March 27, 2019

Stupas of Sanchi: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Spread over a well maintained garden, the renowned Buddhist stupas of Sanchi and the surroundings exhibited a serene influence all around. I was the first visitor for the day and had all the stupas, sculptures and carvings to myself. The unfinished monasteries and the monuments reminded me a lot of the heritage site at Sarnath. The sun had just begun to warm up and it was a pleasant walk amidst the Buddhist monuments of this UNESCO world heritage site. Though I was awed by the carvings and sculptures, what left me dumbfounded was the fact that these were built in the 3rd century BCE during Mauryan dynasty. It also means that a visit to Sanchi is a look back at monuments, carvings and stories which are more than two thousand years old. This also probably makes Sanchi one of the oldest Buddhist archaeological sites in the world.

Ashoka, the Mauryan king who was a follower of Buddha and his teachings was instrumental in setting up this Buddhist site and Great Stupa (Maha Stupa/ stupa 1) in Sanchi. This hillock was chosen as the site as the surroundings were serene and apt for meditation. The large hemispherical stupas contain relics of some of the disciples of Buddha. It is widely believed that Ashoka had only built the Great Stupa and erected the Ashoka pillar, with four lion heads, similar to the one at Sarnath. The Great Stupa which is a hemispherical structure had many additions like outer covering, entrance gates, balusters etc. during various latter periods such as Shunga and Satavahana. The other stupas and monuments were also built during these periods between 2nd BCE and 1st BCE. Though Sanchi flourished as a centre for learning until the 11th century CE, it went into oblivion after the 14th century, only to be rediscovered by the British in 19th century.  Sanchi site houses fifty Buddhist monuments spread across the hill.

Maha Stupa or the Great Stupa (stupa 1) is one of the prominent structures in Indian architecture. This iconic monument has four entrance gates (toranas) which are embellished with extensive carvings and sculptures depicting stories from Buddhism, life of Buddha and Jataka tales. The railing with balustrade between the entrance gates and the stupa creates a circumambulatory path around the hemispherical edifice.  The stupa was initially made of red bricks but later stone slabs were added to expand it to almost twice the original size during Shunga period. There is another railing with steps and a procession path that runs around the stupa. The railings have a few inscriptions on them and the circumambulatory path on the ground has four sculptures of Buddha. Atop the stupa is a small square railing with a parasol like structure.

Stupa 2 is a short walk down the hill and is secluded away from the other stupas and monuments. Built during the Shunga period, this stupa has a railing with balustrade around it, but is devoid of any entrance gates. The balustrade has numerous motifs and inscriptions engraved on them depicting stories from Buddha’s life. Like stupa 1, this too has steps that leads up to another path around the Stupa, but does not have railings. It is believed that Alexander Cunningham, who is credited as the founder of the Archaeological Survey of India found numerous relics of Buddhist preachers inside this stupa in the 19th century.

Another beautiful monument at this UNESCO world heritage site is stupa 3 which is located near stupa 1. The stupa which was built during Shunga period has an entrance gate with innumerable sculptures carved on it, which was added later during Satavahana period. The circumambulatory path is at a height and the railings have floral designs and carvings on them. Atop the stupa is a square railing with a parasol, similar to stupa 1. It is believed that this stupa held relics of Buddha’s two close disciples.

Ashoka pillar or pillar no.10 is one of the most important structures at Sanchi, however, only the base remains as of now at the location. The polished monolithic column made from sandstone lies in a covered space nearby. The crowning lion capital (4 lions) is displayed at the museum near the entrance gate of the site.

The archaeological site also houses a few other pillars that were erected during the Gupta dynasty. Only the column remains, and the crowns of all these pillars are exhibited at the museum. Another interesting structure is a large bowl carved out of a single stone that was used to store and distribute food to monks.

As you walk around, one can spot numerous low brick structures which were supposedly monasteries, some of which were left unfinished.

During the Gupta period a few temples were also built amidst the stupas and Buddhist shrines of Sanchi.  Temple 17 is known for its symmetrical proportions and is devoid of much carving. It has a flat roofed sanctum and a portico with supporting pillars. Temple 18 which is believed to be an apsidal or semi circular shrine has just the base and pillars remaining. The tall pillars have designs on their upper parts and stand on the foundation of an earlier shrine from the Mauryan period. Located at a height, temple 40 is another shrine which had pillars and a platform. However, only the base of the pillars presently remains.

Referred as Gupta temple, temple no. 45 is one of the prominent structures at this heritage site. It is both a temple and a monastery, and most of the structure does not exist apart from the base. Believed to have been built in the 7th century CE over an existing foundation, what remains are a few carvings of figurines, motifs, designs and a large sculpture of Buddha is a seated position.

I was lost the whole morning in the world of Ashoka’s Mauryan empire, Buddhsit stupas, stories from Buddhism and brilliant sculptures from 3 rd century BCE. It was only when a busload of Srilankan Buddhist pilgrims arrived at the site, that it dawned upon me that I was time travelling at this UNESCO world heritage site.

The Chaitya Vihar outside the site is run by the Mahabidhi society of Sri Lanka and has a collection of Buddhist memorabilia from 1st century BCE to 5th century CE. The museum at the base of the hill has a huge display of Buddhist sculptures from various centuries apart from the crowning Lion Capital of the Ashoka pillar.

Travel Tips:
  • The site is open from 8:30 AM to 5.30 PM every day.
  • The museum is open from 10 AM to 5 PM everyday.
  • There is a shop within the premise which sells basic refreshments.
  • Make Bhopal your base to visit Sanchi. There are numerous accommodation options across the city.
  • It is advised to reach Sanchi by 8:30 AM to avoid the crowd and the harsh sun.

How to reach Sanchi:

Sanchi is 48 Kms from Bhopal. There is public transportation between Bhopal and Sanchi. One can also hire a taxi from Bhopal to reach Sanchi. Bhopal is well connected to other cities across India by flights and trains.

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.
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