For a city-dweller looking for a breath of clean air and some quiet, Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh is an unlikely recommendation. But I would go back there just to sit by the monastery ruins, soaking up the rich history of the once glorious town.
On an impulse, during a work trip to Bhopal, I decided to take a day off to visit the ancient Buddhist town. A short drive and an ascent up a 70-foot hillock later, I arrived at the complex of sculpted pillars, temples and stupas. Past the numerous monuments–a few whole, others in various stages of dilapidation–I walked around, amazed by the beauty of it all.
Struck by curiosity, I gravitated towards the locals for a dose of history. It seems, neglect befell the historic town after the fall of the Magadha Empire in 185 BC. It lay untouched for several thousand years, until the English stumbled upon the site in 1818. Eventually, I was told, it began attracting travellers from the world over, especially from Buddhist countries like Japan and Sri Lanka. Interestingly, the entrance to the Maha Stupa–or the Sanchi Stupa–carries a depiction of foreigners looking up at the structure in awe. I wondered if it meant that even two centuries ago, it was a popular pilgrim attraction!
Most monuments in Sanchi and surrounding villages were commissioned by Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. The third Mauryan emperor spent a good chunk of his youth around here. What adds life to these crumbling structures today is the heartbreaking backstory of Ashoka and his first wife. At the age of 18, when the prince was sent to Sanchi as the prantpal of Ujjain, he met a young woman named Devi, the daughter of a merchant from the nearby town of Vidisha. He fell head over heels in love with her and asked for her hand in marriage.
Devi, however, was unimpressed by the young prince who already had a reputation as a forceful and violent administrator. Being a Buddhist, she believed in non-violence. So, when Ashoka expressed his wish to marry her, Devi dared him to resolve the Ujjaini uprising–a conspiracy by ministers who wanted to bring down the government–without bloodshed. Determined, the prince set off, but didn’t return for a while. Having lost any hope that he would come back, Devi decided to return to her routine of serving ageing monks at the nearby monastery.
As fate would have it, it was there that she ran into Ashoka again. He had managed to diffuse the crisis without resorting to violence but had been attacked by assassins in the process. Gravely injured, he hid in a cave near the monastery. Devi then nursed him back to health over the following weeks, even as she found herself falling for the prince.
She was a sanctuary to the restless monarch. While he is known to have married several other women in his lifetime, this peace-loving daughter of a merchant is said to be the one he adored the most.
Ashoka and Devi soon tied the knot. But they weren’t allowed back in the royal palace in Pataliputra, as Emperor Bindusara–Ashoka’s father–disapproved of the match. Ravishing as she was, Devi was no princess. And so, she was forced to stay in Sanchi. Ashoka frequently visited the town to spend time with her. It was upon her wish, it is said, that the powerful monarch had many vihara (monasteries) and stupa built in the region. In fact, the Maha Stupa stands at the spot where the couple got married.
Shortly after their marriage, Devi gave birth to their son Mahendra, and three years later, their daughter Sangamitra. When Ashoka ascended the throne, he invited Devi and the children to join him at the palace. But Devi refused, as she still did not approve of Ashoka’s violent ways. Quite understandable, one would think, as the young prince went on to be named Chandashoka or Ashoka, The Cruel.
There are varied accounts of what happened after the Kalinga War. While official records state that the emperor had a change of heart and adopted Buddhism, other accounts argue that he remained as cruel as ever. Nonetheless, it is said that when Devi passed away in her early 60s, Ashoka was left broken-hearted.
She was a sanctuary to the restless monarch. While he is known to have married several other women in his lifetime, this peace-loving daughter of a merchant is said to be the one he adored the most. Devi kept Ashoka on his toes and raised their children to be very unlike their father. Mahendra and Sangamitra eventually grew up and travelled to Sri Lanka to propagate the teachings of Buddhism.
What then happened to Ashoka, I wondered. A bit of research told me that according to Ashokavadana, a historical Sanskrit text based on the life of the emperor, he indeed embraced Buddhism in his final days. Remorse is said to have prompted him to donate most of the state’s wealth to the monasteries. After the emperor’s passing, weak successors and bad policies brought about the rapid fall of the dynasty.
As I sat by the shade of a tree gazing upon the Maha Stupa, I pondered over the lives of those who lived here 2,300 years ago. I imagined a prosperous town in the place of the ruins, with pillars standing tall and temples looking whole. I pictured the meet-cute between the rich boy and the gorgeous village girl. I imagined their trepidation as they shunned regal convention to be together. I marvelled at the sheer courage it must have taken Devi to stand up for her belief in non-violence, even though it kept her apart from her beloved. On my way out of Sanchi, I looked back at the town. Reflected in the ancient charm of the stupas and the monasteries was undying love and resolve.