Planning a visit to an ancient republic

I thought we could make a brief day trip out of Indore to Ujjain. It is one of the ancient Indian cities, along with Mathura, Banaras, and Patna. There are chalcolithic remains being excavated nearby, and there is no reason why during this period there could not have been a polity which eventually came to be known to history as the city of Ujjain. The earliest mention of Ujjain which I could dig up was purportedly from the 7th century BCE, before the time of the Buddha. That period of Indian history was a time of republics- janapadas. One can read brief descriptions of the form of government they followed in Kautilya’s manual of statecraft: Arthashastra. Some of the formal structures of the republics even made their way into the organization of the early Buddhist assemblies, sanghas. In any case, the walled city of Ujjain was then the capital of the Vidisha janapada, on a major trade route from Mathura southwards, and later was famous for one of the first Buddhist stupas. Nothing of this survives.

The Family asked, “What is there to see?” A little search told me that there was an archaeological dig of a stupa reputed to have been built by Ashoka’s wife, Devi, in the 3rd century BCE. This was the very same Ashoka who later built the largest pre-Mughal empire in India and whose sons and daughter left Ujjain to spread Buddhism across Asia. Ujjain’s appearance in the classical Sanskrit poems and plays of the 5th century CE, the Gupta period, would hardly have left any trace on the ground. They would impose a lens of romanticism on our view of the river Sipra (photo above) which flows through the city.

Perhaps a visit to Ujjain would be similar to a walk through Banaras. The city’s history would be hidden by the constant rebuilding of ancient temples, first mentioned in the Skanda Purana, written in the 7th century CE. Only a mindful archaeologist would be able to guide us through the temples rebuilt in the 18th century CE and point out the tiny signs by which you could tell that the site was continually occupied for over a millennium. Everything we see will be old, buildings and customs (featured photo), but nothing but the stories and the river would be three millennia old. So, to The Family’s question I replied “We will probably not have time to visit the archaeological digs. So maybe the only things we will see are medieval mosques and tombs, and the temples renovated by the Marathas.”

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

3 thoughts on “Planning a visit to an ancient republic”

  1. True, you can’t see it, but Ujjain was the first prime meridian for India. Reason enough to stand in the city centre, our first postulated centre of the earth. 🙂

    Like

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