From Tigers to Tombs

and all things heritage…..a trip covering the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India.

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Jantar Mantar-unraveling the mysteries of the universe.

From the Land of Begums-Bhopal, we arrived at the Land of palaces Jaipur. We we clearly looking forward to visiting Jaipur after hearing  a lot about this wonderful city-its palaces, people, food, culture and it surely lived up to its billing!It was one place, where we immediately got out to explore the city after checking in. Wasting time not unraveling what this city had to offer, seemed like an offense of the highest order.

After visiting the customary sites in Jaipur, we decided to head out to the Jantar Mantar,the only World Heritage Site in the city. It is centrally located adjacent to the entrance to the City Palace, and is walking distance from the Hawa Mahal.  The Jantar Mantar is a collection of architectural astronomical instruments, built by Maharaja Jai Singh II between 1727 and 1734. It is modeled after the one he built in Delhi. He had constructed a total of five such facilities at different locations, with the Jaipur observatory being the largest and best preserved of these. Jantar comes from the word Yantra, which means an instrument. Mantar means formulae or calculations.

We were not really sure what to expect from a trip to an astronomy observatory. With neither of us having any considerable knowledge in the field, we knew we would have to avail the services of a guide to help us appreciate the various instruments and the purpose for which they were created.Unfortunately the guide spoke in such a weird accent that half the time we spent in deciphering what he spoke rather than appreciating what the instruments were made for. In a nutshell, the observatory has fourteen statistical instruments for measuring time, predicting eclipses and to ascertain other astronomical events. The most popular amongst these is the Sundial  (Samrat Yantra), the largest of its kind in the world. It can measure time to an accuracy of two seconds, which is quite remarkable for something that does not work on machines! The structure itself looks like something from outer space, with numerous small steps leading upto a small observatory. Another peculiar structure was the Rashivalya Yantra, which is a collection of twelve zodiac sign instruments, one for each sign of the zodiac. Though we still don’t know what it measures, we were excited to note that each of the zodiacs had their own structure and every tourist out there was proudly posing next to the structure representing their zodiac. There were many more of such interesting and peculiar instruments to identify eclipses, equinox, altitude of celestial objects etc. Unfortunately as mentioned earlier, our limited knowledge of the field and the untraceable accent of our guide, made sure that we left with more questions than answers after seeing these amazing instruments.

But there is one thing, which any layman can appreciate here. That is the zeal and interest the erstwhile founder had for the subject of astronomy. To build these structures,materials for which were sources from all over the modern world, one must have been really passionate to understand the working of the universe. The King clearly had a scientific vision which very few in that era possessed. To understand the workings of these celestial objects, that are light years away, through non-mechanised customized instruments is no mean feat in itself. Another interesting aspect of these instruments were in the field of Vedic astrology. Even to this day, world-renowned astrologers visit this complex to use of the various instruments to understand the positions of Zodiacs and their relative influence on the happenings in the life of man.  Many even consider the observatory as the single most representative work of Vedic thought that still survives, apart from the texts. So if you have an interest in figuring out what lies ahead in life or if calculating distances of celestial objects is your cup of tea then do head out to the Jantar Mantar. If nothing, you can atleast try deciphering an alien accent!


Sanchi-A Spiritual and Architectural bliss!

We continued on the Buddhist leg of our journey with a trip to Sanchi. It is one of the three World Heritage Sites in Madhya Pradesh and just fifty Kilometres from Bhopal. But don’t be fooled by the distance like we were, every bus journey in this part of the country is like an epic voyage! Even at the times of emperor Ashoka, when the Stupa was constructed, people would not have taken three hours to cover those fifty kilometres!

After those arduous three hours of a bus ride, we finally reach Sanchi. The village is situated on the peripheries of the great Stupa. The Stupa is located on a hill, which on climbing, one is treated to an amazing view of the surrounding plains. Enclosing the Stupa are beautiful gardens providing a serene green tinge to the entire complex. A special mention has to be given to Madhya Pradesh Tourism, the lawns were spick and clean, the monument was well maintained and there were adequate amenities in place including audio guides that provided a descriptive account of the history and architectural details of the monument.

One is immediately awe struck by the imposing structure of the great Stupa upon entering the complex. The Stupa can be considered as a simple hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha, commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BCE. It is surrounded by four Thorans (gateways) placed strategically in four different directions. These majestic gateways contain detailed carvings depicting various Jataka tales (life of Buddha and his past births).  One definitely needs a guide (the audio guides are worth the money!) to actually understand the meaning of the carvings on each of the Thorans. An interesting aspect to note is that the Buddha is never shown in human form in any of these Thorans; his presence was alluded to through symbols. For example, the Lotus was used to symbolize his birth and the Bodhi tree his enlightenment. Some of the other figures there actually helped us to better understand the lifestyles of people who lived during those times, their clothing, housing and modes of transport etc. It’s beyond ones imagination as to how such minute carvings could be completed so meticulously on elevated platform s, nearly 2300 years ago!

