When I arrive at Vapi bus station I can immediately see that I am in luck. There is a red bus bound for Nashik parked at the entrance. People are standing beside it. The bus conductor is standing at the door with an uneasy stare.
‘When is this bus leaving?’ I ask someone.
‘It’s almost time,’ he replies. ‘They are waiting for a bus bay,’ he points to the bus conductor and the driver.
I begin to understand the situation. This is a Maharashtrian bus in a Gujarati bus station. This is why the bus is parked at the entrance. The station controller does not want Gujarati buses to be put out of schedule and it appears that Maharashtrian buses do not have a reserved bus bay.
‘There are some staff problems,’ adds the same man.
After a few minutes, the driver makes his move. He moves the bus to an empty bay. Passengers start boarding. I settle into my seat. The bus leaves soon after. Just then I notice that there is also a Gujarati bus leaving Nashik at exactly the same time. The two buses will be road companions all the way to Nashik, one racing to outpace the other.
Nothing out of the ordinary happens on the road to Nashik. The journey is slow. Having been used to fast buses and good roads in Gujarat, I have to re-evaluate my expectations and calculations of journey times. It is now more like Karnataka with buses needling 40 kmph on average and less on worse roads. The service is still good and certainly better than in Orissa.
The journey from Vapi to Nashik is memorable. The landscape is rural and wonderfully scenic. The scenes are not on the same league of Himachali valleys or Himalayan peaks. This however does not make the landscapes any less beautiful. The slopes are gentle. The hills are rolling from one smooth peak to another. Green grass weave the unpolished beauty of cultivated farms. Moving shadows of floating clouds soften the valleys and deepen the shades where the hills fold. Terraced fields on the contoured hills move in unison as the bus climbs round and about the curves. At a village en route I witness a family building a hut. The wooden supports and canes are in place. Mud plaster is being applied. A woman is mixing the plaster outside with steady stamps of her feet. The framework of the roof is taking shape. How often do you see the building of a hut! It is in this lightened mood that I arrive into Nashik.
Just when I have become comfortable with Gujarati script by practice, I am now leaving Gujarat behind and entering the land of Shiv Sena and Marathi. For the traveller in India, there is no familiarity for long. India’s diversity ensures that. Thankfully, Marathi script is almost the same as Hindi but the language is very different. I can read it easily but making sense of it is not quite as easy.
Strange even to myself I get off the bus before reaching the bus station. I am at a circle next to Dwarka Hotel. I have just spotted a few budget hotels and I walk towards them to try my luck. The first one is full. The second one I check out has a room for Rs. 250 for the night. It is clean, spacious and comfortable. I take it.
Ramkund is a famous tank in Nashik, where it is believed that Rama and Sita bathed during their exile. Historians tell us that the tank was built in the 17th century. Legend would have prompted me to make a visit to Ramkund but history has scuttled the effort. I do nothing else for the rest of the evening but watch television.
This morning I check out from the hotel early and head straight to Panduleni Caves. Apparently, not just Rama but even the Pandavas of Mahabharata were at Nashik. Historians will make no mention of the Pandavas but legends have a stronger effect on common minds; and the name sticks. There is a stone path that leads up to the entrance of the caves which are carved out on the Northern side of a rocky hill. I pass quite a few morning joggers who climb up to the caves as a way of exercise, then climb down to the parking lot and drive off in their cars.
There are 24 caves, conveniently numbered by the ASI from the west to the east. I pay the entry fee of five rupees just as the counter is opening up. I am the first tourist for the day. These are Buddhist caves from the 2nd century AD with the exception of the stunning chaitya hall of 1st century BC. The chaitya hall has a wonderful facade of semi-circular arches that curve up to elegant rounded points. In this shape it encloses the lintel above the doorway; it covers the rocky facade in a line of such reliefs; it crowns the cave’s entrance while at the same time letting in light and air. The weather-worn rocks that surround the facade tell of their former form. Today it feels as if one is entering a palace and much less a cave. But of course, it is not a palace built from the ground up but a rock-cut cave of great simplicity.
The exquisite facade does not prepare the visitor for the simplicity of the chaitya hall within. It is in the typical plan of an apse surrounded by pillars that support the smooth apsidal roof. At the far end is a votive stupa, the dome standing on a cylindral drum. The stupa is topped with a stack of square slabs, each one bigger than the one below it. The pillars are octogonal and rise from the mouth of sculpted stone vases that stand on small plinths. Rock-cut architecture is simply marvellous. What we see as porches, pillars, steps and stupas are simply the outcome of what’s been removed: rocks chiselled out of the hill with plain primitive hand tools.
The other caves have elaborate sculptures filling carved out niches in the walls. Most are images of the Buddha in a seated posture in dharmachakra pravartana mudra. The Buddha is seated on a lotus pedestal, flanked by garland bearers and fly whisk bearers who also hold lotus stalks. A halo in stone surrounds the Buddha’s head. Most of these caves are viharas with cells for monks. The bigger ones contain a central hall entered from a pillared porch. These pillars are octogonal, with Protome capitals supporting an entablature filled with freizes. Looking at eroded reliefs at ground level, the entire cave appears to be supported by dwarfs bearing beams on their little shoulders. A couple of carved pilasters in the porch of Cave 10 have beautiful lotus medallions. The capitals contain superb work of elephants, bulls, lions and their riders in flowing garments and turbans.
