ANAMIKA

'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

'Jabali's City' - Or Is It?

Note: Shall explain the title towards the end of the post. For the time being, the MP travelog continues...

We were in Jabalpur, a city deep inside Madhya Pradesh, for a day and a quarter.

From near the city bus-stand, I boarded a six-seater rickshaw. Nearly an hour of travel (the first half dozen kilometers of these were over some outrageous - even by MP standards - city roads; things improve outside city limits as one gets onto the 'National Highway' to Bhopal) left me at the village of Bheraghat, on the banks of the Narmada. A short walk from here are the Dhuandhar waterfalls; the river splits into two and makes an impressive plunge - something like 50 feet. The two streams then rejoin and the river proceeds to seethe thru a very narrow gorge (at some points just about 30 feet across) it has, over the aeons, sliced through a huge mass of limestone. The gorge slowly opens out - and the river widens - past the temples of Bheraghat.

The limestone walls of the Dhuandhar-Bheraghat gorge(*) are impressively massive and the rock is sharply foliated. At the lower levels, the grey limestone appears metamorphosed into milky white and porous marble - giving the area the popular name 'Marble Rocks'.

A very striking feature of the gorge is the pronounced slant of the its walls - as one looks downstream, an inclination of the order of 15-20 degrees from the vertical, from top right to bottom left, is clearly visible - and this inclination is faithfully (and intriguingly) reflected in the foliations of the rock masses. To explain this slant, one is tempted to invoke the (oft misunderstood) Coriolis force, which causes free-moving objects to veer rightwards in the Northern Hemisphere and determines which way cyclonic stomes whirl (and *does not* determine which way water draining off a toilet bowl is going to spiral). However, my (naive?) understanding of this force tells me the slant should be (looking downstream) from top left to bottom right, just the *opposite* of what Bheraghat shows. Well, I dunno!

Speculation: The river is alleged to be over a hundred feet deep within the gorge => only the upper portion of the gorge (less than half) is visible. This upper portion might well have been cut when the Indian landmass was in still the *Southern* hemisphere, during its long journey towards the collision with Asia - so the 'Coriolis slant' of this upper portion should actually be consistent with being in the Southern hemisphere, as is indeed observed. And perhaps deep down in the gorge, the river might have 'switched' the slant. Well, that should be enough geology for now!

From Bheraghat, manually rowed boats take tourists up the river into the deepest part of the gorge; here the rock walls reach almost a hundred feet in height. Some local kids perform the dizzying (but quite safe) stunt of diving into the river (which must be very deep indeed in these parts) from dozens of feet up above - for a tip from the boat-travelers.

But the real highlight of this boat-trip was a guide who spoke (in Hindi) almost exclusively in rhyming couplets. From descriptions of the rocky highlights on either side to general fundae about the Narmada, from PJs (some quite neat) to Bollywood gossip (several Hindi movies have been filmed here, most famously, the 'O Basanti' song sequence from 'Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai' and the later 'Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye'), he kept the rhymes and alliterations flowing. Pity I did not record him (to, those kindred spirits who read this and decide to visit Bheraghat: look out for "Ramesh guide"!).

Here are a few samples from memory, which I won't violate by translating:

"Yahaan ki gehrai hai ek sau assi foot - one eight zero,
aur yaheen se hoti hai meri commentary shuroo!"

"Yeh hai Narmada ka pani, Dekhne mein green,
haathon mein clean, peene mein behtareen!"

"Woh Patthar dekhiye, lagta, baitha hai koi Rishi akela...
lekin AB dekho, peechhe se dhakka de raha hai koi badmash chhela!"

"Bhaiyo, ab pahunche soocide point,Yahaan mana hai tairna...
lekin phully allowed hai... kya? ... soocide karna!"

"Yeh thaa gufa Rishi Jabali ka...
Jinse hai naam shahar Jabalpur ka!"


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Now the 'Jabali' (pronounced 'Jah-bah-lee')connection:
My recently released (online) work of fiction, 'The Loop' mentions one 'Jabali University' as the character Lucky's alma mater. The university's name was chosen after several weeks of deliberations.

