Satdhāra Stupas, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh

high-definition creative commons photographs from the Satdhāra Stupas, a large site having dozens of small stupas, and a few bigger ones, which once housed relics of Arahats Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna, together with some further information.

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The Satdhāra Stupas

In the evening we went with Ven. Chandananda from the Mahābodhi Temple in Sanchi to a site we had previously not heard of, but which proved to be quite extensive, at Satdhāra, around 14km from Sanchi, and now situated in the remote countryside.

At the site there are around 20 stupas, many of which had been reconstructed. The atmosphere was very quiet and meditative. There were, needless to say, no tourists at the site, because the place is hardly known and difficult of access, but there were a few locals, including a Buddhist couple from Vidisha whom we spoke to.

The site afforded beautiful vistas over the Madhya Pradesh countryside, and has an almost idyllic setting. The stupas here were the site for the relics of Ven Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna, which are now in the Mahābodhi temple at Sanchi; and the area around here is also associated with one of the Buddha's great disciples: Ven. Mahākaccāyana, who lived in the Avanti area.

Approach to the Caves


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Description based on Chapter XXIV of Cunningham's Bhilsa Topes (1854)

Topes of Satdhāra

1. The group of Topes known as the Satdhāra Topes are situated on the left bank of the Besali River just below the junction of the Ghora-pachār River. Satdhāra means literally the "hundred streams," and the place most probably received its name from the number of streams which meet at this point. The hill on which the Topes stand here forms a perpendicular cliff, beneath which flows the Besali River through a deep rocky glen. The view up the river is one of the most beautiful I have seen in India. Above are the Topes, those mysterious piles which have baffled the great destroyer Time for upwards of two thousand years. Beneath are the clear emerald waters of the Besali; on one side darkly shadowed by the overhanging trees and frowning cliffs; on the other side sparkling bright in the noon-day sun. The selection of this lovely spot shows that the Buddhist Bhikshu was not without a lively appreciation of the beauties of that nature which he worshipped under the name of Dharma.

2. The Topes are situated about two miles to the W.S.W. of the small village of Firozpur, and about three miles from the of Sonāri. The largest of the Topes is now a vast ruinous mound of brickwork that has once been faced with stone like the great Tope at Sānchi, which it almost rivals in size. The base of the dome is 101 feet in diameter; but its present height is only 30 feet. The terrace is 9 feet wide with a height of 12 feet above the ground. The total height therefore is 42 feet as it now stands; but as the hemisphere was an essential part of every Tope, the height could not have been less than the radius, or feet; and was most probably somewhat more. The Tope was crowned by a Buddhist railing, of which several pillars still remain lying together upon the terrace. Some pillars of the square pedestal also remain; and there can be no doubt that this Tope was once completed with the chatta pinnacle, which has already been described in the account of the Sānchi Topes.

3. The circulur railing which surrounded the top consisted of pillars 2 feet 4.5 inches in height with a section of 9 inches face, and 7 inches side. There were only two rails, each 10 inches deep, and 39 inches thick. The whole was surmounted by an architrave or coping, 10.5 inches high and 9 inches thick. The square of the pedestal had pillars of the same section; but as there were three rails the pillars were 3 feet in height. They were ornamented with the usual medallions of full and half lotus flowers.

4. A perpendicular shaft was sunk to a depth of 10 feet, but without any discovery. As the great brick Tope at Sānchi had not yielded any relics, and as we were pressed for time, we gave up the farther opening of this Tope. My own opinion regarding these large Topes is that the relics were always placed near the top so as to be readily accessible for the purpose of showing them to the people on stated festivals. Now as the great Satdhāra Tope has certainly lost at least ten feet of its height, and probably more, it seemed to me very unlikely that any relics would be found in it; but, had time permitted, I should have carried down the shaft to the level of the ground.

