Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The road to Khajuraho – Part 1

There are three ways to get to Khajuraho from Delhi: a flight is the most convenient, a train link is less so given that the train only goes on certain days of the week and getting a reservation is tough and the third is a train-plus-road method by which travellers go to Jhansi by train and from there on, take a 176 km drive. It is this last method that is the most used.

While Khajuraho is a globally acknowledged heritage destination, what is less known is that the road to the town from Jhansi is littered with several interesting sites. Orchha, Barwa Sagar and Garh Kundar (this last accessed via a short detour) are just a few example. There is also Nowgong.

Once an important military station and cantonment in British India, Nowgong was home to the Kitchener College, a training institution for Army officers. The College, which began functioning in 1929, remained in operation till 1964 when it was relocated to Pune.

However, the cantonment at Nowgong pre-dated the College and has also outlasted it. The cantonment came into being in the middle of the 19th century and remains in place till today. One symbol of the British era that also stands tall here is a church. The church, built in the Gothic style of its age, was founded in 1869.

The church yard is overgrown with vegetation and the church itself remains closed through the week, opening for its congregation only on Sundays. Located on the right of the highway, it makes for an interesting, though brief, stopover en route to the temple town.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Was Tipu Sultan a fanatic?

Historians are divided about Tipu Sultan. Not about his military prowess nor his ability to plan strategically. Those are beyond question. The doubts begin when one starts thinking about his religious inclinations and the policies that arose from them.

One group holds that Tipu was a fanatic. As support to this argument, they point to the fact that his initial upbringing had been with a clear focus that he would eventually join the religious order of the Sufi saint he had been named after. Only when his younger brother began to show signs of ill-health did Tipu's destiny change and he was spoken of as Hyder Ali's political heir. This group also points out to Tipu's assault on the Malabar coast and north Kerala where, according to them, Tipu forced people into mass conversion. They also hold that many temples were destroyed by Tipu during this phase.

Then there is the contrary view and a strong one at that, bolstered by NCERT text books which speak of Tipu as being a freedom fighter of sorts. According to this group, Tipu was a liberal who gave a considerable amount of religious freedom to his subjects and was certainly not a temple destroyer. They also mention that the influence on Tipu was not purely Islamic but had been tempered by Sufism which is a very liberal stream of thought. So what is the truth? Was he a fanatic or was he a liberal? While I will reserve my own opinion for the moment, I present certain facts I gleaned basis actual observation in and near Srirangapatnam, Tipu's former capital.

Srirangapatnam draws it's name from the famous temple of Sriranganathaswamy. This temple is intact and signs of 'restoration' are few and far between. It seems to have survived in its original state. As further evidence of this, there are several small rock cut idols scattered throughout the temple. These are not defaced or broken. They are intact in their original positions, varying from walls to ceremonial gateways etc. According to temple priests, the traditional practices of the shrine have continued uninterrupted for centuries, through the rule of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. There is no record of any disruption.

In another, less popular part of the fortress is a small shrine dedicated to the worship of snakes. Here, several clearly ancient idols of snakes are kept in an enclosure. Would an Islamic fanatic ever have tolerated this? A few kms away from Srirangapatnam lies the small village of Kere Thonnur (read more about this place here: http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-05-12/news/29536317_1_darkness-water-traces). The place is less than an hour's drive from Tipu's capital. Here, in a state of near-perfect preservation is a group of 12th century temples, mostly dedicated to Vishnu. Oral traditions have survived in the village and they speak of the place as having been visited by Tipu during his reign. He is also believed to have visited a nearby lake, called the Moti Talab.

Would a fanatic have left the temples intact? With these facts, I rest my case and leave it to your judgement. Note: The portrait in the picture at the top is of Tipu Sultan, painted when Hyder Ali was still alive. It now hangs in a museum at Srirangapatnam.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bringing mythology alive!

What is it about central India that inspired the Guptas to create so many iconic depictions of the god Vishnu's incarnations? The incarnations have been depicted in regal style, their size varying from a foot to several feet, their locations dispersed over a couple of hundred kilometers. History has recorded the Gupta Kings Samudragupta and Chandragupta II as being followers of Vaishnavism.

In the process of following their faith, they founded a pattern of religious iconography that lasted centuries beyond the demise of their dynasty. Beginning with the Magadhan Empire, iconography depicting Vishnu spread through India leaving behind an incredible archaeological trail, much of which exists even today.

