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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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Day out in Gwalior!

While places in Rajasthan, Himachal and Uttarakhand are seen as most viable for planning short excursions from Delhi, few realise that Madhya Pradesh too is just round-the-corner! One of the many options here is Gwalior — a mere 3.5 hrs from Delhi by the Bhopal Shatabdi. Here is an account of our day trip to Gwalior!

The train ride to Gwalior itself is a pleasure ..particularly for it cuts through the enchanting Chambal ravines. Formed due to erosion by rainfall and the fast flowing Chambal river, the sight of the rugged and barren hillocks stretching for miles is truly awesome! Moreover, its notoriety for sheltering inter-state dacoit gangs in the past, adds a huge sense of mystery to it..drawing images of dacoits running on horseback even in broad daylight! A sight i always forward to when travelling through this part of the country!

As the train pulled into Gwalior station well before 10 in the morning, we walked with hurried steps to make the most of the day we’d got to explore a new city.

Without doubt it had to begin with a visit to the much-acclaimed Gwalior Fort.

The scene of many a battles and conquests, the Fort was held to be the most impregnable fortress in all of north and central India.

A Hanna Motana pinup at the back of an auto caught my eye.

Driving up to the Urvahi Gate of the Fort. Presently the main entrance to the Fort by motorable road. For those who prefer trekking up, access is from the Hathi Gate.

While there are varying accounts of the construction of the Fort, it was under the Tomar dynasty, founded by Bir Singh Deo, that it was rebuilt to achieve its present scale and grandeur. The magnificent Man Singh Palace was built by Man Singh Tomar, the most celebrated scion of this dynasty.

Gigantic images of Jain tirthankaras flank the road leading up from the Urwahi Gate. These were sculpted in the 15th century during the reign of the Tomar kings who were great patrons of Jainism.

First glimpse of the Man Mandir Palace on entering the Fort complex.

Embellished with blue mosaic tiles, the Man Mandir Palace is the most identifiable image of the fortress.

Row of yellow ducks on the walls of Man Mandir Palace

The guide entertained us with colourful stories of the royal life its kings lived, which made the otherwise empty pavillions and corridors come alive. One particularly charming story was of how the dasis would wear ghungrus (anklets with bells) in the morning and lightly dance around the king’s chamber to politely indicate that it was time for him to wake up! Gosh, what pampering!

Goodearth guides on sale in the small cafe near the entrance to the Palace complex <glee!>

The built structures in the Fort stand far apart from each other, accessed by motorable roads. Thus having a car to yourself drastically reduces the walking required. Our next stop in the Fort was the Saas Bahu Mandir.

Literally meaning the temple of the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, the pair of temples was built by king Mahipal around 1093, supposedly for his mother and wife. Built in nagara style, both the temples are richly decorated with carvings of deities, human and animal figures, and geometric patterns.

Saas Temple, with the Bahu Temple in the background. The larger of the two, the Saas Temple is dedicated to Vishnu, while the Bahu Temple is dedicated to Shiva.

Intricately carved panel above the sanctum doorway in the Saas Temple.

Peering in to see what the sanctum holds. Presently, nothing but bats!

Carvings on the ceiling

Base of the pillars. Most dieties, figurines carved in the temple stand defaced.

Fort walls enclosing the temple complex

Bahu Temple sitting pretty on a high platform.

Quiet musings sitting on the Fort walls

The fort complex also encloses the Data Bandi Chhod gurdwara, believed to have been built where Guru Hargobind Singh was imprisoned by Jahangir for over two years. The name ‘Bandi Chhod’ meaning ‘free the prisoners’ comes from the story of how with his own release, the Guru aided the release of his 52 royal companions as well.

Walking across the central courtyard in the gurdwara

Like most gurdwaras, Data Bandi Chhod is a modern marble white structure.

While our original plan included lunching in town after the Fort visit, the early morning start and the sun growing sharper made us stop for langar in the gurdwara, which, nevermind the soupy dal, was more than welcome.

Langar being prepared in the courtyard.

Teli ka Mandir, seen from across the sarovar in the gurdwara

Our last stop in the Fort, the Teli ka Mandir is the largest temple in the complex. A mix of north and south Indian temple architecture styles, its gopuram like shikhara is mounted on a nagara base.

Teli ka Mandir, seen through its arched entrance.

Striking a pose against the towering walls of the temple

We discovered rock art on its stone walls!

Peek-a-boo! Gurdwara Data Bandi Chhod seen from Teli ka Mandir

After good 2.5 hrs spent in the Fort, and the sun beginning to beat down, it was time for a refreshing lunch break in town. We headed straight to Usha Kiran Palace, a heritage hotel managed by Taj. The choice befitted our day’s iterinary of heritage visits.

Before lunch began, it was time to cut the cake!

Yes, part of the reason for the day out had been the birth-day!

Rejuvenated from good continental food, we head out for our post-lunch plan – of visiting Jai Vilas Palace, the opulent residence of the Scindias, the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior. In fact, it is part of the same complex as the heritage hotel, in Lashkar.

Jai Vilas Palace. Though it continues to serve as the Scindia residence, a part of it has been converted into the privately-owned Jiyaji Rao Scindia Museum.

Starting with a gallery displaying the Scindias family tree and old photographs, to their belongings (including Madho Rao Scindia’s royal golf set!), the museum has several of their rooms on display — the dining room, queen’s dressing, scent room (?) with vessels that carried fragrant oils and perfumes.. The locals seemed to take in every little detail with a lot of awe, reverence and delight.

Inside Scindia Palace

Of the many stories abounding its splendour, perhaps the most impressive is which recounts that two enormous Belgian chandeliers, weighing 3.5 tonnes each, had been bought to be hung in the Durbar Hall. And to make sure the ceiling could take the weight, ten elephants were made to parade on the roof of the Hall!

It is also in Gwalior that the legendary musician Mian Tansen rests, and thus the city plays host to the annual Tansen Music Festival. His grave rests in a small marble tomb in a gardened compound along with several others. The most striking here is the tomb of Mohammad Ghaus, a 16th century Sufi saint and Tansen’s spiritual Guru.

Mohammad Ghaus' tomb viewed from the side. The sandstone mausoleum is a specimen of delicate craftsmanship, with intricate stone screens on all sides.

Lounge and gossip

Stunning jaali screens around Mohammad Ghaus' tomb.

By this time we were sapped of energy, and after walking around, lounged on the lawns just like the umpteen locals there (it turned out to be a popular hangout place) ..and waited for it to be time to drive to the station to catch our train back to Delhi.

Arriving back around 11, we looked forward to our soft mattresses and deep sleep. Long day no doubt, but amazing that we managed to see a whole new city in just that long! Day well spent!

* For someone wanting to stay for longer in Gwalior, the city offers enough! Our Gwalior City Guide can help you plan your iterinary.*

 
 

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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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