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

Monday, January 26, 2009

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'?

(*) 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:

(**) 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.


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