Eastern Gateway (Exterior)

 

This photo shows a closer up shot of the eastern gateway.

These gateways are all identifiable by particular motifs; the eastern gateway is supported by elephants.

This photo was taken in November 2005.

 

 

Here's a close-up of the upper torana (arch) of the eastern gateway.  When these carvings were made the Buddha was not pictured in a human form, since with enlightenment he was believed to have transcended all limitations.  Instead, his presence was depicted by symbols standing for the four great events in his life: a lotus or elephant for his birth, a tree and a throne for his enlightenment, a wheel for his first teaching (the Four Noble Truths), and a stupa for his bodily demise.  In some cases he is also represented by a pair of footprints. 

This carving shows the seven past Buddhas, represented symbolically by two trees and five stupas.  All Buddhists believe that there have been Buddhas before Siddhartha Gautama (although they appear only rarely on the earth), and that the future Buddha, Maitreya, is even now working towards Buddhahood.  These past Buddhas are important because a future Buddha's vow to attain enlightenment must be confirmed by a living Buddha, who validates this vows.  The Theravada and the Mahayana disagree on whether there can be more than one Buddha at a time-the Theravadins deny this, and the Mahayana affirm it.


 

Here's a close-up of the middle arch of the eastern gateway (shown above).  This panel depicts the Future Buddha's Great Departure--when he renounced his royal status and became a homeless wanderer searching for supreme enlightenment. 

The story is told in sequential fashion from left to right: at far left is the town of Kapilavastu, with houses and residents.  The Buddha (symbolized by the tree in the middle) left his home on a horse named Kanthaka (which is also covered with the royal umbrella, and in the center panels the gods are holding the horse off the ground, muffling its hoof beats to keep the Buddha's family from being roused by the noise (and frustrating his desire to go).  At far right the horse is being led back toward the town, and the pair of footprints is another symbol of the Buddha. 


 

This image, from the lowest torana arch of the eastern gateway shown above, depicts the emperor Ashoka's visit to the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment.  Ashoka's piety is visible not only from his visits to these holy sites, but in his patronage in establishing sites such as Sanchi itself.  Such public acts of piety were also good public relations moves, since they placed Ashoka in the role of the righteous king, but it seems clear from various sorts of evidence that at a personal level Ashoka was a pious Buddhist. 

Here the tree (itself a symbol for the Buddha) is in the center, and around it stand Ashoka and his court making appropriate reverential gestures.  One of Ashoka's wives from Vidisha--which is only 6 miles away, so he had strong connections to the region, and good reasons to spread patronage there. 


 
At left is one of the elephants that form the supports for the upper gateway (complete with a mahout riding on the back), the supporting bracket for the archway above is a stylized tree, running up and above, to which is clinging a yakshi or nature sprite (which in ancient India were often associated with trees, and were worshipped by leaving offerings in or at the base of trees).    Yakshis were associated with the fertility of nature (as were yakshas, the male form of these).  She is wearing a headdress and various types of jewelry, and the bend in her body and arms suggests the action of a vine clinging to the tree. 

This is a very famous sculpture that will be in just about any book on Asian Art. 

November 2005

 
The gateway also depicts legendary stories from the Buddha's ministry.  This one depicts the conversion of the Kashyapas, became the Buddha's disciples after he walked on water.  This scene shows the Kashyapas in a boat going to rescue him, and later standing on the bank making reverential gestures.  Based on the latter the Buddha is probably indicated by slab above the standing men; another possibility is as the tree at left floating in the water. 

Tradition states that the Kashyapas had a thousand members, and from such accounts it seems that one of the factors behind the Buddha's success was that he was able to incorporate existing sects into his own. 

November 2005

 

Parts of this description are from Benjamin Rowland's The Art and Architecture of India, New York: Penguin Books 1981 [1953]: 102.

 

This scene was just below the scene of the Kashyapas, and shows a royal procession.  The king is down in the lower right in the chariot (covered by the umbrella), preceded by his retinue.  Townspeople watch from their windows.  This again gives a vision of life at that time (at least, royal life).

November 2005

On to Next Page (Eastern Gateway, Interior)

 

Introduction East Gate:  Exterior / Interior West Gate: Exterior / Interior Final Shots
South Gate: Exterior / Interior North Gate: Exterior / Interior

 

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Last modified 27 December 2005