Satyakama is an Upanishadic Seeker. A striking feature about this guy is that he does not know his caste - indeed, he is of dubious paternity. When asked by a prospective Guru about his family background he says: "My mother - her name is Jabala - told me: "If anybody asks you about your parents, just say "I am Jabala's son" ".

Despite protests from some orthodox quarters, the Guru accepts him and Satyakama (or 'Jabali' as he was known after his mother) goes on to become a famous Vedanta exponent. In brief, his story is that of someone from the dark fringes of society gaining acceptance among the elite. (A matter of detail: Lucky's trajectory in 'The Loop' is more of an 'anti-Jabali' nature!)

A particularly poignant episode in the young Satyakama-Jabali's quest: during his apprenticeship, Jabali is assigned the job of taking care of his Guru's 'ranch'. Ond day at Sundown, he sits down to rest next to an aged, quietly ruminating bull. Suddenly, he hears the bull whisper to him: "That which you seek (the Absolute) is to be found far to the north. It can be found in the east as well... and the west and the south; up in the skies and down in the bowels of the earth."

Mysteriously, Jabali (spelt 'Javali') resurfaces in the Ramayana, as the proponent of a seriously cynical Nihilism! He advises Rama: "There is no Heaven, no afterlife, no absolute Dharma or whatever. So, simply do what you want and don't care about the consequences, as long as they are to your advantage!". I am quoting (from memory) a quotation here - from Amartya Sen's 'Argumentative Indian'(**).

'The Loop' refers to the above Bull-episode in the parable, 'The Bovine Comedy', featuring a "bull, who spoke". The Nihilistic Ramayana aspect of Jabali is alluded to by the character ... well, enough of that digression!

Before I heard "Ramesh Guide", I had indeed pondered the etymology of 'Jabalpur' - it seemed to mean 'the city of mountains' (from 'jabal' an Arab word meaning 'mountain'; there are several rugged and rocky (but not really big) hills in the area). The Jabali association came as a bit of a surprise. And on the way back from Bheraghat, I was still more surprised when a 'Hotel Jabali Palace(***)' caught the eye. Well, there is (still) no 'Jabali University', yet.

Anyways, despite all those personal connections, I still see 'Jabali's City' as a bit of spurious - etymology, there being no major mountains in the area notwithstanding.

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(*)India does not appear to have many limestone-dominated regions (karst landscapes as they are technically known). Some interesting limestone formations do exist around Ettimadai-Madukkarai, just inside Tamil Nadu as one threads the Palghat Pass - here one sees see plenty of massive chunks (some up to 30-40 feet across) of foliated rock; and these rock chunks, their size apart, have an odd 'woody' look. Similar rocks are visible near Kondapuram station in interior Andhra Pradesh as well. But neither of these regions has full-blown karst features - caves with stalactites etc.

Correction to the above note, added in Feb, 2010: The Belum caves near Tadipatri in AP (not too far from Kondapuram) are described by Wiki thus:

(The Belum Cave system) has a length of 3229 meters, making it the second largest natural caves in Indian Subcontinent. Belum Caves have long passages, spacious chambers, fresh water galleries and siphons. The caves reach its deepest point (120 feet from entrance level) at the point known as Pataalaganaga.

Impressive!

(**) - A bit of guesswork: Amartya Sen *very likely* read the 'Javali Episode' of Ramayana in his native Bengali. There, the sage might have indeed been named 'Jabali'; and while reaching out to a beyond-Bongland audience, Sen might have 'corrected' the name to 'Javali', under the impression that the 'b' must have been an artifact of Bengali pronunciation (which, as is well-known, turns 'Vimal' to 'Bimal' and 'Vivek' to 'Bibek'). Sen could have let 'Jabali' be, since the 'b' was from the 'original'!

(***) - Perhaps elsewhere in this country, one might find a 'Yajnavalkya Bar' or an 'Uddalaka Aruni Restaurant' or a 'Gargi Boutique'

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sanchi - A Gallery Of Fantasies

This post is on some details of the Hinayana Buddhist art of Sanchi; for self, the recent visit there was full of unanticipated personal discoveries.

