fourth cave has a big lingam with Shiva’s face carved on it. The fifthhouses a grand, rock-cut statue of Vishnu in his avatar as Varaha or the boar. He is performing the superb action of stomping an enemy of the world into the ground, while rescuing a damsel in distress with one of his fangs. At the very top of the hill, I find an underground Jain monastery, adding one more religion to the faiths on display here. Diversity at the centre of the world. As it should be.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sanchi is located in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh, 46 km/1.5 hr northeast of Bhopal.
By Air The nearest airport is Bhopal’s Raja Bhoj Airport (taxis charge ₹1,500-2,000 for a day tour to Sanchi).
By Road There are plenty of buses from Bhopal’s central Hamidia Road bus station to Sanchi (1.5 hr), starting from about 6 a.m. to late in the evening. If you’re taking a bus from Sanchi back to Bhopal, just stand at the crossroads in the centre of the village and there will usually be a bus within 20 minutes; the last one runs sometime between 9-10 p.m.
By Train It is possible to take a train to Sanchi or to Vidisha. Several, but not all of the trains headed north from Bhopal make a stop at either station. If you are coming from Delhi, you might want to get off here to save a few hours rather than continuing to Bhopal and then backtracking. After alighting in Sanchi, follow the road straight in front of the railway station to reach the stupa at the far end of Monument Road.
It is possible to make a day trip from Bhopal to Sanchi. However, I suggest spending more time exploring the area. Cycling on the quiet country roads is a rather pleasant way to visit the Udaygiri cave temples (5 km from Vidisha; turn left after crossing the Betwa River bridge) and the pillar of Heliodorus (up a road to the right some distance after the second bridge; ask for “Khambha Baba” if you can’t find your way). Both these sites lack tourist facilities, so do carry a water bottle and if you plan to stay all day, then something to eat too. There are one or two bicycle rental shops in both Sanchi and Vidisha (9 km/20 minutes from Sanchi).
The monuments are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily; the site museum is open Saturday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entry rates are ₹10 for Indians, ₹250 foreigners. Sanchi can be visited year-round, but the weather is most pleasant from November to March.
Besides the grand main stupa, some 50-60 ruins of monasteries, smaller stupas, and other intriguing ancient structures have been excavated, so you may want to spend several hours exploring the hill at Sanchi. Plus, there is an Archaeological Survey of India Museum, with an interesting collection of sculptures near the entrance, including a lion capital from the Ashoka pillar that lies broken atop the hill.
Due to the hilltop location, the ancient monuments aren’t very disabled-friendly, and the climb up is rather steep. For an extra fee you may take your taxi up near the stupa.
Although a small and eminently walkable village, Sanchi has all the facilities of a major tourist site, except perhaps an ATM machine. There are some snack and sugarcane juice stalls and eateries at the base of the hill, where you can fortify yourself before you climb up.
There are one or two basic lodges near the railway station in Sanchi, but the most comfortable option for an overnight stay is likely the Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s Gateway Retreat in Sanchi. It has 20 rooms, a cafeteria, and a bar, and is located very close to the monuments (07482-266723; www.mptourism.com; doubles from ₹2,590). Vidisha is a small, pleasant, market town with lots of eating places, chai stalls and several lodging options by the railway station, including Hotel Pride (a new hotel with rooms from ₹1,100) and Hotel Moti Shree. Vidisha is also a convenient base for cycling out to Udaygiri caves and the Heliodorus Pillar. It is worth strolling around Vidisha’s bazaars. There is also an archaeological museum, which deserves a visit.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Journey to the Centre”.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).