India is rich in fairy tales except that we do not call them so because there are no fairies in Indian literary tradition. We call them folk tales. Many are regional. Some have a national reach. Many have religious morals while others are secular. Some have a historical context while others are fantastical. One of such tales familiar to me from my childhood is the story of Vikram and Beatal. While these tales are most likely a creation of a wonderfully imaginative writer or the product of cumulative vocal traditions of village India, there is little doubt that most people associate Vikram with King Vikramaditya of Ujjain of the Gupta Dynasty. So I have come to Ujjain with this association of a folk tale.
‘Bangalore is a wonderful city. Clean and beautiful,’ someone said to me while I was on my way to visit Ujjain’s ISKCON temple. Clearly he has not visited Bangalore for some years. As a traveller I have learnt over time an important rule – if you have had a great experience in a place, perhaps it is best not to visit it again. In the same spirit, I did not feel compelled to correct the good opinion this man had for Bangalore.
‘On the other hand, Ujjain is a religious place. Nothing more,’ he continued.
Indeed, Ujjain has lots of temples. At every street and corner I found either minor temples or detached shrines lined against busy roads. These temples, though some may be very old, had no remarkable art or architecture. Even the look of them did not inspire a study. New walls and shikaras stand where old ones might have fallen.
The visit to ISKCON temple yesterday was worth it. It is a popular temple and on this Sunday it was crowded with devotees. Bhajans are sung by volunteers. Prasadam is offered at a price. Books are on sale. A restaurant run by the temple is apparently doing good business.
The temple consists of an entry porch leading to the main hall. From here you can get darshan of all three shrines framed by cusped arch in each case. The hall is surrounded by a pillared corridor simply decorated with pillars of the usual lotus motifs and capitals giving way to cusped arches. The lightness and beauty of the temple comes from the use of marble throughout. Wooden canopies sometimes gilded in golden colours set off the marble beautifully.
This afternoon I stopped at the Mahakaleshwar Temple, one of the 12 Jyotirlingas of India.
‘Only five rupees,’ offered a girl following me with a packet of milk. I shook my head.
‘Are you going to the temple?’ questioned another woman seeing my hands empty without offerings. I moved on.
‘Keep you shoes and buy some flowers,’ shouted a vendor at no one in particular.
There is a free shoe stand at the entrance. I deposited my shoes and walked along many rows of empty iron railings. Clearly this was for Maha Shivaratri and other busy days. When I got to the end of the railings I was stopped by the temple security. The man with the big moustache, half caved into his plastic chair, brushed his hand against the smooth metal of his silent gun.
‘What’s in the bag?, he asked brusquely.
I offered him the plastic bag. He shuffled through it for a few seconds. He could see my cap, my books and pencil box. He couldn’t make sense of small plastic wraps containing tablets, pencil sharpeners, a biscuit packet and a collapsible water bottle.
‘You cannot take these inside. Put them in the cloak room,’ he said. He would not listen when I told them that these are only books.
The cloak room has a number of metal lockers. ‘Do you have a lock?’ I was asked.
‘Don’t you give locks?’
‘No. You can buy a lock and come back,’ he pointed vaguely in the direction of the market outside the temple. All I did was to look at the temple shikara from a distance, collected my shoes and got into a shared tempo. This is the closest I came to visiting a temple in this great city of temples. Frankly, I had expected much more of Ujjain, something in the spirit of Kanchipuram; but it did not even come close.
Getting around Ujjain is as easy as it is in Bhopal. In Bhopal I was told of an ugly looking vehicle similar to a pig in profile. These have been replaced by Tata Magic vehicles but in Ujjain such “pigs” are still in operation. These vehicles have a chasis some 3 feet above ground level. Both the engine and the diesel tank are in the front and covered by a triangular hood that gives it that distinctive look. This noisy vehicle, almost without any suspension, moves slowly on Ujjain crowded roads. The gear change handle is attached to the dashboard!
The singular attraction for me in my entire stay at Ujjain was a visit to the Jiwaji Observatory, locally known as Jantar Mantar. Instruments made of stone, mortar and metal are able to tell the time of the day, the day of the year and the declination of celestial objects. There is an instrument similar to the medieval sextant. Another instrument is a sun dial but also tells if a celestial object is in the Southern or the Northern skies. While time of day is local Ujjain time, a correction chart is added to derive IST from it. Markings etched in black on the curving marble surface are able to tell time to the resolution of 20 seconds! While the real use of these structures are astronomical (sorry for the pun!), they are architecturally beauty on their own. In fact, they come as a nice relief from the temples and palaces I have been seeing.