I first saw the Malwa plateau in a monsoon eight years ago. Even in that flat leaden light, the area looked beautiful. In the lush green meadows nurtured by two months of rain, trees were in bloom. I was then visiting medieval ruins: just the perfect time of the year if atmosphere is what you are interested in. Now, as we plan to go back to the area to visit much older places, I began to wonder what is the earliest reference to this area that I could find. The nearby temple town of Omkareshwar was certainly recorded in the 8th century CE. Ujjain is older, and temples there are recorded in the Skanda Purana, and so must be older than the 7th century CE.
But Ujjain was the capital of the Avanti republic during the lifetime of the Buddha, and is well recorded in the literature from that time, preserved by Buddhist monks. Nothing seems to remain of the mud ramparts of the city which were recorded in the 7th century BCE. Malwa enters into the larger history of the world through Ashoka, who was sent as governor by his father, the Maurya emperor Bimbisara, to Ujjain in the middle of the 3rd century BCE. There is extensive documentation of his marriage to Devi, a daughter of a merchant from nearby Vidisha, and the birth of his first two children, Mahendra and Sanghamitra, in Ujjain. The two children were emissaries who carried Buddhism to Sri Lanka, from where it spread eastwards to Myanmar and beyond.
There are records of a Buddhist stupa built in Ujjain soon after the death of Gautama, so sometime in the 6th century BCE. I can find no record of it today. The only mention I can find of stupas here is from a recent newspaper article discussing archaeological digs exploring Mauryan era remains in the nearby Vaishya Thekri. I wonder whether I will be able to visit that. If the dating is correct, then it is three centuries older than the stupas at Sanchi.
But humans have inhabited this land for longer. There are nearby digs which are beginning to yield objects from the Chalcolithic period, not older than the 10th century BCE. This begins to bridge the incredible gap between Avanti and the age of ancient dinosaurs and marine fossils. Interestingly, a fairly complete hominin skeleton was found under this dramatic landscape. The so-called “Narmada hominin” was long thought to be the remains of Homo erectus, but has begun to reignite debates about the evolution of Homo sapiens. There must be also be artifacts from much later prehistory buried in these hills.