Bharhut is a small village, located in Satna district, in the eastern part of present day Madhya Pradesh. It once contained a magnificent Buddhist stupa surrounded by a massive vedika (railings) and interspersed by four toranas (gateways) placed in the cardinal directions, constructed during the reign of the Sunga dynasty – rulers of north and central India between 187 and 72 BC.
Discovered by Alexander Cunningham in 1873-74, the Bharhut Stupa was built with dark red sandstone quarried from the Kaimur Hills of central India. Even though the main structure of the cylindrical stupa was not found in its entirety, a diameter of about 21 m at its base could be inferred from the numerous miniature representations on railings and gateways. These representations show a hemispherical anda (dome) built on a cylindrical medhi ( base).
The vedika, about 3 m in height, was composed of a series of stone stambha (pillars), suchi (cross-bars) and a huge ushnisha (coping stone) and adorned with exemplary carvings. The inner diameter of the stone vedika was about 27 m. Four openings for entrance, on the four cardinal points divided the vedika into four quadrants, each consisting of sixteen pillars. Interestingly the shafts of the torana pillars were unadorned and completely plain. The vedika and torana at Bharhut are in great contrast with those of the stupa at Sanchi, built during the same period with a similar plan and design. In Sanchi the torana are profusely carved with the surrounding vedika pillars left plain.
Unfortunately, nothing except the earthy base of the stupa may be seen at Bharhut today. Even though a major part of the stupa had been removed by the neighbouring villagers quarrying for building materials, Cunningham could successfully recover parts of the railings and also one of the four massive gateways. They are now displayed at Kolkata’s Indian Museum.
The Bharhut vedika displays an array of floral designs, fabulous animals, life size yakshas and yakshinis – demigods and nature spirits. Placed alongside are scenes from Buddhist legends, myths and history. A full blown lotus, the symbol of purity has been used as a repetitive motif on the various parts of the vedika. The medallions as well as the rounded edges of the pillars are carved with elaborate sculptures, depicting scenes from Jatakas, stories of Buddha in earlier births, and Buddha-Charita, Buddha’s life. Significantly, Buddha is never shown in the human form, indicative of the Hinayana phase of Buddhism. He is represented through symbols, such as the dharma wheel, the stupa, the bodhi tree, an empty seat, etc.
The carvings of Bharhut also throw light on the life and times of the people of the second century and provide a vital link between the then existing folk religion and the newly established Buddhism. More importantly, they depict for the first time, many features that have been part of our heritage for long and continue to be so till the present. These include use of dhoti (loin cloths), pagadi (turbans), purna-ghatas (vases of plenty), Gaja-Lakshmi (Goddess Lakshmi annotated by a pair of elephants).
Gaja-Lakshmi is seen for the first time here in the art tradition of India – the Goddess is then seen represented in the same form over different dynastic period, Satwahana-Gupta-Chandela; in different regions of the country in different mediums, stone-terracotta-wood; and over different religious expressions, Jainism-Buddhism-Hinduism in the following ages.
Majority of the artefacts of Bharhut were lost and with it were lost proofs of our rich tradition. One effort to salvage what was left however, bore fruit. Pandit Braj Mohan Vyas, an executive officer of the Allahabad Municipal Board and founder of the Allahabad Museum in 1931, made a valiant effort to retrieve portions based on the design and calculation of the construction. He foraged for parts that were embedded in the local-scape. With missionary zeal, he recovered piece after piece as he visited countless villages around Bharhut. He stayed there to talk, cajole and persuade villagers to hand over artefacts installed by their forefathers. Pandit Vyas retrieved 54 pieces from the built houses which are now displayed in the Allahabad Government Museum – the second largest remains of the Bharhut art in India. One piece that deserves a special mention is the depiction of an acrobatic formation in which 14 figures form a human pyramid – a popular theme from the legends of Krishna reaching for the pot of butter hung from ceilings, applicable even to modern day ‘govindaas’ using the same skill during Janmashtami festivities.