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.”

Two and a half thousand years?

I was told that if I happened to be in Lake Inle or its neighbourhood, I should not miss the group of pagodas called Shwe Inn Thein in the village of Indein. We ran into a traffic jam on the canal as our boat approached the village. Many boats were trying to dock. We got off and took a walk through a bamboo forest to reach a covered walk. Our local guide, Ni Ni Leung, had told us about the many shops that line this walk, and warned us not to be distracted. This was good advice. When we reached the site with its hundreds of old brick stupas, we were stunned by the beauty that needs to be reclaimed from decay. Many stupas are in the condition that you see in the featured image.

Details on a pagoda in Shwe In Thein, at lake InleMost of the stupas date from the 16th and 17th centuries CE, I am told. However, the oldest which can be dated comes from the 14th century. The Shan kings founded a state which was roughly contemporary with the Bagan kingdom. It is said that Anawratha, the founding king of Bagan, erected a stupa in Shwe Inn Thein. Later I read that it is believed, by some, that the site hosted stupas from the time messenger monks from the Magadha empire, dispatched by the Indian emperor Ashoka, brought Buddhism to this area. Apocryphal stories of miracles and great antiquity often adhere to places which are old. So I don’t know whether this is true. However, in the spirit of that most wonderful of guide books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I choose to repeat the most colourful story about this site.

I saw much renovation going on: ancient stupas are being covered in undecorated plaster and painted gold. Ni Ni Leung told us more than once of the difference between renovation and restoration. When one sees the renovated golden stupas, one longs for thoughtful reconstruction. The decorations on the old stupas are exquisite, as you can see in the example above, and in the featured image. We saw only one which has been restored with any care. The present government of Myanmar is very culturally conscious. It is possible that it will invest in the education needed to make sure that this site receives the care that Bagan now gets. In any case, this is a sight that should not be missed if you are in the neighbourhood.