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Goodearth travels to Odisha!

In some great news, we have come out with two new and brilliant (yes, we’re saying that ourselves :P) travel guides on the charming coastal state of Odisha.

One on its spectacular temples in Bhubaneswar, Puri, Konarak; and a novel guide exploring its rich yet undiscovered Buddhist heritage. Grab the copies now, off the rack or online, and plan your trip to experience the treasures in Odisha!

Buddhist Sites in Odisha and Andhra Odisha_Cover Artwork final .pdf

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Posted by on February 26, 2015 in goodearth guides, travel

 

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Exploring the Buddhist sites in Odisha

As our Indigo airline nosed down to land in Bhubaneswar, I was wide-eyed looking at the vast stretches of green below us. And it is these lush fields that fill my mind anytime I think of Odisha.

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Landing in Bhubaneswar

What prompted the visit was our forthcoming travel guide on Buddhist Sites in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. That Odisha had Buddhist sites to write about we weren’t aware of, until the project came along. That, these excavations would be remarkable we had never imagined. However, it stood out as one of the most charming exploration trips we had been on.

Picture this: a verdant landscape of greens – vast, lush fields with low hills in the far distance – within easy accessibility of the capital city, Bhubaneswar… Smooth, narrow roads winding through it… small, occasional hutments on the way… a lone villager herding his cattle… and in the middle of it all, hillocks with remarkable Buddhist treasures dating back to 2,000 years ago…

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Smooth tree-lined roads leading to the three Buddhist sites

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Lush paddy fields stretching far into the horizon

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Exploring the Buddhist site of Langudi

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The massive Chaityagriha revealed at Lalitgiri

The three most spectacular Buddhist sites of this region are Lalitagiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri, all within an hour’s drive from each other. The extent and marvel of the finds on these hillocks – stupas, monasteries, Buddhist sculptures – has led to their comparison with the famed university of Nalanda, in Bihar.

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Votive stupas in Ratnagiri

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Sculpture in a monastery in Udayagiri

Climb up to re-live an era long gone. Take in the breathtaking view from the top. Away from the bustle, these hillocks wash over you a sense of calm and peace. No wonder these sites were chosen for the quiet monastic life.

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Loose sculptures recovered from Ratnagiri

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Bell-shaped stupa in Udayagiri

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View from the stupa at Lalitgiri

A pair of goats canoodling in the stupa complex, Ratnagiri

A pair of goats canoodling in the stupa complex, Ratnagiri

I was never one given to being excited by excavations. Not so far, at least. But the charm of these sites cannot leave one untouched. Visit them and experience it for yourself 🙂

Pick up a copy of our travel guide Buddhist Sites in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to plan your travel.

Buddhist Cov_new.pdf

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in goodearth guides, travel

 

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Walking on the Buddhist Trail – Sanchi, Sonari, Satdhara

 Sanchi is a small and charming central Indian town. It is so small, that wherever you decide to stay, the Buddhist stupas are walking distance. They are on a low hill and can be seen from the National Highway running through Sanchi, from the trains that pass through Sanchi, even from the pool in our hotel!

The Great Stupa at Sanchi

The most enduring image of Sanchi has to be of the Great Stupa and its toranas (gateways). Begun by emperor Ashoka in the 2nd century BC, it was added to by succeeding dynasties. Till the 13th century, Sanchi was a spiritual centre where Buddhists would come from far and wide. Monasteries, temples and stupas were built here, patronised by the prosperous merchants from nearby Vidisha. Now a lot of them are in ruins, but they are well preserved. The site is a World Heritage Site and is protected by the ASI.

Temple 18 - that's what its called. Quite an uninspiring name for those towering pillars which look uncannily Greek.

Stupas have a terrace where devotees circumabulate. This is the medhi or terrace of stupa 3 (again, that's what its called)

So what were we doing in Sanchi? We were there for a work trip for a book that we were doing with Madhya Pradesh TourismBuddhist Circuit in Central India. Apart from Sanchi, we also had to visit some Buddhist sites around it, which are not part of the regular tourist circuit – Sonari, Satdhara, Andher and Murelkhurd. Getting to these sites is an adventure in itself. Except Satdhara, the others are not connected by motorable road and are well-guarded by jungle, hills are streams.  

 The people of Sanchi are courteous and always willing to help. Even though Parvati and I walked to and from the stupas at odd hours, we never felt uneasy. If you’re the lazy type there are always autos at the base of the hill willing to ferry visitors up and down for a small sum. But for those who have the time and inclination, there are the ancient stone steps leading up the hill. The walk is a good way to meet people: other travellers and locals.

Sanchi Town at dusk from the Stone Steps

Pilgrim-travellers, Monk-guide. This is a group from Sri Lanka with their guide. Lots of pilgrims from Sri Lanka visit Sanchi annually, and most stay at the Mahabodhi Society-run Guest House

 

 

Sonari was where we went next. The car would only go as far as Sonari village from where the stupas were a three kilometre walk – over two hills and across one stream. Our guide, Surender Singh Baduria navigated through the shrubbery.