A pair of animals, kneeling back-to back, with a 'donor couple' sitting atop is a standard Hinayana sculptural element (I don't know the antecedents of this much repeated motif). In the caves at Karla and Bedsa near Pune, one sees only elephants, bulls and horses as the animals. At the Pandava caves near Nasik, I remember seeing a sphinx (!) and what looks like a strange synthetic beast with a monkey's face and antlers.

Sanchi has several such couples. There are also several 'heraldic' pairs of animals; and around the Stupa 2 (halfway down the hill), there are 'medallions' with relief carvings of single animals.

And here is an incomplete catalog of the 'Sanchi Bestiary': Elephants, Rams and ewes, Camels (surprisingly, mostly, the two humped Bactrian ones), Bulls (some of which have the curly-braces-like horns, sported by some modern Kathiawar cattle), Horses, winged antelopes, peacocks, multi-hooded cobras (one of which even forms a grand parasol for some divinity!), a whole array of Lion forms - hefty, winged lions which look very middle-eastern, winged Lions with antlers, winged lions with antelope horns, winged lions with unicorn-like single horns, winged lions with parrot-like beaks, ...

And then, there is a centaur, sharabhas (combination of man+bird+beast) with elephants dangling from their talons (these were on the comparatively later double-story temple), a horse-headed human figure ("Hayagriva"!), a horse with very long canines sticking out of its mouth....

Wikipedia describes the 'buraq' (Prophet Muhammad rode one of these on his trip to Heaven) as a "horse-like creature with long ears and the wings and tail of a peacock. It may also have a man's face". Sanchi has troops of human-faced near-buraqs (they have peacock tails all right, only the equine torso seems to be missing) swooping down from the sky to worship Stupas.

And here is my pick for the craziest of the lot: a chimera with an elephant's head and trunk, deer antlers, a bulls body and hooves and a horse's tail! Even whoever carved/conceived it seems to have thought he had done something cool, so a caption(?) has been provided right above; sad, I can't read the Brahmi script!

Indeed, it is almost a surprise that Sanchi *lacks* sphinxes!

Among humans, one sees mid-eastern types, Greeks, etc.. mostly among those worshipping stupas; elsewhere, a heavily armed Greek infantryman fights a lion... Among one set of stupa-worshippers, there is a chap in a phrygian cap playing a panpipe. Two of his companions play what look like a 'Maddalam' and a 'Timila' (two of traditional Mallu percussion instruments) respectively

On the front face of the single Torana of Stupa 3 are two symmetrically placed carvings of a hero - having grabbed a a gigantic serpent by its jaws, he is poised to tear it asunder (guess: it may represent Indra killing Vritra). The poses struck by the heroes are mirror images of each other and almost identical to the 'Mithras Killing the Bull' statues (eg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithras) of the Greco-Roman world. And one of the Sanchi serpent-killers appears to wear headgear rather similar to Mithras's Phrygian cap!

And a worn relief shows something like a human figure grappling with two lions - Gilgamesh?

There are multiple instances of a lady being bathed by elephants - they are supposed to represent Buddha's mother Maya. This motif was later appropriated into the Hindu iconography - in representations of Laxmi. And if I remember right, the mid-eighties version of Encyclopedia Britannica showed a Sanchi medallion with the caption 'Laksmi' - which strictly speaking, was plain wrong!

The Sanchi museum displays a grand 4-lion pillar capital (this crowned the now fallen Ashoka pillar - that the stump of it used to be part of a sugarcane press in a nearby farm until its rediscovery by the Brits is another story!). The lions are mostly intact. The pedestal has reliefs, not of bulls and horses (as in the Sarnath pillar) but geese. 4-member teams of back-to-back lions also bear the weights of one of the Great Stupa toranas.

Rishyasringa is a mythological figure from Ramayana (the son of a sage and a heavenly nymph, he is Rama's brother-in-law). He is distinguished by deer-like antlers growing forth from his head (a much more recent representation of the guy can be seen in the murals of the Mattancheri palace, Cochin). In Sanchi, he appears as the Pali language equivalent 'Isisinga', antlers and all, as the son of Kassapa, one of Buddha's earlier Human incarnations!

