Ancient neighbourhoods

The area around the Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram is full of shops, and some of them are open fairly late at night. I liked roaming these streets trying to take photos of people going about their lives. It is amazing to think that in the 7th century CE the Skanda Purana listed the temple and the Agni Teertham ghat nearby as holy places which one should go to. The island would have been a couple of kilometers out to sea. Getting here would not be as simple as it is today.

The temple of Rameswaram has grown in the last 14 centuries. I counted three layers of corridors around the central shiva linga. The outermost was created about three centuries ago. By the looks of the sculptures on the next corridor in, it must have been made about a millennium ago. Life around the temple would have been recognizably similar through these centuries. Shops would have sold flowers for pujas, others would have keepsakes. Electricity came in the last century or slightly more, before that there would have been oil lamps. The shops would have huddled as close to the temple as possible. It was interesting to walk here at night trying to imagine how the place could have looked a thousand years ago.

The kings of the South

When I plan to travel, some parts of southern India slip out of my mind. I recently remembered that Madurai is as old as Ujjain, Banaras, or Patna. This post is an attempt to get the outline of the chronology straight in my mind.

The statecraft of the Pandya, Chola and Chera kingdoms find mention in the 3rd century BCE treatise on administration and economics called Arthashastra. Ashoka’s edicts, from about this time, mention some of these kings. Trade routes linked the northern and southern kingdoms, and Ujjain, which lay on one of these routes, prospered as a result. This early period of Tamil culture was recorded in the literature of this, the Sangam, era. The literary tradition is believed to have continued until about the end of the 4th century CE. Madurai hosted some of these early meetings (called sangam) of poets, playwrights, and writers.

The next records come from the early period of Hindu revival in the 7th century CE. The shore temples of Mahabalipuram (featured photo) were built in the the early part of the 8th century CE by a Pallava king. There was a resurgence of the Pandyas of Madurai at this time. The conflict between the Pallavas and Pandyas presented an opportunity for the growth of the Chola empire. By the 11th century this empire extended all the way to South East Asia. The southern kingdoms were great sea traders, having links to the east as well as westwards to Africa and the Arabs. The earliest known travel guide, the Skanda Purana, from just before the start of this era, lists several sites in southern India as important points in grand religious tours of India. There are scattered remnants of the great architectural works of this time through the south of India, but most of the sites mentioned in the Skanda Purana were rebuilt later.

The medieval period was a time of warring kingdoms. The slow decline of the Cholas allowed smaller kingdoms to gain hold again. The rise and fall of these kingdoms was interrupted by outside events in the 13th century CE. During the Mongol era, the expansion of the Delhi Sultanate was contained within India. Iltutmish of Delhi held off the hordes of Genghis Khan to the west of the Indus, but also sent his forces as far south as Madurai, which his generals sacked in 1316 CE. This led to the formation of the Sultanate of Madurai, independent of Delhi, The subsequent centuries, with their mix of Hindu and Muslim kingdoms saw some of the best of the architecture that we can see today.

In the 17th century CE, the Maratha armies captured parts of Tamil Nadu, and were then displaced by the Mughals. In the power vacuum of the later Mughal period, local kings again held power. Many of the major temples of southern India were rebuilt or extended in the 17th and 18th centuries. After this European maritime powers captured large parts of southern India and launched operations into the rest of India from these bases.

The Lord of Time

Mahakaleshwar is the main temple of Ujjain, dedicated to Shiva in his aspect of the Lord of Time. The temple is mentioned in the Skanda Purana, which dates from the 7th century CE. A version of the temple was destroyed by Iltutmish, Sultan of Delhi, when he sacked Ujjain in 1235 CE. The present structure was built in 1736 CE by the Maratha chief Ranoji Shinde. It is one of the few jyotirlingas in which photography is forbidden. I was disappointed, because a few months before I’d taken photos of the beautiful Paramara era sculptures in the nearby jyotirlinga of Omkareshwar.

The Family and I had a tea in the surprisingly quiet interior of a restaurant on the bustling street in front of the temple. “Do you mind if I get my camera?” I asked her. She said, “It’s a busy little street. Lots of photos to be taken.” We walked back to the parking lot and got my camera.

The street food looked good. As I took a few photos, a courteous middle-aged gentleman came up to me and opened conversation. “The poha that Indore claims is actually from Ujjain,” he told me; “Try it here and compare.” I promised to do that. He was a fount of information about small local things. He asked me whether I needed a guide. I declined, and he continued the conversation. My opinion of Ujjain went up after talking to him. This was a wonderfully civilized way to offer a guide’s services.

The conversation showed me how the lords of time must laugh at us. The poha was Ujjain’s, now it is Indore’s. We eat food which we think is traditional, and will last for ever, without noticing how fast it changes. An Oxford Don writing a story notionally set in a fictional early European universe constructed fictitious languages and a cosmic mythology with great scholarship, but had his characters eat “taters” and tomatoes, and smoke tobacco. None of these could have been seen in Europe before the end of the 15th century CE. We really pay little attention to food and its history.

I stood in this highly commercial street. The surroundings of any temple is like this. I loved the invisibility that I got from being an obvious non-buyer. As a result, I could see many little dramas play out around me. I hope you like the small gallery of photos here. As always, you can click on any one of the

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.”