The Sanchi Gateway – a portal to the world

7 min read

The solitary Sanchi Gateway in front of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem has captivated visitors to the museum complex since the 1970s. It is a cast, to scale copy of one of the four stone archways (toranas) that – arranged in four directions – surround the “Great Stupa” of Sanchi. The circular Indian-Buddhist religious monument is crowned by a cupola-shaped roof and was built in the third century before Common Era. It is one of the oldest and most important surviving Buddhist monuments. In 1989, this sacred site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

From a distance, the geometric structure of the around eight metres high, magnificent sand-coloured gateway with its three monolithic arches that protrude over the side support pillars is reminiscent of the complexity of a written Chinese character. As you come closer, the fascinating structure comes to life: the slightly curved architraves on whose planes in an interplay of light and shade majestic animal-like creatures, plants and Yakhsini figures interact with universal symbols of the Buddhist faith are arranged one above the other and are each carried by four elephants and covered in a sculptural array of carvings with hardly a square centimetre left unadorned.

There are so many things to discover: friendly guardians, heavenly spirits, proud horsemen, the elegant heads of bowing peacocks, peacefully resting bulls, majestic lions and dignified, walking elephants accompany the scenes of the transformations and the apotheosis of the enlightened Gautama Buddha (Bodhisattva). Fertility genies promise all those who enter happiness and bliss, also in the sense of worldly fulfilment. Poetic scenes from the life of the Buddha, his birth, the animals of the jungle paying homage to him, his miracles and his benevolence in the heavens are depicted between Bodhi trees. Instantly obvious on the right-hand side is the graceful goddess Mayadevi, the Buddha’s mother, who is leaning far out and is being bathed by two elephants. The scene recalls the conception and auspicious birth of Siddharta Gautama. A fig tree with an imposingly wide crown marks the place where the Buddha, lost in meditation, is said to have achieved enlightenment.


In the 19th century, several attempts were made to carry one of the four gateways that surround the Great Stupa off to Europe, first of all to London to the British Museum, on the order of Queen Victoria (1853), and later on to Paris at the request of Napoleon III (1867). In the end, on the basis of the “Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art for the Benefits of Museums of All Countries” (1867), which was extremely progressive for the time and is still considered seminal to this day, it was agreed that the original monument complex should be preserved in situ, and that plaster casts of the gateways that were true to the original size should be made for the European art and museum market. These were shown to an enthusiastic public for the first time at the 1871 Annual International Exhibition in London. Further copies were offered for sale to museums in Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, Brussels and Berlin. In the capital of the German empire, the cast plaster reproduction of the eastern gateway was displayed at the ethnological museum, which opened in 1886. The presence of these copies of the Sanchi gateways ensured Europe’s admiration of India’s rich and ancient culture.

In a particularly special way, the reproduction of the eastern gateway to the Great Stupa in Sanchi will now also be connected to the Humboldt Forum, and not only because it might be considered as representative for the Dahlem collections that will be moved to the Humboldt Forum. After all, the cast stone copy was an imposing and eye-catching feature in the garden of the ethnological museum in Dahlem. As a precious reproduction, the Sanchi Gateway also demonstrates, in a way similar to the newly rebuilt Berlin Palace, whose three facades were reconstructed to scale on the basis of Schlüter’s and Stüler’s designs, how immediate the experience of an accurate facsimile can be, even if it is not the original. The Sanchi Gateway also becomes a messenger of transformation: like an “image in transport”, in the sense of the metaphor coined by Aby Warburg, it evidences the transcontinental migration of images, symbols, shapes and ideas. Regardless of the fact that this symbolic structure is over 2000 years old, it features the familiar design languages of many cultures. The Sanchi Gateway is almost exemplary for the interaction between interlinked cultural regions. Symbols such as the wheel, the spiral, the griffin or intertwined tendrils can be found in all human cultures. The Sanchi Gateway illustrates the dynamics of how antique image formulas, which the Mediterranean Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures also interlace with, were passed down from generation to generation, and thereby shows “the impressive span of the pictorial wing beat” (Warburg) that can be admired and discovered in the Humboldt Forum.

The erection of a newly created reproduction of the Sanchi Gateway in front of the Humboldt Forum is currently at the planning stage and will also be realisable after the completion of the external grounds in 2022. Undoubtedly, its installation in front of the Humboldt Forum will signify something – it will be more than merely a stylistic antithesis to the baroque facades of the palace reproduction and the cupola cross from the Wilhelmine period. It will, in fact, with an inviting gesture carry the Humboldt Forum’s content message of its being a place where the cultures of the world as well as global science can be experienced to the outside. If it were erected opposite the Lustgarten, it might symbolically provide access to the East alongside the Brandenburg Gate, which faces the West – like an invitation to leave the western cultural hemisphere and immerse yourself in the culture of the countries of the East and the Far East. In such a prominent position between the Lustgarten and the Museumsinsel, between East and West, it would become a uniting entrance gate across all continental borders and also provide an initial access to the Humboldt Forum!


Museums in Dahlem

The museums in Berlin-Dahlem were designed and in part architecturally realised by Bruno Paul in 1914. Almost half a century later, Wils Ebert and Fritz Bornemann completed the complex in a different style. Until 2017, it housed the non-European collections of Berlin’s national museums with their unique ethnological and cultural history treasures: the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) and the Museum für asiatische Kunst, Berlin (Asian Art Museum Berlin). From 2021 onwards, they will be on display at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin Palace, in the immediate vicinity of the Museumsinsel Berlin, with whose exhibitions they will form a congenial synthesis.

Photo by Laura Goldenbaum
Laura Goldenbaum

The art historian Dr. Laura Goldenbaum is the academic advisor to the General Director and Chairman of the Humboldt Forum Foundation in the Berlin Palace, Prof. Dr. Hartmut Dorgerloh.