The human donors themselves here are not as interesting as the much larger-scale figures of Bedsa and Karla. One particular pair did catch my eye though - the man (looking very foreign, tunic, boots and all) rides a huge ram, the woman (also looking pretty exotic, and seemingly unclothed!) an ewe. The two animals face opposite directions; so the couple have turned back towards each other and are engaged in what looks like casually intimate conversation...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sanchi - In General

Note: The Sanchi Stupa and its history is reasonably well documented in Wikipedia. A very useful resource for travelers is the slim - and highly economical -volume "Sanchi" published by the Archeological Survey of India. A very good online (pictorial) intro is here: http://www.art-and-archaeology.com/india/sanchi/san0.html

A quick historical summary: Asoka built the Great Stupa atop the Sanchi hill and also erected a grand stone pillar inscribed with edicts - in 3rd century BC. The stupa suffered from vandalism shortly thereafter but in 1st century BC, the Satavahanas (who also built the contemporaneous Amaravati Stupa almost a thousand kilometers away in AP), rebuilt it and commissioned 4 grand triumphal archways (Toranas) - each over 20 feet tall - around the Stupa. A couple of more stupas sprang up in the vicinity. Work on the site continued almost until 1000 AD when it was abandoned. Rediscovered by the British in mid 19th century, the stupa and the toranas were meticulously restored by John Marshall and his team. Now, Sanchi is a World Heritage Site.

We visited Sanchi expecting to be impressed; and the experience turned out to be way above the merely impressive!

Several of the Jataka stories on previous incarnations of Buddha are depicted as relief carvings on the Toranas. These include the Monkey King (Mahakapi), the Six-Tusked Elephant (Chhaddanta) and the over-generous Prince (Vessantara). There are also episodes from the life of the Historical Buddha, mostly miraculous stunts (walking on water, materializing a 'stairway to heaven' and making a trip up there,...); there are also 'non-stunt miracles', like, for instance, a monkey who brought honey for the Master...

A remarkable feature in all this artwork is a persistent refusal to show Buddha in human form(*) - he is always shown symbolically, as a Bodhi tree or Stupa or... But this symbolism applies only to Buddha himself and his other human incarantions ('Manushi Buddhas') and not to other human beings or to his own other incarnations. Not sure what prompted this strange restriction...

Each Torana panel shows a rich profusion of figures (human and beastly). Formal religious episodes are but a small minority of these - there are processions, armies on the march, royal darbars, everyday scenes, battles, cityscapes - complete with multi-storeyed builings and balconies,...

Some highlights:

1. A group of over a dozen grotesque dwarfs (Yakshas, or maybe the minions of Mara?) of various ages and sporting a range of facial expressions. To me, this crowded panel, merely 5 foot by a foot and a half, is right up there with the best of Brueghel - 'Proverbs', 'Peasant Wedding'... and till the other day, I did not even know such a piece of art even exists in this country!

2. An amazingly fluid battle scene, about the same size as (1) - an elephant being goaded on by its handler, a chariot, a cavalryman, bowmen, pikemen, even a dwarf cutting down an adversary with a trident,...

3. An immense variety of animal images: Elephants (browsing, uprooting trees, luxuriating in ponds, 'saluting', at war - mostly shown in profile, some frontally...) deer and antelopes, lions, cattle, buffaloes, horses (in harness, being ridden...), geese, alligators,... I could readily sense the deep debt the splendid animal figures of Mahabalipuram ('Arjuna's penance' etc.. ) owe to these at-least-half-a-millennium-older works.

Two details on the animals: The elephants are being prodded on with very 'modern' goads. The riders atop some of the horses use toe stirrups (which support only the big toe), some clearly use full foot-stirrups and some use none at all, the complete range! Btw, the stirrup is a very old concern of mine and elsewhere on this blog, there is an article on it.

5. Remarkable 'load-bearing' figures. dwarf/yakshas(the most impressive of the lot), lions (just like on the Saranath Pillar, India's National emblem), elephants,...

