Saturday, November 05, 2005


I visited Bhopal a few months ago with promises of boring you to death with travel stories. They never materialised, but here is a piece I did for India Today Travel Plus, November 2005. The printed version reads a bit differently, but this is mine.


Sanchi belongs to dusty history books. It appears repeatedly in chapters on Buddhism and Ashoka the Great. I can see in my mind’s eye a gritty pixelated picture alongside grey text: a dome is discernable and some toranas. The teacher drones on about Stupa 1, a temple with Gupta architecture, the Ashokan pillar… I doodle in my notebook. All that I absorbed about Sanchi was by accident, I assure you, but I did; peripherally, almost by osmosis. What I gathered was an impression: that underneath all this dull talk of dates and numerical labelling of sites, all these people – archaeologists, academicians and teachers – were excited about this place. I knew Sanchi was special.

So when I found myself in Bhopal with no ironclad agenda for a good two weeks, it seemed like a betrayal of my history teacher not to go have a dekko of this town that had got her all worked up. It was, how they say… inevitable.

About 46 km from Bhopal, Sanchi is a small town in Vidisha. I chose to take the Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s trip and as it turned out, it was the sensible thing to do. I had company when I felt like it and no transport worries. We were a small group, and mercifully this was no whistle stop tour: I could take as much time as I needed, and needless to say, I did.

There is actually not very much to the town apart from the Stupa complex and the museum. Curiously, the place had no significance in Buddhist history or lore. There was only its location to recommend it, on a hill about 90 m high. It must have been the serenity of the outlook that attracted Emperor Ashoka all those centuries ago. He’d married the daughter of a merchant from Vidisha, and newly fired with the zeal of Buddhism. Opportunity met location and so this pilgrimage town was born.

Remember how I said you find Sanchi mentioned under Buddhism and Ashoka? That’s not all. It’s also mentioned quite a bit under the Sungas, the Satavahanas, the Guptas and King Harshavardhana. What’s the deal, you ask? What makes it so remarkable? Here it is: Sanchi is unique because it not only has the most perfect and well preserved stupas, but is a record, nay a microcosm of Buddhist art for a period of thirteen hundred years (3rd century BC–12th century AD); in fact, the entire period of Buddhism’s presence in India. That’s why.

The original mud stupa and pillar by Ashoka have been added to by ruler after consequent ruler with Buddhist leanings, till the religion subsided in the 13th century. Sanchi is a splendid gilded masterpiece that each succeeding generation of Buddhists has embellished with a coat of devotion. The entire site now comprises about 50 structures in all – pillars, toranas, temples and monasteries.

My first view of the stupa brought on a feeling of déjà vu. After all, I must have seen a few hundred pictures. There is something to be said for touching however; the real thing, your mind tells you, this is it. After I took in the larger picture, it was time to look at the details.

Our guide took us around, drawing our attention to panels that depicted events in the life of the Sakhyamuni. He was, I found later, not particularly accurate with his facts, but quite adept at building atmosphere. Not that the site needs it. The complex is a serene place, the clean lines of the structures contrasting with the detailed work on the toranas. It is clearly a place of worship and rather conducive to contemplation. A circumambulation of course was called for and I did it, touching the stones, aware that these were old, old beings, individual pieces now part of a greater whole.

We made our way around to the southern gate to the Ashokan pillar, or rather what remains of it. A magnificent fragment of chunar sandstone, its most remarkable feature apparently is its fine polish. It is commended specially, my guidebook told me, for its ‘aesthetic proportions and exquisite structural balance’. It was a sad sight. What must have been a towering presence has been destroyed, and left in four pieces. The base of the pillar is in place, two huge chunks lie in a small shed nearby and the head – the familiar four lions – is placed in a museum nearby. The story goes that a local zamindar cut down the pillar to use it as a sugarcane press. That might be a piece of romantic nonsense, but clearly the pillar has been cut, painstakingly hacked away. My heart burned at such wanton destruction.

At the museum, the four lions occupy a place of pride. After having seen innumerable pictures, to be in the presence the real thing, to actually be able to lean over and pat them gave me a jolt. Incidentally the Sanchi lions are not the ones on the Indian emblem. That was drawn from a similar pillar at Sarnath; the lions are common to both but the one at Sarnath includes an additional dharmachakra, the famous wheel.

The museum is a geek’s delight. Lots of detailed pictures and information about its discovery and restoration. It nicely rounded off the Sanchi experience for me and I was rather pleased with it on the whole.