The stories about the incarnations of Vishnu had their origins in religious texts. The Satapatha Brahmana, to take one example, told the tale of the Vaman incarnation, in which Vishnu appears in the form of a dwarf to solve a dispute between the mythological devas and asuras. The asuras agree to concede land equal to the size of a dwarf and the dwarf, Vaman is made to lie down to take his measure. He grows and grows in size to equal the entire earth which is then passed onto the devas. It is stories like this – told via oral traditions and in epics such as Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda (written around 1200 AD) – that grew the legend around the incarnations of Vishnu over time.

And adding a physical and larger-than-life presence to the stories were the rock cuts created in their wake. Foremost among these is the Dashavatara temple at Deogarh, in Uttar Pradesh’s Lalitpur district where a startlingly clear panel depicts Vishnu lying in the folds of Sheshnag. An hour’s drive through a forest range road of the British era brings a person up close with another awesome sight. This is in on the outskirts of a village called Dudhai where a gigantic 42-feet high Narasimha (half man and half lion) has been carved out of a sheer rock. Embedded into a hill, it has stood for one and a half millennia.

Another depiction that was widely enshrined was that of the Varaha or wild boar. As epics have it, the boar incarnation appeared during the churning of the sea for nectar. When the earth began to sink into the water, it was the boar that saved it. The Varaha has been depicted in various places: standing on two legs in a gaint size at Udaygiri, in smaller form on temple remains at Chandpur and Gyaraspur and again in gigantic form - on four legs this time - at an untouched heritage site at Eran, in MP's Sagar district.

Have you ever come across such an iconic depiction of Vishnu?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hisar's dusty heritage

I have a natural inclination towards one-horse towns. This is not based on any random enthusiasm towards dust and chaos, but on the past experience - and repeated many times over at that - of discovering treasured nuggets of heritage in the close confines of such places.

The town of Hisar is one such place. Hisar was once an important town that was on the main route towards the North West Frontier and in historical times, on the military road to any conquest of the rich province of Gujarat. Among those who used Hisar as a jumping-off point en route to Gujarat was the Mughal Emperor Humayun. Once victorious, he also returned through Hisar, taking time out to bury some soldiers who has lost their lives during the campaign.

The tombs of these warriors now lie forgotten in the town, which like many other places in the Haryana-Punjab region, has done its very best in distancing itself from any Islamic heritage in the wake of the Partition. But however much the people might feel disconnected with their heritage, the heritage does not delink itself from the town. There are monuments where you least expect them to be - at street corners, along side main roads etc.

The most significant historical place in the town is not the tomb complex where Humayun's forgotten warriors now rest. It is the much older citadel built here by the Tughlak ruler Firoz Shah. The citadel dates back to the late 14th century. The citadel complex can be broadly divided into two parts - the first and more interesting being the 'Laat Ki Masjid' and the second the largely ruined palace complex where the royals would have stayed.

The 'Laat' - meaning stone pillar - in the Masjid is defined by the pillar that stands in the courtyard of the mosque. This pillar pre-dates the Tughak period by miles, possibly going back to the Ashokan era. Firoz Tughlak was known for an inclination towards pillars and he ended up dragging pillars from different parts of Haryana to Delhi, where they still stand. The one at Hisar escaped that fate. Instead it became the centre of the main mosque in Firoz Shah's city at Hisar. The mosque is otherwise unremarkable as are the other structures around.

Hisar is also home to other monuments like the Gujari Mahal, named after a queen and the Jahan Kothi, the name of a building shaped like a ship. Moreover, the road from Delhi to Hisar and a little beyond is littered with monuments. Like the Barsi Gate at Hansi or the Mughal era mosque at Fatehabad, beyond Hisar. Like the step well near the town of Meham, on the road to Bhiwani. Or the ruins of the 3000-year old city at Agroha which is today called a mere 'mound'. It was the place from which the clan called 'Agarwals' originated. Like I said, India's one-horse towns hide a lot of heritage in their dusty sleeves.
Getting there: Hisar is about 165 kms west of Delhi. Fatehabad is 45 kms beyond Hisar while Hansi, Agroha and Meham all fall en route from Delhi to Hisar.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The legend of Gajendra Moksham

The mythological story of 'Gajendra Moksham' makes for interesting reading in any day and age. The story originates in the Bhagvad Purana and advocates the principles of devotion, prayer and humility. The central figure is an elephant called Gajendra who is the King of a large herd of elephants. Proud of his status as King and vain in the affection of his many queens, Gajendra is a touch arrogant.