6. 'Genre scenes' showing common people simply minding their business - grinding cereals, trading, picking fruits, simply lazing around under lush trees, a happily married couple with two children, a couple chatting in a small hut, another couple sitting outside a hut, tending to a fire...(these are said to show stages of Prince Vessantara's life).

7. The Grand Stupa has a very neat looking 'fence' surrounding it. Nearly 10 feet in height, this fence was made by fitting together rows of stone blocks, each block well over a quintal in weight, with regular gaps between rows. The job was so expertly done that the fence was intact even when the ruins were rediscovered in mid-19th century (judging from photographs taken round about that time and now on display in a small museum at the foot of the hill).

Among the other architectural relics are a small Gupta period temple (said to be the oldest surviving structural edifice in India), a double storied temple from a later era, a structural Chaitya hall - of which only a dozen or so tall pillars remain, the foundations of a large monastery,...

Judgement: Artistically, I would claim the Sanchi Toranas rank with the Ghiberti's 'Gates of Paradise' in Florence, if not higher. I first heard about the Italian masterpiece when I was 10 years old - and have had to *discover* the Desi one in middle age.

Udayagiri - A Glimpse

We drive north from Bhopal on a chilly winter morning. The city thins out rapidly and we pass kilometer after kilometer of flat, cultivated land. Then sandstone hillocks begin to thrust up all around, their edges falling off several dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of feet in steep cliffs. The Sanchi hill with its stupas is visible from a long distance away; we pass it for the time being and proceed farther northwards.

A dozen kilometers beyond Sanchi and a few kilometers off the main highway rises a substantial and irregularly shaped sandstone plateau. At the near end of this tableland are a group of rock-cut caves, known as Udayagiri.

The caves and the sculptural decorations are said to date back to the Gupta period (4th-5th century AD) and almost exclusively deal with Hindu themes. The well-known highlight is a colossal relief of Vishnu as Varaha, lifting up the Earth (personified as Bhudevi). Among the 'worshipper-figures' carved around Varaha are two musicians, playing what look like a harp(*) and a Sarod respectively. Among the other carvings are a reclining Vishnu (now seriously damaged), a standing Vishnu (with only two arms remaining, holding a mace and an unusually large discus), a Ganapati(**) and so forth. Particularly interesting is an unusual (and quite violent) representation of Durga killing Mahishasura - the many-armed goddess grabs the buffalo-demon by a hind-leg and, pressing down his head with a foot, drives a trident into his belly.

A trail passes the caves and creeps up to the top of the sandstone bluff. All around are spectacularly eroded rock formations, sharply lit by the limpid winter sunshine. A kilometer or so farther, we could make out what must be another rock-cut temple, its entrance shaped like a pillared portico... But we decide to leave further explorations to a future visit. Sanchi beckons...

On our way, we digress briefly to visit 'Khamb Baba'. A pre-Christian Greek gentleman by name Heliodorus is said to have come here, seen the place and converted to Hinduism (or one of its then manifestations) and grew devoted enough to Vishnu to have built a 20 odd foot stone pillar as a mark of his fervor. The pillar still stands smartly in a largeish compound; next to a nearby tree are heaped what look like sculptural fragments from a long-gone temple.

The book says the pillar is now venerated by fishermen as 'Khamb baba'. The only water body nearby is the none-too substantial Betwa river; the sea is a good 800 kilometers away. Then how come 'fishermen'?

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(*) the harp seems to be a rather universal instrument, like say, the flute. The town of Jaffna in Sri Lanka has the Tamil name 'Yaazhpanam', after 'Yaazh', a kind of harp which used to be popular in the south more than a millennium ago.

