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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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Sonar Kella, The Golden Fortress – I

(This is the first of a two-part series on Jaisalmer. While this part deals with the city and the fort, the forthcoming installment shall take you to some places around the city. Stay tuned…)

'Sonar Kella' DVD cover

'Sonar Kella' DVD cover

The valour and adventure of the Rajputs and the mighty castles and the endless deserts of Rajputana has always intrigued a different set of people in another distant part of the country. The Bengalis were first exposed to the romanticised tales of the great warriors by Abanindranath Tagore’s Raj Kahini, published in the dying years of the 19th century.

This fascination was given a tangible manifestation by Satyajit Ray through his famous detective novel, Sonar Kella in 1971. The sleepy little town of Jaisalmer, a speck in the vast desert, almost overnight became the toast of the Bengali tourist. The phenomenon of the Bengali mass migration to Jaisalmer during Durga Pujo was further encouraged by the release of the movie in 1974.

It was the night of Diwali! This photograph was taken from the balcony of my room

It was the night of Diwali! This photograph was taken from the balcony of my room

As a kid, growing up in a middle class household in a small town, I feasted on the works of Ray and dreamt that I was one of his protagonists – a little bit of Feluda and often, parts of Professor Shanku. When Ray passed away in May, 1992, the government of West Bengal ran a retrospective of his movies. On the last day, they telecast Sonar Kella. I was seven years old then, and looking back, I can still see myself sitting on the floor with a white vest and a pair of black shorts, staring google-eyed as Feluda, Topshe and the incredibly endearing Jatayu travelled from one Rajasthan town to another in search of the boy who could remember his past life.

Funny though, is the fact that before I visited the golden city in October 2008, my vision of the town was in flashes of the grainy black and white of our antiquated Sonodyne television set.

The sun rises over a sleepy Jaisalmer. Photograph taken from the fort ramparts.

The sun rises over a sleepy Jaisalmer. Photograph taken from the fort ramparts.

During the Durga Pujo, last year when I started planning the  annual family trip, I had no idea that we would end up in Jaisalmer. I was thinking on the lines of Kanha – Bandhavgarh – Jabalpur. Fortuitously, one night as I was up rearranging an extremely dirty bookshelf, I came across a battered early edition of Sonar Kella. I immediately knew where going for the vacation.

As the train chugged into what was the cleanest station I have ever set foot in, I realised that almost the entire city was built of the same golden sandstone. I had booked a nice hotel at the base of the hillock on top of which stood the famed fortress. What sets this fort apart from the hundreds of others across the country is the fact that it is still living.  More than 10,000 people still reside inside the walls as did their ancestors hundreds of years back.

The fort still houses people. The city though has spilled the walls and continues to grab bits of the desert to feed its grredy expansion plans.

The fort still houses people. The city though has spilled over the walls and continues to grab bits of the desert to feed its greedy expansion plans.

It was Diwali, the day we reached. The hotel we were staying at, had a beautiful rooftop restaurant and was set against the background of the fort, lit-up in all its festive glory. We spent the evening on the terrace, soaking in the folk music and dance show organised by the hotel staff. I was all keen to explore the markets but travelling with parents in their late fifties always has its disadvantages, it seems!

The next morning, we woke up while it was still dark. I was surprised to see mom dressed and ready before me! In fact,  she was so eager to see the sunrise from the fort walls that she got out and started walking to the fort, instructing us to catch up with her when we were done. Catch up, we did and by the time we settled ourselves on a canon atop a bastion, the eastern sky  showed a light shade of crimson.

Mom and dad at the bastion from where we saw the sun rise

Mom and dad at the bastion from where we saw the sun rise

The sun, all of a sudden, leapt out of the dark and stood suspended at what seemed like a foot above the horizon for some time.  In the magic light of the morning sun, I witnessed for myself why Ray called it Sonar Kella. The yellow sandstone glowed in the soft light like gold,  like it was giving off its own light. The phantasmic light and the light footfalls of the early rising residents transfixed us on our perch. It was a long time before we uttered a word and even longer before we headed to the nearest chai shop.

Diwali decorations in the fort

Diwali decorations in the fort

The chai,  sadly, was not made of camel’s milk, as i had encountered in the novel, but came out of a polythene pouch which promised that its contents were fresh and pasteurised. The tea-seller, an old man, with whom I struck up a conversation told me how he could vaguely remember the shooting of Sonar Kella in the fort. After a rather nice conversation, we left him in his stall, but not before we had taken the direction of the fort’s exquisite Jain temples.

The alleys of the fort were liked with stalls selling touristy knick-knacks. Bright postcards, even brighter ethnic clothing and the somewhat outdated Kodak film rolls dominated the list of exhibits. There were also stalls selling turbans, again in bright colours. If you did not want to buy one, you could always get photographed wearing one at the stall!

Pretty turbans, all in a row!

Pretty turbans, all in a row!

This little guy puts on a dance item for you in return for a tenner!

This little guy puts on a dance item for you in return for a tenner!

The narrow lanes wound through the fort to ultimately lead to the twin Jain temples. Built by the local rulers sometime in the 16th century, the shrines are in a remarkable state of preservation. Inside the temples one could witness what ‘pin-drop silence’ actually was. It was a strange world of narrow corridors, walls lined with exquisite sculptures and the all pervasive aroma of incense lingering in the air.

A priest walks past the central neve of the Jain temple in Jaisalmer fort

A priest walks past the central nave of the Jain temple in Jaisalmer fort

It was nearly 1400 hours by the time we decided that we were done roaming around the fort. We went back to our hotel and after a light lunch of the extremely tasty daal bati churma, allowed ourselves to drift off to a peaceful afternoon siesta. We woke up when it was already dark outside. A quick cup of tea later, the Sen Roy family was out walking the lanes of Jaisalmer’s main bazaar.

The streets of Jaisalmer

The streets of Jaisalmer

The shops had on display, a fascinating range of wares. The chief attraction here are the artefacts made of  Jaisalmer’s famed golden sandstone. From chess sets, to coffee tables and images of deities, these golden objects dominated the show windows. Also popular here are items made of camel bones. Rajasthan is known for its colourful dresses which are further embellished with exquisite embroidery. A number of shops in the market displayed an impressive collection of these traditional textiles, many of which now rest in my mother’s wardrobe.

My girlfriend is more beautiful now!

My girlfriend IS more beautiful now!

Another highlight of the day was definitely the dinner. At the end of our (what I actually mean is, my mother’s) shopping spree, we started asking around for a decent place to eat. Turns out that only a handful of restaurants in the city served non vegeterian food, and people who know me, are aware of the fact that I am a strict non vegeterian. We were finally directed to a rooftop restaurant at the entrance to the market called the Trio. Spread out on the vast terrace of an old haveli, it presented a breathtaking view of the illuminated fort. Part of the restaurant was made to look like a tent, complete with plush cushions, soft carpets and even a multicoloured glass hubble-bubble. What was even better than the ambiance was the food. Nothing could have ended the day better than the rogan josh I ordered.

The illuminated fort viewed through the window panels of a restaurant.

The illuminated fort viewed through the window panels of a restaurant.

The day had been rewarding, and that night as I went to bed, it was nice to know that I would be in this town for another two days.

(to be continuoued…)

 

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