Matters came to a head one day when the herd, headed as usual by Gajendra, went to bathe in a lake. A crocodile in the lake attacked Gajendra and caught his foot in a vice-like grip with his jaws. Gajendra was trapped, his herd and queens failed to free him from the grip of his tormentor and fled from the scene. Feeling his strength ebbing away, he prayed to Lord Vishnu to save him.

The Lord flew to his rescue on the back of his celestial bird Garuda. On seeing him, Gajendra plucked a lotus from the surface of the lake and offered it to him as a mark of his devotion. Vishnu used his discus to destroy the crocodile and free Gajendra. This is the story of Gajendra Moksham. In symbolic terms, Gajendra - prior to being attacked is the symbol of an egotistic person who enjoys life; the crocodile depicts death and the other elephants in the herd are the friends who flee when a person is suffering. The message is that in times of suffering, only the Lord can provide salvation.

What is also interesting about this story is that it has lasted - mostly by bardic traditions - for centuries. Two most interesting examples are - the first, a Gupta period 5th century product, is a rock cut carved on the wall of the Dashavatara Temple at Deogarh, Lalitpur district, Uttar Pradesh. The second is a Maratha era mural in Baroda in a haveli called Tambekar Wada. In the latter, the rescue is by Vishnu in his incarnation as Krishna, an interesting modification of the original story. What, however, is incredible that the legend has inspired iconography more than a thousand years.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ajmer revisited

A trip to Ajmer is, for me, a journey straight down memory lane. Going back in the winter of 2009-10, I found the place had changed little in the nearly twenty years since I was here last. The bazaars were as congested, as noisy as ever before. Cattle continued to make off with vegetables hanging from the edge of a hawker's cart, beggars continue to throng the approach lanes to the Dargah and people still treat red-beaconed government vehicles with a degree of awe now absent in much of India.

Having said that Ajmer's heart is essentially the same, I would like to add that its peripheral parts have been dynamic over time. There are more vehicles on the road, many driven by women - something that would have been regarded as unusual in the late 1980s. Road connectivity is impressive - the National Highway from Jaipur gets you to the city in under three hours. Industry has arrived in the town and employment is being generated locally.

Education, though seems to have declined. The city used to have a reputation of being an education hub - this is something that has not kept up with the times and is in decline. The mantle of being Rajasthan's educational hub seems to have firmly shifted to Kota, albeit as a coaching centre. Institutions like St. Anslems - my old school - seem like stragglers from a different era.

The buildings remain as marvellous as ever. The church in my old school has had a fresh coat of paint on its Gothic exterior and is better for it. The Dargah - whose spaces have become more commercialized than ever before - looks fairly chaotic, though the upkeep of the buildings within is excellent. The Adhai-din-ka-jhopra is in great shape, its arches still glowing when the rays of the rising sun fall on them. It is interesting that while most 'modern' things in Ajmer have changed, the charm of the old buildings is still intact.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Churches in a Mughal City

Agra as a Christian City. Sounds incredible doesn't it? Lovers of the Taj might think of this as sacrilege, but one can go to the city of the Taj and admire the place for just its churches. Never mind the Mughal remains.

Wandering through the city's churches, a visitor would come across painted glass windows, interesting inscriptions from British days some of which date back to the period of Company rule and stone tablets speaking of bishops over whom the grass has grown long. Exploring mysterious looking bell towers, forgotten churchyards and old tombs of European mercenaries built in the Mughal style of that day and age would leave him wondering if he is indeed in close proximity to the Taj or has been transported to a different world.

Be it the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception - the seat of the Catholic Church in the city, the Church of St. John in the Wilderness at Sikandra - also known as the Mission Church or St. George's Cathedral near Sadar, each church captures within its walls a bit of India's history and a bit that has remained hitherto unexplored. And the most interesting of all is a tiny shrine that has weathered many a storm - called 'Akbar's Church' it speaks volumes for the tolerance of that Emperor's reign. The original church was burnt down in the mid-18th century and the current structure built in 1772, which still makes it a historical monument. Watch this blog to know more about the Churches.
Note: The picture given is of St. Paul's Church.