I am also reminded here of the late Gift Siromoney. A scholar and academician from Tamil Nadu, his interests spanned a wide variety of areas. And his "research in music and archaeology resulted in work on stringed instruments of the ancient Tamil Country; and musical instruments from Pallava sculptures". Some info is available here: http://www.cmi.ac.in/gift/Music.htm

(**) I remember reading somewhere that Kalidasa never paid homage to Ganapati in his works (and hence his times predate the emergence of Ganapati as a popular deity). If the Ganapati carvings of Udayagiri were indeed made in the heyday of the Guptas, we perhaps ought to seriously doubt the theory that Kalidasa was one of the Navaratnas who adorned the court of Chandragupta Vikramaditya, the most prominent Gupta king.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

'The City Of Joy'

Mandu is a walled town that lies atop a small plateau projecting south from the edge of the Vindhya hills. It can be seen in a daytrip from the city of Indore.

Once upon a time, the place was known as 'Shadiabad', the city of joy. There is indeed plenty of celebratory exhuberance in the local architecture, most of it the commisioned by Malwa sultans in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Jahaz Mahal, a long and grand edifice occupying a narrow sliver of land between two lakes (with several indoor bathing pools, now looking forlorn and empty); the adjoining Champa Baodi (where a thousand specially recruited 'amazons' vigilantly guarded the Sultan's ten-thousand strong harem - both numbers greatly exaggerated, of course!); the Hindola Mahal, perhaps unique in India in its use of flying buttresses (or a close approximation thereof); Hoshang Shah's tomb, a marble edifice that probably inspired the Taj Mahal and the 'Dharamshala', a many-pillared extension to this tomb, looking straight out of a south Indian temple; the 3-domed Jama Masjid, a very clean-cut sandstone edifice; the bombed out looking Asharfi Mahal(it was allegedly an overambitious 7-storey building, not quite in tune with the structural engineering knowhow of the times); the Nilkanth Mandir, located in a typically neat sandstone building conceived by the the great Mughal Akbar; the grand arches of the Dilli Gate,... the list goes on and on.

Subtle remnants of colored tilework (primarily a deep blue) cling on to the walls and archways of many of these buildings; these Persian-looking decorations evoke memories of the ruins of Bidar - although the Mandu sultans (to my knowledge), were not (Persian-inspired) Shias, as were the Barid Shahis of Bidar. Guess: in their heyday, parts of Mandu would have looked like Samarkand or Isfahan.

The landscapes are impressive as well, the deep gorge of Khakra-khoh, a lovely, idyllic lake, the views from the 'Rupmati pavilion' that overlooks the Narmada valley to the south - it is related, the legendary star-crossed queen would come to the ramparts to catch a glimpse of the sacred river in the distance (said to be visible from here on clear days)

For the traveler: Mandu is best visited in twilight, when the sandstone of many of the monuments (after this trip to MP, my favorite stone) glows a striking red.

But the biggest surprise of the place is not architectural at all, but botanical!

Way back in 1949-50, famous Mallu traveler/writer SK Pottekkat, on a tour of Africa wrote: "'Baobab' trees, with their hugely swollen bellies, seemed to brood over the bush like ghostly sentinels" (elsewhere, he also likened them to pregnant women, but that is not of interest here!). Mandu is perhaps the only place in India where one sees Baobabs, in their dozens (wonder who imported them here; elsewhere, I have seen a single specimen somewhere in Pune camp and a few along the Bombay-Ahmedabad railway line). And in a darkening twilight, these trees, grossly obese, with gnarled and leafless branches, do look suitably ghostly, as they loom over ruined tombs and walls....

Friday, January 23, 2009

'Ujjayini'

"I saw Ujjain, about twenty two years back. I travelled from .... a weekend off from my pipeline job to visit the banks of the Shipra... drawn by a Tagore rendition of Kalidasa. Ujjain looked sleepy, the Shipra a thin stream in winter, and a tiny temple the only memory of a mighty Shiva Mandir." - that was Gyani, recollecting a long-gone experience.

'Ujjayini', in Malwa (Western Madhya Pradesh), is said to be where Kalidasa lived and wrote his masterpieces. And in each Indian language, there must be dozens if not hundreds of literary works which allude to the place(*). Somewhat less lyrically, the city was also the capital of the legendary king Vikramaditya, of the Vetala fame.

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A winter midday; a 90 minute bus-ride from Indore takes me to the Ujjain railway station. The main station building looks - and feels - like a slightly scaled-down copy of the Allahabad station - appropriately so, I guess, since the two cities are among the four which host the Kumbh Mela.

