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

Friday, January 23, 2009


"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.


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!"


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).

(*) 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.


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