Yesterday was one of those days when I did nothing useful. Most of the day was wasted travelling, waiting for bus or train. In fact, I should have stayed at Lalitpur instead of staying at Chanderi. That would have enabled me to catch an early train from Lalitpur to Vidisha. Instead, I had to wait an hour at Chanderi for the bus to Lalitpur. It was a crowded bus and I had to stand all the way to Lalitpur.
The scheduled arrival of Punjab Mail did not happen and the delay was more than I could bear. The train was late by 90 minutes. Chattisgarh Express was an alternative but even this was late by 30 minutes. With such delays you can well imagine the crowd-pushing and elbow-shoving situation in the General Section of the train.
While waiting for the train, I did manage to get some writing done. I wrote about five pages of travel notes. The guy sitting next to me commented, ‘You think so much.’ He pointed to my notes and asked, ‘Don’t you get headaches?’ He was apparently an uneducated villager.
So I arrived at Vidisha last evening past sunset. I had to squeeze all the sights of town today and with this mission I made an early start. My first stop was Bija Mandal.
This is a ruined mosque which was used by local residents of the area till 1975. A replacement mosque has been constructed for them and since then this is a national monument under the maintenance of the ASI. Only some years ago a lot of excavation has been done here. The caretaker of the place explained that about 12 feet of soil has been dug up from around the mosque revealing base mouldings of the enormous plinth on which it stands.
The site opens for visitors only at 9 am but I was there at 7 am. There are two gates to the site. I was at the wrong one. I asked the caretaker directions to the other gate. After some thought he decided to open this gate for me.
‘This is for VIPs only. We normally don’t open it. You have come from far,’ he said in my favour. Telling people that I have come all the way from Bangalore always helps. It almost gives you VIP status.
The mosque was originally a temple. When Vidisha came under Islam, the pillars of the old temple was used to build the prayer hall of the mosque. The pillars, and the rest of the mosque, do not contain any animal or human figures as can be expected in a mosque. However, miniature keerti mukhas can still be seen, the remnants of the temple.
From the old temple, a lot of the sculptures have been excavated and loosely arranged about the mosque grounds. There are superb keerti mukhas and depictions of deities. Some of these fragments suggest large arched gateways at the entrance to the temple.
There is also a stepwell here. I have generally seen or known of rectangular wells. This one is a circular well which is reached by a long flight of stairs with many landings. The caretaker, who does the night shift, says that the well never dries. It is supposedly fed by a perennial subsoil stream. At water’s level, the steps descend some 20 feet. There are further steps submerged right to the well shaft. Two pillars at the entrance to the well contain scenes from Krisha Leela. Stepwells are truly remarkable and unique to India. I have seen nothing like them in other countries I have visited.
From here I took directions and walked a long way in search of Kham Baba, a monument of a curious name. It is also called by the name Hellidorus Pillar, erected in 2nd century BC. Hellidorus was a Greek ambassador to India who converted to Vishnu worship. The pillar was erected in this honour. This is wahat the locals say. They do not know if if Hellidorus paid for the pillar or was it a gift from the Indians in his memory.
It is a simple pillar, smaller than an Ashokan pillar, but similar in design. It is of slender proportion with a bell capital and twisted rope motif for the torus. There are friezes around the pillar. I could not admire them in detail as the gate was closed. It was time to open the monument for visitors but the guard was nowhere to be found. I was tempted to jump the gate but I was acutely aware of the villagers living opposite the monument eyeing me suspiciously.
From this pillar, the caves of Udaygiri are about 4 kms. There is no public transport and shared auto-rickshaws are rare. I walked part of the way and then I got a ride on a two-wheeler. On the return, it was by chance that I got a richshaw going back to town after dropping someone off.
The caves are actually rock-cut monastic cells from the Gupta Period. I don’t know the exact history, whether they wer used by Jains or Buddhists. In any case, they were later converted into Hindu shrines. There are two noteworthy images:
- One of Anantashayana has been defaced. The coils of the snake are plan without decoration. I think the one at Undavalli Caves are much better.
- The immense statue of Varaha and the entourage of deities that fill the scene in sky and ocean is wonderful. Again, the face of Varaha is defaced and only because of this I liked the one at Badami Caves better. The entire rock face is taken up by this scene. The waves of the ocean are wonderfully done
One of the most recurring motifs in Indian temples and even in mosques is the kumbha or pot. Such a pot is usually found at the base of pillars, on pillar capitals, wall friezes or pilasters. The kumbha overflows with floral motifs or stylized curves that suggest a pot overflowing with water or nectar. It is symbolic of life and abundance as all life comes from water. Such overflowing kumbha motifs are to be found in one particular cave. Except for the Varaha scene, I was not impressed much with the caves.
Vidisha is only 10 kms from Sanchi. Had I known this earlier I waould stayed at Sanchi. The map I had is not accurate in representing short distances. I had a similar problem between Warangal and Kazipet. The reason Vidisha is not a place to stay is that accommodation options are limited. I enquired at one dharamshala. These days the building is used for weddings. The other problem was getting clean food. After an hour of walking, I could not locate a single decent restaurant last night. I could even get a loaf of bread. I had to resort to my good old corn flakes and muesli just as I had done at Chanderi.
But now I am in Sanchi and both accommodation and food are better.