March 22, 2019

Udayagiri caves and Vidisha

The rock cut cave temples of Udayagiri are believed to be sculpted in early 5th century during the Gupta dynasty’s rule, and are some of the oldest cave temples in India. Located a short drive away from Bhopal, these remarkable temples are known for their wonderful sculptures and carvings related to Hinduism and Jainism, apart from inscriptions about Gupta dynasty. There are in total 20 caves, most of which are dedicated to Vaishnavism, and a couple of them to Shaivism and Jainism. The sculptures and carvings in some caves have eroded over the years. Protected by the archaeological survey of India, these are probably the only caves from the Gupta period.

The most popular cave here is cave no.5 which has a huge figure of Vishnu’s third incarnation as Varaha (boar). There are extensive sculptures of various mythological figures across the panel. The peculiarly shaped cave no.7 has a flat plate roof and is referred as Tawa cave. The cave is known for its inscriptions about Gupta kings. cave no. 10 has a semi dilapidated sculpture of Vishnu. Cave no.12 is a small one and looks more like a niche. The sculpture carved on the rock is that of Narasimha, another incarnation of Vishnu. Cave no.13 is another popular one with the sculpture of reclining Vishnu.  Some of the other caves are Veena cave, Kumara cave and Amrita cave. The inscriptions in Amrita cave are in Brahmi and Nagari scripts. Cave no. 20 is the only one dedicated to Jainism in Udayagiri.

Vidisha which was earlier known as Besnagar is a small town nestled between the Bes and Betwa rivers. The place is a historical one and was a trading centre during times of Mauryan Empire. Vidisha is popular for its many temples such as Bajramath, Dashavtar, Girdhari, Udayeshwara etc. However, beyond the temples, Vidisha has a couple of interesting places to visit.

Bijamandal is an uncompleted mosque which was supposed to have been built over an old temple. While the temple with its flight of steps, sculptures, carvings and inscriptions was built in 12th century, the unfinished mosque was probably built in 17th century. Only the base has withstood over the years and has carvings and sculptures on it. Only a few pillars remain of the mosque which too has inscriptions on it. There is also a museum next to Bijamandal which has collectibles from the 9th century. Khamba baba or Heliodorous pillar near Vidisha is a lone standing pillar with Brahmi inscriptions on it. The pillar was set up by a Greek named Heliodorous, in honour of Vishnu as a garuda stambh. The pillar which is more than 20 feet high is believed to have been erected in 2nd BCE.

How to reach:

Udayagiri is 57 Kms from Bhopal. Vidisha is 6 Kms from Udayagiri caves. Bhopal is well connected to other parts of India by rail network and flights. It is recommended to hire a taxi from Bhopal to visit Udayagiri and Vidisha.

Food and Accommodation:

Both Udayagiri and Vidisha are small towns. There are a couple of small restaurants on the highway from Bhopal. It is recommended to stay in Bhopal and make a day trip to both Udayagiri caves and Vidisha. Bhopal has a wide range of accommodation options.

March 18, 2019

Bhimbetka: A stroll through pre historic age

As I moved from one cave to another, I was gradually transported to the times of cave dwellers from the Mesolithic and Paleolithic ages, which left me flabbergasted. All that I did was to gaze in oblivion at the wonderful rock paintings. From the present days of photoshops, adobes and canvases, it was a quick jump to the age of rock paintings using natural colours. Conjuring up images of people in cave shelters living their nomadic life was the only way I could envisage those days. 'Those days' relate to many thousand years back with some records stating it as old as 30,000 BCE. The rock paintings are a major source of evidence to confirm the habitation of pre historic men in these caves for ages.  

