Some of the best preserved early stupas stand at Sanchi in central India. The largest, known as the Great Stupa, is surrounded by a railing with four carved gateways facing the four directions of the compass. The gateways were probably carved in the A.D. 100's. The carvings have a wonderful vitality and show a world where people and animals live together in happiness and plenty.
Crowds of people wait to see the Buddha or watch his miracles. However, as at all early Buddhist monuments, the Buddha himself is not shown in human form. Instead, he is depicted by symbols, such as the wheel, which represents his teaching. Sometimes his presence is indicated by footprints or an empty throne. Probably, the Buddha is not shown because he asked his followers not to make images of him.
Sanchi and other early monuments appeal to people's love of nature.
The most frequently shown flower is the lotus, which has a special meaning. The lotus grows from the mud at the bottom of a pond or river but produces a beautiful white blossom. Buddhists believe that, like the lotus, people can rise from the mud of materialism into the sunlight. Lotus flowers were both a beautiful decoration and a religious symbol.
The decoration of the stupa gateways also includes male and female tree spirits. The female tree spirits are symbols of fertility and often clutch overhanging trees full of flowers or fruit. Such symbols of plenty may date from the Harappan civilization. They were used by the Buddhists as welcoming figures on the gateways.