In the first of a two-part series featuring a three-day exploration in Madhya Pradesh, the US-based travel writer finds peace and noise wrapped up in religious undertones.
A few years ago on a trip to India to visit my family, I saw a TV commercial titled ‘Hindustan ka dil dekho’ that extolled the virtues of Madhya Pradesh as a tourism destination. I have a number of places on my India bucket list, which include the North East, and the icy plains of Leh. But MP…? It’s not the first thing that pops up in one’s head when thinking of destinations to explore within India. Three years after I saw that TVC, I was back in India again, this time on a work trip and found out that my two-week visit included a long weekend!
My parents were spending a month in Bhopal on work and asked me to visit them and explore nearby places of interest. And that’s how I found myself in the heart of incredible India, a place where time moves slowly and life seems simpler.
Over three interesting days, I experienced the real India; the one unvarnished by Bollywood and unseen by most of us who grew up in big cities. The India that’s far removed from the fast-paced Digital India newspapers are reporting about. To my surprise, I realised Madhya Pradesh has something for everyone —from the backpacker to the pilgrim, and everyone in between. History, culture, religion, nature, wildlife... and even anthropology!
It’s the land of many stories, witness to major historic events, home of warriors and pleasure seeking kings, and sites of religious importance. Since I only had three days to explore, here are my recommendations if you find yourself in Bhopal with a weekend to spare and don’t want to travel too far.
About an hour’s drive from Bhopal lies the oldest stone structure in India, the Stupa of Sanchi. The short journey from Bhopal to Sanchi goes through the imaginary geographical line of the Tropic of Cancer, marked by a fading painted line across the tar road and a graffiti ridden sign board. Needless to say, it’s a popular selfie-taking spot!
Built by the Emperor Ashok in 3rd century BCE (and expanded by later kings of Gupta dynasty), the Stupas mark an important historic event. It is believed that Ashok’s son Mahendra left from this exact place for Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) to propagate Buddhism. The stupas in a way mark the beginning of the rise of Buddhism in South East Asia that continues to resonate till today.
The village of Sanchi is a sleepy little town and there is little else to see here except the Stupas, which lie atop a flat-topped sandstone hill that rises around 300 feet above the surrounding countryside and is home to India’s best-preserved group of Buddhist monuments. They were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989.
The beautifully carved reliefs on the Great Stupa (the biggest one) depicts events from the Buddha’s life, scenes from the Jataka tales, important events from early Buddhism, auspicious symbols, and inscriptions. The detailing is so intricate and rich that the panels seem to be brimming with life, even after centuries of being subjected to nature’s elements. Four ornately carved toranas (gateways) surround the Great Stupa in four cardinal directions. As we were exploring the monuments, a familiar sight came into view: the famous Ashok Pillar with the four lion heads that form the National Emblem of India finds a place in one of the gateways. The national emblem is derived from a similar Ashok Pillar in Sarnath, but this seems to be a common symbolism in Buddhist architecture of the time.
What I liked about the place is how well maintained, clean, and tranquil it is. You can almost visualise a group of Buddhist monks back in the day going about their business, high up on a hilltop, overlooking the villages. Scholars from far and wide visited this peaceful sanctuary to learn about Buddhism. With the emergence of Islam in India, the glory of Sanchi eventually dwindled and the Stupas were almost forgotten and abandoned. The place was overgrown with vegetation and fell to ruin for centuries. It was only much later in the 18th century, under the British rule that the forgotten glory of Sanchi was rediscovered and archaeological restoration took place.
The drive to Ujjain from Bhopal takes around three hours. The first thing that hits you as you enter this bustling town is the crowds, and the numerous shops, hotels, and visitor centres focused entirely on pilgrims to the Mahakaleshwar temple. As our driver Jitu pointed out, the economy of Ujjain is based entirely on Lord Shiva.
The Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga temple is the focal point of this ancient city and Mahakal, as Lord Shiva is known here, is not only the guardian of this holy city but also regarded its divine ruler. The temple is believed to be one of the 12 sacred abodes of Lord Shiva. Many myths and legends surround the origin of this temple. The most popular one I heard from Jitu involved the killing of a demon named Dushana by Shiva who appeared in the form of light and took the form of the linga (hence the term Jyotirlinga), in response to the prayers of the people of ancient Avanti, as Ujjain was called then.
The approach street to the massive temple complex on all sides is lined with countless little shops selling prayer items, flowers, and sacred offerings for worship. I was lucky enough to see an elephant walking down the tiny street raising its trunk to bless passers-by who offered money/bananas. The main temple is a three-tiered structure and houses the main deity, Mahakal, at the lowest level. A live broadcast of the prayers and worship in the sanctum is beamed on a digital screen at the entrance to the temple complex.
The temple is known for its unique Bhasma Arti, a special prayer ritual performed with sacred ash. This is conducted at 4 a.m and people apparently queue up from 2 a.m. to witness it. We weren’t that adventurous and got there around 10.30 a.m. The lines to enter the temple snake around the complex and spill out into the street. But if you are willing to fork out the VIP ticket price (INR 151), you get to skip the lines and go through a special entrance. You are not allowed to carry anything inside the temple —no cell phones, wallets or umbrellas!. A free locker service is provided in the outer area of the temple complex to store your belongings, which turned out to be convenient.
While the VIP entrance allows you to skip the main lines outside, once you enter the shrine area where the main puja is taking place, the regular line merges with the VIP line. Once we got in there, I realised how long I have been away from India and how much of a ‘douchebag NRI’ I had turned into. The jostling crowds fighting for prime viewing spot, the somewhat rude admonishing by the temple staff asking people to move along quickly, and the noise and chaos was too overwhelming for my city-bred senses. Any feelings of divinity evaporated quickly as I found myself being pushed and pulled in an increasingly unruly crowd. That coupled with every priest within the temple complex demanding an ‘offering' to anoint your forehead with the sacred sandalwood paste made this a somewhat lukewarm experience for me.
Apart from the main Mahakal shrine, there are many smaller shrines that line the outer corridors of the temple. There are supposed to be 84 Mahadev shrines in Ujjain, many of which are within this temple. What I did enjoy are the harmonious and sometimes spontaneous cries of Har Har Mahadev from devotees waiting patiently for their turn, unaffected by the chaos, focused on their goal only to get a glimpse of the Shivaling in all its glory. I clearly have a long way to go before achieving that level of enlightenment!
The experience combined the historical with the hysterical, with myths of Mahakal surrounding me as I moved further back in history to caves that too me back to ancient times. That would be another story.