Located an hour away from Bhopal in the Vindhya hills, the rock shelters of Bhimbetka are spread over a few hills and inside Ratapani Wildlife sanctuary. A narrow road scrambles its way from the highway to the top of the hill, where numerous cave shelters open up the world of a bygone age. The place gets its name from Mahabharata, as it is believed that Bhima (One of the Pandava princes) took rest and sat here during their exile (Bhimbetka- The place where Bhima sat). It was in 1957-58 that Dr. V.S. Wakankar, an Indian archaeologist discovered these rock paintings during a visit to Ratapani wildlife sanctuary. More research and excavations in the region were held which led to more revelations of such paintings in the surroundings. The rock shelters of Bhimbetka were conferred UNESCO World Heritage status in 2003. Though there are more than 600 cave shelters here, only 15 of them are open for visitors.

The rock paintings in general depict the lives of humans during those ages, interaction with the land, encounters with animals, elephant rides, animal fights, and scenes of hunting, battles, dancing and music. This also reflects the interaction between humans and landscape, apart from the evolution of the humans as a hunting and gathering community. 

The excavations have revealed that these rock shelters had human habituation from the Paleolithic age until medieval period. This is evident from the various drawings as the hunting and gathering depicts the Paleolithic and Mesolithic age, while battle scenes are from medieval period.  The Paleolithic age drawings have linear representation. Researchers have also discerned the paintings as per Paleolithic age, Mesolithic age, Chalcolithic age, early history and medieval period.

The colours used are from vegetables, and due to the chemical reaction from the oxide on the rocks these paintings have endured over the years. Another probable reason for the paintings to have remained fairly intact is that they were made on inner walls or inside a niche. The colours in later periods were derived from local minerals such as hematite and lime. Plant extract such as gum, animal fats and water were used as a binding medium.  Hairs, fingers and fibres must have been used as a brush to paint on the rocky surfaces. There are also paintings which have been drawn over existing paintings from earlier periods, superimposing the creations.

One of the prominent cave shelters is called the auditorium cave, since it looks like a auditorium and is also the largest shelter at this heritage site.  Another popular cave is known as Zoo rock shelter due to the numerous figures of animals and humans that have been drawn on it. Shaped like a mushroom, Boar rock has a large red coloured painting of a wild boar chasing a human and is quite an attraction.

There is also a vantage point amidst these rock cave shelters which offer views of the Betwa river plains. A rock which looks similar to a tortoise is another attraction near this point.

Travel Tips:
  • The entry charges are INR 100 per person.
  • Photography is allowed, but try to avoid flash.
  • Make sure not to touch the paintings. Let them endure a few thousand years more.

How to reach Bhimbetka:

Bhimbetka is 45 Kms away from Bhopal. Bhopal is well connected to other parts of the country by air, rail and roads. One can hire a taxi from Bhopal to reach Bhimbetka.

Food and Accommodation:

It is recommended to carry water and short eats as there are no restaurants or cafes near the site. Bhopal has numerous options to stay for all types of travellers.

March 13, 2019

Champaner- Pavagadh Archaeological Park: An Underrated Treasure

Sprawling over a large archaeological park, the structures and ruins of Champaner- Pavagadh are a delight to walk through. This UNESCO World Heritage site reminded me a lot about Hampi, not so much with regard to the monuments, but the way it is spread out and how a few hidden gems remain unexplored by most visitors. Once you cross the large fort walls and entrances, it is quite a different scene from the outside chaos. The mosques, minarets, tombs, temples, residential spaces and other magnificent structures with intricate carvings and designs talk to you about the medieval city of Champaner and its glorious past. A blend of Hindu- Muslim architecture is the stand out feature of most of these structures.

Located an hour’s drive away from Vadodara, Champaner at the base of Pavagadh hill is the only pre-Mughal Islamic city in India. The city of Champaner first took shape during the 8th century under the Chavda dynasty and then changed hands in the 14th century when Chauhans annexed the region and ruled from the Pavagadh fort. In the 15th century, the Sultan of Gujarat, Mahmud Begada attacked the Chauhans and captured both Champaner and Pavagadh. He ruled for 23 years and most of the structures that can be seen presently were built during his times. He made Champaner his capital and renamed the city as Muhammadabad. In mid 16th century, the Mughals captured Champaner, but it declined over a period of time. The city remained neglected for many years until it was rediscovered by the British in 19th century.

