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The Stupa No.2 at Sanchi, also called Sanchi II, is one of the oldest existing Buddhist stupas in India, and part of the Buddhist complex of Sanchi. It is of particular interest since it has the earliest known important displays of decorative reliefs in India, probably anterior to the reliefs at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, or the reliefs of Bharhut.[1] It displays what has been called "the oldest extensive stupa decoration in existence".[2] Stupa number II at Sanchi is therefore considered as the birthplace of Jataka illustrations.[1]

Sanchi Stupa No.2
Sanchi Stupa number 2 KSP 3589.jpg
Stupa number 2 at Sanchi.
Sanchi Stupa No.2 is located in India
Sanchi Stupa No.2
Stupa II at Sanchi
Sanchi Stupa No.2 is located in Madhya Pradesh
Sanchi Stupa No.2
Sanchi Stupa No.2 (Madhya Pradesh)
General information
Architectural styleBuddhist
LocationSanchi Town, Madhya Pradesh, India, Asia
Coordinates23°29′N 77°44′E / 23.48°N 77.73°E / 23.48; 77.73Coordinates: 23°29′N 77°44′E / 23.48°N 77.73°E / 23.48; 77.73
Construction started2nd century BCE
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Part ofBuddhist Monuments at Sanchi
CriteriaCultural: (i)(ii)(iii)(iv)(vi)
Inscription1989 (13th Session)



Map of Sanchi hill, with Stupa 2 at the extreme left, to the west.

Stupa No. 2 is located in the Buddhist complex of Sanchi. It was probably founded later than the Great Stupa (Stupa number 1) at Sanchi, but it contained reliquaries dated to the Mauryan Empire period (323-185 BCE), and it was the earliest to receive decorative reliefs, about a century earlier than Stupa Nb 1.[1]

One of the key indicators to date Sanchi Stupa No.2 has been the similarity of its architectural motifs with those of Heliodorus pillar, which is datable to circa 113 BCE due to its establishment during the rule of Indo-Greek Antialcidas, as well as similarities of the paleography of the inscriptions.[3]

The Stupa is located outside of the main complex of Sanchi, about 300 meters to the west, on the slope of Sanchi hill.[4] It is located in a lower position than Stupa 1 because the relics it contained, are those of church dignitaries from the time of Ashoka, who were considered as worthy of a lower position than the Buddha himself in Stupa number 1, or his disciples in Stupa number 3.[4]


Some of the relics found in Stupa Nb 2.

The Stupa contained a relic box with four small caskets of steatite inside, containing human bones. An inscription in early Brahmi was found on the relic box, mentioning that it contained "the relics of all teachers, including Kasapagota and Vachi-Suvijayita".[4] Besides, ten saints were mentioned on the caskets, who either participated to the Third Buddhist Council held under Ashoka, or were sent as emissaries to the Himalayas to preach the Buddhist doctrine. Among them is a "Mogaliputa",who may be Mogaliputa Tissa, who presided the Third Buddhist Council, but this is disputed.[4]

Content of the reliefsEdit

Typically, the earliest medallions at Sanchi are dated to 115 BC, while the more extensive pillar carvings are dated to around 80 BC,[5] or almost a century later than the first ones, around 15 BCE.[4]

Early period (circa 115 BCE)Edit

These reliefs from the early period of Sanchi II (circa 115 BCE) are the earliest known examples of Indian stone reliefs.[1][5][6]

First Jatakas
The relief of the horse-headed ogress in Sanchi Stupa No.2.

One relief of a horse-headed woman, similar to another one at the Mahabodhi Temple of Bodh Gaya, is thought to be the first known representation of a Jataka (a story of a previous life of the Buddha), the Padakusalamanava Jataka, in which a horse-headed ogress falls in love with one of her preys, and the Bodhisattva (the future Buddha) is born of their union.[1]

Sunga period railings were initially blank (left: Sanchi Great Stupa), and only started to be decorated circa 115 BCE with Stupa No.2 (right).[1][2]

These first attempts at narrative art are aniconic, as they do not represent the Buddha directly, but only his appearance in previous lives, or his symbols.[1]

These are altogether 455 medallions and half-medallions, or which 293 consist in lotus flowers, and 126 in a lotus with another motif. Only 36 of the medallions have another subject.[1] For the first time, clearly Buddhist themes are represented, particularly the four events in the life of the Buddha that are: the Nativity, the Enlightenment, the First Sermon and the Decease.[7] Some authors consider these reliefs as the prelude (the "prolegomenon") of the iconography of the reliefs in Bharhut (100-80 BCE) and of the later and much more evolved depictions on the toranas of the Great Stupa in Sanchi (1st century BCE/CE).[1]

Influence from the northwestEdit

It is thought that the earliest reliefs from the last quarter of the 2nd century BCE were produced by craftsmen from the area of Gandhara in northwestern Indian, a central Indo-Greek region,[8] because they left mason's marks in Kharoshthi (a script used around the area of Gandhara), as opposed to the local Brahmi script.[8] This seems to imply that these foreign workers were responsible for some of the earliest and sometimes quite foreign motifs and figures that can be found on the railings of the stupa.[8]

Around the time of the first reliefs at Stupa II, in 115 BCE, the embassy of Heliodorus from the Indo-Greek king of Taxila named Antialkidas, visited the court of the Sungas king Bhagabhadra in Vidisha, about 6 km away from Sanchi. In Vidisha, Heliodorus established the Heliodorus pillar in a dedication to Vāsudeva. This would indicate that relations between the Indo-Greeks and the Sungas had improved by that time, that people traveled between the two realms, and also that the Indo-Greeks readily followed Indian religions.[9]

Early reliefs at Sanchi, Stupa No2 (circa 115 BC)
Floral designs

The vast majority of the oldest medallions and half-medallions (293 out of 455) simply consist in a lotus motif. And 126 additional medallions and half medallions represent a lotus with another motif. Some motifs take on Hellenistic decorative forms.