I pick a spot outside the chaitya hall and begin a sketch of the facade. The place gets busy. A large group of Buddhist pilgrims arrive and they are led by a guide. There is a subtle difference between a pilgrim and a religious tourist. I see that the group is a mixed one. Some take pictures of the caves while others are busy chanting Buddhist mantras. Some are listening to the guide while others are in their own thoughts. I include one of the women in my sketch for scale. The group leaves me alone to my task and all is silent. Students skiving from their classes come and go. Lovers come and go. A pair of girls enter one of the caves while their boyfriends wait outside. The girls come out having changed into their school uniforms.
I finish the sketch and head back to foot of the hill. It is past noon and I decide to have lunch. There is a stall here that seems to be run by an Andhra couple. I order rotis and sabji.
‘It will take fifteen minutes,’ the woman says. Nothing happens for ten minutes. Then she tells her companion, an old woman who is almost blind, to go inside and peel some onions.
‘This is going to take time,’ I think silently. I am wondering if I should to cancel the order but the onions have been peeled. It’s going to be a long day and I am hungry.
Lunch arrives in another half an hour. After lunch I head to the park. I don’t know what’s it called but there is a Buddhist meditation hall. There is a large Buddha gilded in gold in one corner of this circular hall. I walk through the park looking for the Coin Museum. Someone has told me that the museum is within the grounds of this park. Instead I find an exhibition dedicated to Dada Saheb Palke, the father of Indian film industry. I look at the evolution of Indian movies over the decades through posters and photographs. I am inspired to catch Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian movie ever made. Apparently, Dada Saheb Palke remade the same movie.
I then find a sculptural gallery but it does not interest me. ‘Where is the coin museum?’ I ask the guard.
‘The coin museum is closed temporarily,’ he says.
‘Not the coins here. I am looking for a museum dedicated to only coins. They say it is only one of its kind in whole of Asia,’ I clarify.
He mulls over what I have said and shakes his head. ‘I don’t know any other coin museum,’ he says to my disappointment. I had tried to find out about this museum at my hotel this morning. The manager had no clue.
I bring out my notes and look for clues. ‘Okay, it says here that it is close to Ajneri Hills,’ I tell the guard.
‘Ah! There is a museum there. That is far from here.’
I am relieved. Finally something but getting there is not quite straight forward. Firstly, it is not in Nashik as I had assumed. It is on the road to Trivambakeshwar, a town with a tongue-twisting name. Apparently there is a Jyotirlinga in this town but I am more entralled by the sound of the word – Tri-vam-ba-keshwar.
The guard is not sure how exactly to get to the museum. He consults another man. The woman who is sweeping the gallery comes out with her broom and joins in. They converse in Marathi. So there you have it – three country folks figuring out how I can get to a coin museum. They appear to reach a consensus and tell me the best route, ‘Walk to Garware Point by the highway. From there you can get an auto-rickshaw to Satpura where you can change to a bus to Trivambakeshwar. The museum is along the main road before you get to Trivambakeshwar.’
An hour’s journey of walking, riding on two shared auto-rickshaws and a jeep brings me to the museum. The Ajneri hills stand stretched in the background. The road that brought me here stretches on both sides. Farms and fields are all around. In this unlikely place, this single building stands with the words,
Money Museum & K.G. Maheshwari Photo Art Gallery
I find an old man arranging postcards into envelopes. On the table are replicas of copper and silver coins pinned to cardboards. I buy a ticket. I am asked to leave my backpack at the door. I am glad to dump the weight and relieve my shoulders for a while. I take out my sketchbook and related stuff.
‘What is that?’ checks the man. I show him what I have.
‘No. That is not allowed,’ he says.
‘I understand that photography is not allowed but surely I can sketch,’ I tell him. I show him some of the sketches I have done hoping that this may help my cause.
He is unsure. ‘Follow me,’ he says and takes me to the next building to meet the manager. I meet him and explain.
‘Fine. You can make your sketches. You can also take a few photographs but you are not allowed to photograph every panel’ he tells me and reiterates the same with the attendant.
I thank him.
‘Now you can do what you want. Manager has given permission,’ says the old attendant as I walk back to the museum entrance.
This is more than a museum. It also houses the Indian Institute of Numismatic Studies. Coins are displayed from various periods. Coinage began about 2500 years ago. First coins had no inscriptions. Symbols on them were punchmarked and drawn from nature. At a later point the custom of adding inscriptions started, generally the name or figure of the emperor who issued the coins. The coming of Islam brought changes with the inclusion of Arabic scripts. The earliest gold coins had their counterfeits as well. These counterfeits were made of cheap metals but coated with gold and passed off as solid golid coins. Understanding or tracing history from the analysis of coins is a specialization in itself. In the end I don’t make any sketches but take a couple of pictures. I buy a set of postcards with pictures of old coins.
I return to the road and wait for a bus to Nashik. I am not tempted to head down to Trivambakeshwar for a darshan of the jyotirlinga. I think I will move on to Shirdi instead.