In Sonari Village. A woman and her house.

Phew. The uphill task

Our guide took this picture of the stream on the way. Notice the two river nymphs perched on the rocks.

There were times when the landscape looked completely untouched by any human presence, not even small huts in the distance. Would it have looked just the same 2000 years back when the Buddha’s followers trod over the same hills to reach the stupas? Or would there have been cart tracks, and footprints and frequent human settlements?

  There are two main stupas at sonari and a monastery. The site is on a clearing, which is surrounded by unending forests on every side. The caretaker of the site, Bhagwan Singh, came to greet us with his dog. The only resident on the site, he has lived here for a year now and says he will never leave.

Mr Surender Singh, Bhagwan Singh and Parvati who's taking notes

 Of the four, only Sonari and Satdhara were accessible, so Satdhara was our next destination. Parvati and I were tossed about in the car during the drive (which can only be done in a four-wheel drive). There are some 8 stupas here set in some really breathtaking natural beauty. The stupas overlook a river which flows in the valley below.

Mr Surender Singh showed us some ancient paintings on a rock-face on the mountainside which takes a somewhat steep climb downwards. Parvati wouldn’t come, so I risked my life alone (and barefoot). Here is the proof:

See? The rockface is twice as tall as Surenderji. The photographs of the rock paintings are in the book

The Grand Stupa of Satdhara

Our book is almost out on the stands. The Buddhist Circuit in Central India will appeal not only to Buddhist pilgrims, but to anyone interested in Buddhism, Madhra Pradesh, our built heritage, Sanchi, the excursions from Sanchi (like Gyaraspur and Udaigiri)….

 Here’s the cover, so that you know what to look for when you reach the bookstore:

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2009 in goodearth guides, travel

 

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The Ancient Streets of Sirpur

Everybody likes a bit of gossip to some point, as long as it’s gossip with some point to it. That’s why I like history. History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true.

–         Gore Vidal

Temples on riverbanks... some things dont change with time.

Temples on riverbanks... some things dont change with time.

Sirpur, 83 kms to the northwest of Chhattisgarh’s capital at Raipur is a place where history is being unearthed – one block at a time – everyday! What was once a prosperous kingdom, a centre of Buddhist learning, a pilgrimage big enough to draw the famous Chinese traveller-historian, Hiuen Tsang in 639 AD, is now but a tiny sleepy village.

Shadow of the shikhara of a Sirpur temple on the waters of the Mahanadi

Shadow of the shikhara of a Sirpur temple on the waters of the Mahanadi

In one corner of this sleepy village is a government building which is, at present, being occupied by Dr A K Sharma, a retired archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India. It is he who is largely responsible for digging out this huge city, practically from peoples’ backyards. When we went to visit him in Sirpur regarding our forthcoming book for Chhattisgarh Tourism Board, we found out, much to our surprise that this 77 year-old man outwalked, outclimbed and outtalked us young people, even in the surprisingly hot October sun.

Located on the banks of the Mahanadi, this historical site is strewn with innumerable monuments and unexcavated mounds. Hindu temples, Buddhist viharas, Jain temples, palaces and residential complexes in this town, indicating that at the height of its glory, it was ruled by kings tolerant towards all religions.

The excavator

The excavator - Dr A K Sharma

The team comprised of our executive publisher, Ms Swati Mitra, asst.  editor Nidhi Dhingra and myself. We were all carrying our cameras, the days were perfect for photography and our excitement knew no bounds. We started from Raipur at 5 AM and on the way, we picked up Mr G L Raikwad, a retired archaeologist from Chhattisgarh State Archaeology Dept. He has worked in Sirpur and had kindly agreed to guide us on the trip.

Perhaps the most striking structure unearthed at Sirpur is the Lakshman Temple that dates back to the 7th century AD. Made of burnt bricks, it was originally dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The presence of a Ram temple nearby had probably led to the present name of the temple. Not only has this structure survived the ravages of time, but also is one of the most beautiful brick temples in the entire country.

Llakshman Temple

Our executive publisher, Ms Swati Mitra (L) and colleague Nidhi Dhingra (R) with the Lakshman Temple in the background

Lakshman Temple

The Lakshman Temple

Excavations at Sirpur have revealed remains of various Buddhist monasteries or viharas. Based on archaeological findings, Dr Sharma is of the opinion that Sirpur could emerge as a centre of learning, larger than Nalanda. Whether Sirpur emerges larger than Nalanda or not, only time shall tell. Among the varius viharas at Sirpur, the largest are – Tivaradeva Mahavihara, Anandprabhu Kutir Vihara and the Swastika Vihara.