All this time travel makes one weary though, and I was quite happy to return to Bhopal for some R & R. Just to walk along the lake road, buy some seasoned fruit salad and choose a bench. Sitting there, watching the stars come out, enjoying the breeze in my hair… not a bad place to contemplate what a city of contrasts Bhopal is.

It has been called the City of Lakes, the City of Nawabs. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984 devastated the lives of thousands and it also smirched the city’s image. Bhopal, in the vague imaginings of the multitude is a grimy, and indeed, grim place. Naturally the city retains vestiges of the calamity; in spite of it all though, Bhopal is a beautiful city. One of those charming places where history oozes from unexpected corners, where the modern jostles for space with the old.

Bhopal has been ruled by a long line of Nawabs, many of them women. It struck me as I wandered its streets and the chowk, that while history books reel off the dozen or so names, there is something else about seeing for yourself the impact a noble dynasty can leave on a place. The Nawabs are gone but the signs of their influence is everywhere – in the names of streets, schools and colleges, hospitals, mosques and beautiful buildings, in the two lovely lakes that Bhopal buzzes around.

Bhopal’s history spills into its environs as well. Since I’d set the tone with Sanchi, I considered visiting other places of historical interest within easy radius of the city. One spot in particular – a mere 11 km off Bhopal – tells of humble beginnings. Islamnagar was the first home of the Nawabs that later ruled the city. Afghan Dost Mohammed Khan first established his capital here with a couple of small forts and palaces.

We bowled into the ramparts through tall narrow wooden gates. There are two mahals in Islamnagar, Chaman Mahal with its well laid out gardens and the two-storied Rani Mahal. Both wear a synthesis of Hindu and Islamic decorative art, with columns lavishly embellished with floral motifs. I was charmed by a small hamaam at Chaman Mahal, a smallish sauna-bath. I imagined a bearded hulk of a Pathan lounging in it, hot water steaming from his skin. Chaman Mahal doesn’t have too many rooms, but the point of it, I suppose, was the beautiful outlook – one to the gardens and one from the balcony over the surrounding woods.

The Rani Mahal has a lot more chambers and a surprising lack of windows or ventilation. On the other hand, it lead into a central courtyard with plenty of trees and shade, so perhaps it didn’t matter.

A small canteen advertised itself and I went hopefully to the counter. However, there was no coffee or tea to be had, so I settled for a tetra pack of fruit juice and proceeded to small circular room with many photos and memorabilia, plaques tracing lineages and family trees. Of particular interest: a picture of the lovely Nawab Begum Safida Sultan. Who do you think? The lady who married the Nawab of Pataudi, Tiger Pataudi’s mother!

Islamnagar exhausts its secrets in a mere morning and I had time to visit Udaygiri, to see the caves there. This is a rocky hillock with several caves that contain some rich sculptures from the Gupta era. Some really fine work here, with all the vitality and vigour experts say typifies art from that period. There were carvings of Vishnu, Durga and Ganesha… and a particularly vivid version of Varaha – the avatar of Vishnu that rescued Bhoomi, the Mother Earth from the depths of the ocean. I was delighted with an unusual Shivlinga that had the face emerging from the linga. There was even a sculpture of Karthikeya, which is rather unusual considering the deity is mostly worshipped south of the Vindhyas. Also noteworthy is a slightly defaced image of Vishnu reclining on the Seshanag, a remarkably well executed piece, with stylised oceanic waves carved all around.

I stood in one cave with an intricately carved floral motif on the roof. An inscription traces its creation to the period of Chandragupta II, who is supposed to have actually visited Udaygiri… standing across the centuries perhaps in the very spot I stood now!

Eager for an energetic trek, I traced a path up the hill and arrived slightly out of breath to a wonderful view of Vidisha. I’d visited three historic sites with Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu influences – all within a 50 km radius. Not a great distance across space, quite a leap across time.


the One said...

** adds Sanchi, Islamnagar and Udaygiri to List of Places That Must Be Visited; notes meaning of hamaam **

BTW, Sheetal, the link to the Urdu dictionary isn't working.

Sheetal said...

Thanks, One, it does now.

kuffir said...

interesting. but where are the people ?

Anonymous said...

The people are in the stones...someone created the stones and the buildings.

bhupinder singh said...

Thanks, a very nice piece. Keep writing !

Sheetal said...

Thanks, BS.

Kaustubh said...

sanchi comes in district raisen and not is nearer to vidisha,only 16 kms.

Sheetal said...

Kaustubh: Does it indeed? Thanks for letting me know.

dal chand said...

nice good