5. Around this Tope there are three of those remarkable solid masses of building, of which one has already been described in my account of the Great Tope at Sonāri. The first, which is half engaged in the northern wall of the court-yard, is 55 feet long from east to west, and 48 feet broad, with an average beight of from 16 to 18 feet. The second, which is immediately outside the western wall of the courtyard, is 80 feet long from north to south, and nearly 60 feet broad. The third is in a more perfect state. It stands due west from the secoiid, and on the very edge of the cliff overhanging the river; the wall on this side being built up to a considerable height. This building is about 98 feet long and 55 feet broad, with average height of 16 feet above the ground. It is pierced on the eastern side with a doorway leading into an open passage, from which a flight of steps, 4.5 feet wide, ascends towards the north to the top of the platform. All of these buildings were most probably temples, of which nothing but the raised basements now remain. The people know them by the common name of Siddh-ka-makān, or "saints' houses." As the term Siddha, the "perfected," or "finished," was a common title of the Bodhisatwas, it is probable that these places are only the remains of their residences.

No. 2 Tope – Satdhāra

6. This ruined Tope stands at a distance of 280 feet to the N.N.W. of the great Tope. It is 24 feet in diameter, but only 8 feet in height, and has a trace of a small raised terrace. A shaft was sunk in it to a depth of 6 feet, when some stones falling in, two small steatite caskets were seen lying at the bottom. The stones were loose; there was no trace of any chamber; and the caskets were both much discoloured on the upper surface. It is evident therefore that the Tope had been opened before by the villagers; who, finding nothing but a few calcined bones, had replaced the relic-caskets, and filled up the holes again with loose stones.

7. These caskets are of a pale mottled steatite, each three inches in diameter, and two inches in height. 'They are inscribed inside the lids, the one with Sāriputasu "(Relics) of Sārputra," and the other with Maha-Mogalānasa "(Relics) of Maha Mogalāna." The bistory of these two holy men, the right and left hand disciples of Buddha, has already been given in my account of the opening of No. 3 Tope at Sānchi. The only real difference between the alphabetical cbaracters of the Sānchi and Satdhāra inscriptions, is in the position of the vowel o, which, in the Sānchi legend, is attached to the top of the m, whereas in the Satdhāra legend it is attached to the middle of the letter. This variety may have been only a mere matter of taste with the engraver; but as it is also possible that it may be the result of a difference of date, it is worthy of remark.

1: Sāriputasa; 2. Mahamogalānasa


No. 7 Tope – Satdhāra

8. This Tope is similar in all respects to that which has just been described, but somewhat more perfect. The diameter of the hemisphere is 24 feet; the terrace is 2 feet broad and the whole height at present is 9 feet. A shaft as sunk down to the centre to a depth of 4 feet, when a large irregular shaped slab, 8 inches thick, was reached. On this being raised we saw a chamber, 1 foot 8 inches long from north to south, by 1 foot 3 inches broad, and 1 foot 6.5 inches in depth. The bottom of the chamber was therefore only 1 foot 3.5 inches above the terrace. In the chamber there were two red earthenware pots, or covers, shaped like beehives. On raising the larger cover, which was 11.5 inches in height, we saw a cylindrical red earthenware box, 72 inches in diameter, closed by a domed lid. There was no inscription of any kind. The mouth of this vase is broken in two places; and I believe that it was an alms-dish of the holy man whose relics were here enshrined.

9. On raising the smaller cover, which was 9.75 inches in height, we found a similar red earthenware box, containing two small caskets, one of steatite and the other of red earthenware, and both without inscriptions. Of these relics, therefore, nothing more can be said, than that they are probably the remains of some of the principal teachers of the Satdhāra fraternity.

10. The remaining Topes at Satdhāra are now little more than mere circles of stone, from 12 to 20 feet in diameter. Two of them are hollow in the centre, and contain trees; and it is therefore possible that these circular walls may once have been onlv the enclosures around different holy trees. It is remarkble, however, that at Satdhāra we found one solitary trace of the real builders of these Topes, in the name of Buddha Bitha, or "Buddha's Topes," which is the name still current amongst the people for these massive and mysterious piles.


Ven. Chandananda
Ven. Chandananda


Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

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