Of these, the Tivaradeva Mahavihara is perhaps the most striking. The gateway to the vihara, is adorned with brilliant sculptures, some of humans while there are friezes, depicting various tales from the Jataka. The sanctum sanctorum of the vihara has the sculpture of the Buddha in the bhumisparsha mudra. Centuries might have passed while the statue lay buried under tons of soil, but the serenity in its face still touches the soul of the beholder.

The magnificent entrance to the Tivaradeva Mnahavihara

The magnificent entrance to the Tivaradeva Mnahavihara

Details from the gateway - I

Details from the gateway - I

Details from the gateway - II

Details from the gateway - II

The sculpture of the Buddha in the vihara

The sculpture of the Buddha in the vihara

A stone’s throw away from the Tivaradeva Mahavihara was a mound which was excavated in 2003-04 by Dr Sharma. What emerged was a complex of five temples and a hoard of copper-plates dating back to the reign of the Somavanshi ruler, Mahasivagupta Balarjun. The copper-plate inscriptions reveal that the temples were constructed during the reign of Balarjun and patronised by different members of the royal family.

The largest of the temples was called the Baleshwar Mahadev  (and a drab ‘SRP-7’ in the logs of Dr Sharma). The garbhagriha of the temple follows a stellate (star-shaped) plan and houses an imposing white shivalinga. On the entrance to the temple stand sculptures of the two river goddesses – Ganga and Yamuna, on their respective vahanas – the crocodile and the tortoise.

Frontal view of the Baleshwar Mahadev Temple

Frontal view of the Baleshwar Mahadev Temple

Details of the sculptures of the river goddesses in the Baleshwar Mahadev Temple

Details of the sculptures of the river goddesses in the Baleshwar Mahadev Temple

Adjacent to the Tivaradeva Mahavihara, we were taken to an archaeological site named SRP 24-25. To the untrained eye, the entire site looks like a maze of waist-high foundations, paved coutryards and the occassional pillar. To the historically informed, however,  it is the glimpse of a city from the 6th centuey AD. The site is primarily a complex housing three temples – one Jain and the others Hindu. The temples were surrounded by a fortified wall. Outside the fortified walls, was the city. I have been a student of history in my college days but standing there as i did, with the sun on my back and the wind through my hair, I soaked up the knowledge that no book can ever impart.

One could easily make out the main street that ended in the temple and structures flanking it, which could be nothing else but shops selling incense and other puja paraphernalia. You can see shops like this even today in front of any temple, anywhere in India. Here lies the beauty of our great nation. While we might be making huge progress in fields of science and all fields futuristic, there are events, customs and traditions which have remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

General overview of site SRP 24-25. The pillars in the foreground are all that remains of the Jain temple

General overview of site SRP 24-25. The pillars in the foreground are all that remains of the Jain temple

General layout of a town house from Sirpur

General layout of a town house from Sirpur

While we were shuttling around Sirpur going from one site to the other, we kept passing through a humongous structure made of blocks of stone and stood as high as a five storeyed building. At first glance you might even confuse it with a Mayan step-pyramid. Later in the day, when we finally came there,I was eager to climb to the top and investigate the building for myself . The building is called Surang Tila. The last time i was in Sirpur, in July 2007, Surang Tila had not been totally excavated. I remembered that I had climbed to the top on that occassion too, only to find a heap of household junk and a modern, brick and mortar devi temple. This time the building was totally unrecognisable, all thanks to the archaeologists.

Surang Tila - Viewed from Front

Surang Tila - Viewed from Front

The stairs led on to an open courtyard on top of the structure, which was at one point of time covered with a roof. Supporting the roof were 32 pillars, arranged in four rows of 8 pillars. Parts of  these beautifully engraved pillars have been recovered and put in their original position.  Flanking the courtyard on three sides are five shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is interesting to note here that while none of the 32 pillars are alike, the shivalingas in each of the five shrines are made of a stone of different colour.

View of the terrace from inside one of the shrines with the row of pillars visible.

View of the terrace from inside one of the shrines with the row of pillars visible.

Sirpur is a place like no other. Even today, historians like Dr A K Sharma claim that only a fraction of Sirpur’s treasures have been unearthed. Under every house, every road and every field in Sirpur lies its long forgotten predecessor. It was a privilege to have worked on a site which could, in the near future be the next biggest thing in Indian archaeology.

The Sirpur Travel Guide was published early in 2009. The book is available with our clients (Chhattisgarh Tourism Board) at all their outlets, free of cost.

The Eicher Team (L - R) at the Lakshman Temple: Bodhisattva Sen Roy, Swati Mitra, Nidhi Dhingra

The Eicher Team (L - R) at the Lakshman Temple: Bodhisattva Sen Roy, Swati Mitra, Nidhi Dhingra

Please contact:

Chhattisgarh Tourism Board

Paryatan Bhawan

Indira Gandhi Marg

Raipur 492006

Ph: 0711-466415

www.chhattisgarhtourism.net

 

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