After its rediscovery in 1818, there was a sudden influx of treasure hunters here, to locate the ashes of the enlightened one. The Stupa actually has no entrance, and lot of underground digging took place to figure out what exactly lies under this mammoth structure. All these were stopped, and the Stupa and its surrounding structures were restored to their original state in the beginning of the 20th century. Around the main stupa are several smaller Stupas built by later Buddhist kings. Hindu temples also find a place here, indicating the gradual decline of Buddhism in the later stages. Buddhist monasteries are also located in the complex. These were once the abode of esteemed monks who came from all over the country to this important Buddhist pilgrimage site. This hill site provided the monks a perfect place to meditate and the presence of the Lord’s remains further enhanced the holiness of the place.

We were overwhelmed by the time we finished our round of this huge complex. The imposing Stupa, the artistic Thorans, the beautiful lawns and the majestic views of the vast plains make this place, which is steeped in religious history, one of the most fulfilling visits of our trip. No visit to this part of the country can ever be complete without a trip to this holy site. Come and soak in the spiritual atmosphere, which has been enthralling visitors for more than two millennia, and be one with our country’s great heritage.

Bhimbetka – understanding our origins

Bhimbetka was probably the place about which we had least information prior to making the trip. We did recollect it being mentioned in our History textbooks, but never once did it occur to us as a travel destination! It holds a very unique place in understanding the evolution of human life in our country. Human settlement here has been traced from the Paleolothic period (around 30,000 years ago) to the medieval times and each of these settlements has left behind their mark (literally!) in this mountainous terrain right in the middle of our country. The Rock Shelters lie in the Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh, 45 km south of Bhopal at the southern edge of the Vindhyachal hills.

Continuing with our horrid encounters with public transportation in Central India, our ride of 45 kilometres from Bhopal was completed in a rather quick time of three hours. The bus dropped us off the highway from where we had to trek around four kilometres to reach the actual rock shelters. This trek can be avoided if you can hitch a ride with any of the vehicles going along to the tourist spot, but we decided to hike it, so as to take in the flora and fauna of the place as the shelters are actually located in the confines of the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary. Most of the trees had shed their leaves and were devoid of any greenery at that time of the year and Langurs kept giving us company till we reached the actual rock shelter site.

The moment you reach the site, you can imagine that something special was happening here. The rock formations are very different to those you usually encounter in Southern India. Legend has it that as V. S. Wakankar (famous Indian archaeologist) was traveling by train to Bhopal he saw some rock formations similar to those he had seen in Spain and France. He visited the area along with a team of archaeologists and discovered the prehistoric rock shelters in 1957.These rocks form different shapes and are named accordingly like mushroom rock, turtle rock etc. No wonder man felt the urge to exhibit his creative prowess on the surfaces of these beautifully shaped rocks.

The entire place has been charted and different rock caves have been numbered so as to ensure that visitors do not miss out on any. Adjacent to each cave, sign boards have been placed to inform visitors on what paintings and figures to look out for. Detailed information on which period these were drawn, what tools were used, and who were the inhabitants are also provided in aptly placed signboards. As we moved along from one cave to another, we slowly begin to understand how life would have been for what we simplistically term ‘the early man’. They used to live along the cave shelters, hunt in the nearby forests and prepare various tools for self-protection from the wild. All these activities have been shown in these marvelously preserved frescoes. The most common theme depicted here are animals. Tigers, Elephants, Crocodiles, Bisons, Boars, and Dogs are shown plenty in number. Various human activities, like hunting, dancing, communal drinking, are also depicted. The concept of living as a family also makes an appearance, with images of children with their mothers and pregnant women with their husbands. As societies evolved, so did the rock paintings. Religious symbols start making appearances, so do chariots and war processions indicating the changing nature of life for the inhabitants of the area. The most amazing aspect of the paintings is their wonderful state of preservation. Archaeologists are still trying to figure out how these paintings have managed to withstand the furies of nature for so long, with some attributing it to the mysterious concoction of colored earth, vegetable dyes, roots etc.

The best part of our trip to Bhimbetka was the peace and serenity the place offered. Located in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary, the wilderness surrounding it is breathtaking. Standing on those rock formations one can gaze at wide stretches of the wildlife sanctuary. Looking out, one begins to imagine why this was an ideal settlement ground for the earliest inhabitants of our country. The rock shelters provided ideal vantage points to observe the nearby surrounding forests, to search for food and also to prepare against any incoming danger. Only once you come here and experience the surroundings can you begin to understand what inspired our ancestors to display their creative urges on the largest and most natural of all canvases.


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