Kalyani Majumdar retraces the past that has a timeline stretching from the prehistoric to the medieval period in India
How would you like to see rocks with prehistoric paintings? Or take a circumambulation of an ancient stupa? Or admire a magnificent yet mysteriously unfinished temple? If this gives the wanderlust in you a nudge, then read on. Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh is surrounded by archaeological gems that can kindle an interest in history just about in anyone.
These rocks have stories to tell: Bhimbetka
From Bhopal if you travel 45 Km southeast you will find the earliest traces of human life on the Indian subcontinent. To an untrained eye what might look like a terrain with huge rock boulders amidst vegetation is actually the rock shelters dating back to the Palaeolithic age. Bhimbetka is a haven for a traveller with its rich archaeological evidences that depicts human evolution.
The site has found tools from Palaeolithic age such as borers and burins. However, it is the cave paintings dating back to roughly 15,000 years ago belonging to the Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic Age that are the primary attraction of these rock shelters. Legend has it that when Pandavas were banished from their kingdom the five brothers had taken refuge in these caves. Bhimbetka was an accidental discovery by an archaeologist, Dr V Walankarin 1957. The paintings are hauntingly beautiful.
The best time to visit these caves is when there is ample natural light as it makes it easier to see the paintings. Made with natural colour pigments the paintings are mostly in red and white, with the occasional use of green and yellow depicting hunting, dancing, animal fights and also figures of animals such as bison, tiger, wild boar, elephants and monkeys. One often wonders how the paintings made thousands of years ago has not faded even after years of erosion.
The unfinished business: Bhojpur
After tracing the human evolution in Bhimbetka on your way back to Bhopal there lies a heritage site that is definitely worth visiting. With the Betwa River on one side and vast open space with negligible human intervention stands a magnificent temple in its massive solidity. This is the Bhojeshwar temple in Bhojpur. It was built by King Bhoj of the Paramara dynasty who ruled in the 11th century and is dedicated to Shiva. Just 28 Km southeast from Bhopal this temple is unique.
The first thing that strikes you is the way it was left incomplete. The ramp on the Eastern side of the temple still stands, giving us a fair idea of how the stones were transported to the built site. Few panels with gods and goddesses still remain on the platform perhaps waiting to be placed on the temple walls. Building materials are found scattered around the site.
Not very far from the temple there are flat stone-surfaces on which there are stencil engravings of the layout, elevation, site plan of the temple. All these elements add a mysterious aura to this temple. What could have been the reason for the temple to be left unfinished? The doorway of the temple has beautiful carvings. The lingam in the sanctum is of a height of 7.5 feet with a circumference of 17.8 feet. The temple is also known as the Somnath of the east because of its exquisite architecture. There are also remains of a cyclopean dam that was destroyed by Hoshang Shah in the 15th century that apparently brought an adverse climatic change in the Malwa region. Looking at the mammoth structure one could imagine how beautiful this temple might have been had it been completed.
Here lies the relics of Buddha: Sanchi
A 46 Km ride from Bhopal on the northeastern direction is the Sanchi Stupa that was built in the third century BC by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. It was one of the eight stupas that he built and came to be known as the Great Stupa and contains a part of the relics of Buddha. Although what you see today is not the original one, as the stupa built by Ashoka was made of burnt bricks and mud and was enclosed by a wooden railing and a stone umbrella at the top. The original stupa is encased inside the present Stupa.
During the later period of the Sunga Empire (2nd to 1st Century BC) the Sanchi Stupa was repaired and enlarged. The dome was flattened on the top and was fitted with three superimposed parasols and was decorated with balustrade. A circumambulation path was created on the lower part of the dome that is accessible through a staircase. A railing encircles the Stupa that has four embellished gateways (toranas) oriented according to the four cardinal directions.
These gateways were perhaps carved during the Satavahana Empire. These toranas elaborately depicts scenes from the life of the Buddha and stories described in the Jataka tales. From the 14th to 18th century this area was completely deserted. In 1818 General Taylor saw the ruins of Sanchi, but it was only between 1912 and 1919 that the Sanchi stupa was restored properly under the supervision of Sir John Marshall. The Sanchi museum nearby houses the remains of other monuments and artefacts that were excavated in and around Sanchi, and should not be missed.
After the end of this excursion it is impossible not to be in awe of the human endeavours that one witnesses at the three sites. It is also worth observing that throughout the history of humankind we have consistently found expressions through the arts and architecture.
Best time to visit: November to March
Duration: Two days
Things to carry: Camera, torch, comfortable shoes with good grip, and water bottle
(Photo Credit: Kalyani Majumdar)