Ever since I left my job and took to the road, I have become suddenly attractive. I seem to be attracting only two kinds of people – touts and guides. Of the former, they are ubiquitous. Of the latter, they are self-taught opportunists. I arrived at Vijayawada by a fast train from Nellore this morning. When you step out of the train station, there is a little pause and scrutiny on the part of touts. Once you betray a certain unfamiliarity to the place, show a little hesitation about which way to turn, immediately you will be hounded by these touts offering accommodation, rickshaw rides and restaurants. Haggling for price will only make things worse if you don’t know where to start or what to expect. I was hassled in this manner. I had no map of Vijayawada. I have had previous experiences in which I was taken to sub-standard hotels. So I did the best thing possible. I ignored them all. I started walking, apparently in the wrong direction as I later found out.
When I reached the bus station, I had many options. My mind was buzz with history, prehistory and nuances of Amaravati School of Art. While engaged in this manner, suddenly I was hit by a wave of reality – I have to wash my clothes. I have been on the road for four days now and I am running out of clean clothes. Postponing Amaravati for later, I checked into a nearby hotel, an expensive one but conveniently close to the bus station. I washed my clothes, got some rest, postponed lunch for later and proceeded to Amaravati.
Amaravati turned out to be a long way and it took me more than an hour and half by bus. The distance is not great by the winding country roads and dotted villages have a way of slowing things down. I asked the bus conductor to drop me off at the museum. “It’s opposite the bus station”, he pointed out. Conveniently misleading, for I later found out that there are in fact two museums at Amaravati and I had no plan to visit the one opposite the bus station. The better museum is from ASI, a central government agency. The museum I first visited is maintained by the state government. This is unnecessary repetition, particularly when there is no much differentiation between the two. Governments want to do something and it’s easier to copy than invent.
Amaravati is one of the greatest sites of Indian art and history from the time of 2nd century BC. I had been naive to expect the ruins standing in their places. There is a reconstructed stupa in brick in place of what would have once been a glorious Buddhist monument. It is of massive proportions. Parts of it have been assembled in the ASI museum to give visitors a sense of scale. While the stupa is still worth a visit, you have to imagine the surroundings going back many centuries. Ten women were found weeding the grounds of the stupa. Their hand sickles cut the grass in repetitive motions. Their hands plucked the grass which snapped pliantly. You have to only replace this scene with the sound of chisels and hammers.
This massive stupa was built and expanded over many centuries. The dome was covered with friezes. The drum was covered with friezes as well. The stone railing with posts and crossbars were chiseled with huge lotuses and roundels with scenes from the life of the Buddha. The Buddha was never represented in early sculptures. Buddha came to be worshipped only about 2nd century AD. Until then, a stupa, an empty throne, a riderless horse, the lotus feet of the Buddha, a Bodhi tree had all been symbols of worship. There was so much art at Amaravati that the workshops produced and exported their creations to other parts of Asia. Rightly, today the particular style is defined as the Amaravati School of Art.
While this is exciting from the point of art, it somewhat dampens Buddha’s message which was more about meditation than about rituals or artistic excellence. I guess common people needed something that was easier, stories that make a point, like the parables of Christianity or the Upanishads of Hinduism.
There is much more that I could write for the day but time is at a premium when I am on the road. I need some rest before I make an early start tomorrow. I will only say that the food at the ‘state’ museum was appalling. He had only two or three choices. I ordered vegetarian fried rice. What arrived was rice with shreds of carrot and nothing else. It came with a gravy that was clearly chicken gravy with the pieces removed.