Guided by a map, I walk thru narrow streets towards the Kshipra river and the Mahakala Siva temple.

The path takes me thru a pocket of Muslim dominance (all boards are in Hindi, not Urdu; and there was a shop, its propreitor very conspicuously Muslim, selling framed pictures exclusively of Hindu divinities). The traffic, though chaotic, is not too oppressive; but a strongly unpleasant smell of kerosene fumes pervades the place.

The core city has hardly any bus service; the public transport workhorse is a strange contraption - the driver's cabin looks like a scaled down copy from that of a 'bedford' truck (or a police van) from my childhood in far-away Kerala and the passengers are packed into a boxy extension from this cabin.

I pause to take a picture of a row of these strange beasts when one of the drivers asks: "Bhaisaab, can you take one more, with me standing beside?" I oblige.
"What is there in these vehicles for you to take photos?" he wants to know. "Well, where I come from, you don't see anything like these", I answer.

"But then, where are you from... hmm, Gujarat?" he ventures. "Well...Yes, Amdavad" I reply. He remarks to a fellow-driver - "See, I guessed right!"

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A quote from memory:

"When I touched the Shivalinga at the Mahakala temple at Ujjayini, it was electrifying, a single moment that revealed the immensity lying beyond Time" - Chandralekha, famous dancer and choreographer, a decade and more ago.

The Mahakala temple is a pretty big complex, although not much about it looks ancient or even old (the original temple was destroyed in a raid by Sultan Altmash, says the book); the core sanctum is a subterranean chamber. All worshippers are allowed to do Puja and even touch the idol (and be 'electrified').

Stepping out, I explore the local shops and am particularly impressed with a picture showing the main Linga in 4 different forms ('shringars')- as a plain piece of rock (what I had seen), bathed in a continuous cascade of milk, covered with ash (Bhasma) with the outline of a face drawn on it and still more interestingly, coated with Bhang (ganja) and decorated with an even more striking face; indeed, these 4 forms of Mahakala together constitute the only real art that I get to see on this visit.

A little farther are the ghats leading down into the Shipra/Kshipra. The name of the river means 'Rapid' but what I get to see is a sequence of almost stagnant pools of water, dammed by walls. A scary sight: pilgrims reverentially drinking the water from their cupped palms.

Beyond the river stands the Harasiddhi temple where Pujas are done by a young girl. The temple has a Maharashtran feel, with two big and ugly stone 'lamp pillars'. There is also a domed antechamber with the ceiling showing paintings of the 64 'yoginis' and several Tantrik mantras and formalae written.

As I walk back to catch a bus to Indore, I pause to look again into my guidebook. It says: "There are sites scattered around the city, the temple where Kalidasa received his poetic gift from Kali, the cave where Bhartrhari (a legendary sage, who was also allegedly, a half-brother to king Vikramaditya) meditated, where Sandipani's ashram (Krishna was a resident scholar here) stood" and so on.

Another bit of trivia: Ujjain used to mark the reference meridian to measure longitude (in the Indian scheme) and was also taken to lie on the intersection of this zero meridian with the tropic of cancer (now, probably due to the precession of the axis, the tropic of cancer passes a few kilometers to the north).

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(*) in my own Malayalam, there is a long poem 'Ujjayini' by ONV Kurup. He takes a modern, left-of-center view of Kalidasa's life experiences and his work. The then great city of Ujjayini (with its heirarchies of Power) is portrayed as an avaricious 'usurper of gems'. It is a very evocative and smooth flowing work - the one jarring note being the nearly dozen repetitions of the word 'bhurjapatram' (birch bark sheets used as a writing surface)! A remark by late critic Joseph Mundasseri also comes to mind: "one gets a feeling the Yaksha, cruelly banished from his beloved, was Kalidasa himself"
Yes, one also could mention a very sweet film song written by Vayalar ("Ujjayiniyile gayika...") where the author has neatly fitted together allusions to all the 7 classical works commonly attributed to Kalidasa.