Most of the visitors head mainly to the Pavagadh hill, atop which is the prominent Kalika Mata temple. There are also a few Jain temples too inside this hill fortress. However, most of the historical sites are located at the base of the hill in Champaner, which have been well maintained by the archaeological department.

The citadel walls and entrance gates were built in 15th century and have numerous bastions. The gates were originally double storeyed and also acted as watch towers. Only a part of the walls presently remain along with four large gates.

Mosques are a major attraction of Champaner and 'Saher ki Masjid' or Mosque of the city is the first one upon entering the archaeological park. Built in the 15th century, it was the private mosque of the Sultanate of Gujarat and has a blend of Indian and Islamic architecture. The mosque stands on a raised platform with an arched entrance flanked by two tall minarets and five domes. The minarets have wonderful designs carved on them. The prayer hall too has carvings on ceiling and walls. There are numerous pillars and windows lined along either side of the prayer hall.

Custom house known as Mandvi is a square structure with numerous arches and pillars. Located in the middle of the fort, this usually acts as a separator between the royal enclosure and the other areas of the fort.

Completed in early 16th century, Jami masjid is the most prominent structure at this UNESCO World Heritage site. Located outside the royal enclosure, this imposing mosque showcases a beautiful blend of Indo- Islamic architecture. Surrounded by a well maintained garden, the engulfing wall of the mosque has wonderful architecture with numerous carved windows. The mosque has three entrance porches with more intricate carvings, designs and arches, apart from cloisters running along the insides of the wall. Across the courtyard, the mosque stands tall with its carved minarets, a large arched entrance and numerous domes. The interiors of the mosque have some exquisite floral and geometric carvings on the walls and ceilings. Numerous pillars too adorn the inner space of this mosque. The central dome is elevated and that allows natural light and ventilation inside the prayer hall.

Khajuri Masjid near Wada Talav (big pond) is a dilapidated structure with just the pillars remaining. Some of the pillars do have beautiful works on them. The mosque is on a raised platform and doesn’t have the dome or upper portion of the structure.

Kevda Masjid is another mosque built with a beautiful cenotaph in front. The pillared cenotaph is square in shape and has one large central dome and four smaller domes. The mosque is built quite similar to the Saher ki Msjid with its two tall decorated minarets and arched entrance door. Though there are small domes, the large dome over the prayer hall is missing. The inner walls have lovely designs on them.

A tiny mud road leads to Nagina Masjid, which has a similar architecture like the rest of the mosques, except that the upper part of the minarets isn’t there. However, whatever remains of the minarets have elegant carvings. Built on a raised plinth, the mosque has domes atop the prayer hall and is double storeyed. One can take the narrow winding steps that lead up to the second floor. The decorated pillars, windows and walls with engravings are the highlights of the interiors of Nagina mosque. Outside the mosque, the cenotaph is an absolute stunner with its magnificent and intricate designs and carvings.

Kamani mosque stands alone, away from the other structures and has numerous arched pillars. The roof of the mosque has been lost and so have been the minarets, of which only the base remains.

Tomb of Sikander Shah, Tomb of Sakar Khan and Helical stepped well are some of the other prominent structures in Champaner- Pavagadh archaeological park. These are located on Halol road, just outside Champaner.

Travel Tips:

  • Tickets can be collected near the Saher ki masjid and they open by 8 AM.
  • Vehicles are allowed inside the park and it is recommended to drive/ ride from one monument to another, rather than walk.
  • One can visit the top of Pavagadh hill in registered buses and government vehicles only.
  • There are small food stalls outside the fort walls but nothing inside the archaeological park.

How to reach Champaner:

Champaner is 49 Kms from Vadodara and 146 Kms from Ahmedabad.  The nearest major rail head and airport are in Vadodara. It is recommended to hire a taxi to travel to Champaner from Vadodara or Ahmedabad.

Food and Accommodation:

There are small food stalls outside the citadel walls and a few on the highway to Champaner. It is recommended to stay in Baroda or Ahmedabad and make a day trip to Champaner. There are numerous hotels in both the cities.

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