Floral designs, Sanchi Stupa No2 (circa 115 BCE)
Buddhist symbols

Parmi les médaillons, les symboles purement Bouddhistes sont assez rares, bien qu'apparaissent par endroit les motifs de triratna, de palmette (visible déjà dans le Châpiteau de Pataliputra, 3ième siècle av. J.-C.), au milieu des multiples motifs de lotus.

Among the medallions, purely Buddhist symbols are quite rare, although the motifs of triratnas, palmettes (already visible in the Pataliputra capital, 3rd century BCE), appear in places, in the middle of multiple lotus motifs.

Buddhist symbols, Sanchi Stupa No2 (circa 115 BCE)

Later period (circa 15 BCE)Edit

About a century later, some more descriptive reliefs were added, and often superimposed on the earlier ones, which clearly show the evolution of Buddhist during the intervening period.[4] This time, the reliefs are much more Buddhist in character, and are contemporary with the reliefs on the torana gateways of the Great Stupa at Sanchi.[1]

Later reliefs at Sanchi, Stupa No2 (circa 15 BC)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Didactic Narration: Jataka Iconography in Dunhuang with a Catalogue of Jataka Representations in China, Alexander Peter Bell, LIT Verlag Münster, 2000 p.15ff
  2. ^ a b "The railing of Sanchi Stupa No.2, which represents the oldest extensive stupa decoration in existence, (and) dates from about the second century B.C.E" Constituting Communities: Theravada Buddhism and the Religious Cultures of South and Southeast Asia, John Clifford Holt, Jacob N. Kinnard , Jonathan S. Walters, SUNY Press, 2012 p.197
  3. ^ Buddhist Landscapes in Central India, Julia Shaw, 2013 p.88ff
  4. ^ a b c d e f Monuments Of Sanchi Vol.1, John Marshall p.79ff
  5. ^ a b c Buddhist Landscapes in Central India: Sanchi Hill and Archaeologies of Religious and Social Change, C. Third Century BC to Fifth Century AD, by Julia Shaw, Left Coast Press, 2013 p.90
  6. ^ Buddhist Landscapes in Central India: Sanchi Hill and Archaeologies of Religious and Social Change, C. Third Century BC to Fifth Century AD, Julia Shaw, Left Coast Press, 2013 p.88ff
  7. ^ Buddhist Architecture, Huu Phuoc Le, Grafikol, 2010 p.149
  8. ^ a b c An Encyclopaedia of Indian Archaeology, by Amalananda Ghosh, BRILL p.295
  9. ^ Ancient Indian History and Civilization, Sailendra Nath Sen, New Age International, 1999 p.170
  10. ^ An Indian Statuette From Pompeii, Mirella Levi D'Ancona, in Artibus Asiae, Vol. 13, No. 3 (1950) p.171
  11. ^ "A man wrestling with an upright lion on a second stupa relief at north Indian Sanchi" The Parthian Period by Malcolm A. R. Colledge
    "The scene of king versus rampant lion appears on the coins of Persian satraps in Cilicia. At Dura the oriental tradition is so strong that even Heracles is represented fighting with upraised club a rampant lion; and it is of special interest to note that this same oriental scene of hero fighting rampant lion occurs on the sculptures of the railing pillars of Stupa II at Sanchi in India. The motif was, therefore, widespread and might be called a stock scene in the Parthian repertoire." in Berytus: Archaeological Studies. American University of Beirut. p. 291.
  12. ^ "A very unusual lower dress is worn by a curly headed man depicted on the ground rail pillar at Sanchi; he is defending himself from the attack of a lion with the help of a shield. He is wearing a plaited short skirt like dress" in Material Life of Northern India, Asha Vishnu, p.11
    "A somewhat earlier relief on a railing column of the Small Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh (second century B.C.E., sandstone) figures a man engaged in a lion hunt. The panel shows a realistic lion, except for its manes, which are in the shape of small round curls, not unlike those of the Buddha. The lion is more standing upright than thrusting forward, but this may be due to lack of space. The hunter or hero wears non-Indian clothes—boots, a skirt till his knees, a kind of T-shirt and a helmet—, which might indicate a foreign hero or story. Theoretically, the story line of this panel may be based on the Greek Heracles myth as well." in Animals in Stone: Indian Mammals Sculptured Through Time by Alexandra Anna Enrica van der Geer.
  13. ^ According to Ciro Lo Muzio, this is "a relief showing a male figure of north-western or Central Asian origins, as revealed by his attire: a tight sleeved tunic with folds rendered with parallel lines forming a chevron-like motif along the arms. But for a few details, the figure, possibly depicting a Saka, strongly recalls the members of a drinking couple in a toilet-tray in the British Museum: same tunic, same chevron pattern on the sleeves (and, in the toilet tray, also on the "solar" motif framing the couple), a very similar hair treatment, and eyelids in strong relief, a detail which is not found on other human figures on the same vedika." in Problems of Chronology in Gandhāran Art: Proceedings of the First International Workshop of the Gandhāra Connections Project, University of Oxford, 23rd-24th March 2017, p. 130

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