I meandered from New Delhi to Pune last week by rail and road, stopping along the way at the old Buddhist site of Sanchi, the Hindu pilgrimage town of Omkareshwar on the Narmada, and the Melghat forest. For the last couple of years, I have been researching an old travelogue-cum-memoir from the nineteenth century that wanders around a lot of places in central India. By now it has seeped in so deeply into my consciousness that I had a hard time sticking to my own itinerary. The guy I’m writing about had three years in which to muck about, though, and I had but a week, so I didn’t feel so bad.
I’ve written before about the Orientalist traps that lurk all around whenever I travel to places that I encounter regularly in my work or in books I’ve read, and I am very impatient with the desire to reach into a pristine past or the temptation to take ‘authentic’ pictures, or worse, picturesque ones of dunes or ghats or spice mounds in crowded markets. For all that, I was still surprised when I went to Sanchi.
I knew about the extensive restorations in the last century of this nearly-2000 year old Buddhist stupa, and its deep imbrication with the very evolution of Indian archaeology and art history in the 19th century. My first reaction was – whoa, it’s really held up well all these years! To be sure, individual pieces of intricate carving have, and stunningly so. But when I pored over all the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of the heavy restoration to the main edifice in the museum, I felt strangely disappointed.
None of this makes sense, of course – not this sense of satisfaction at an imagined authenticity, nor even this idea of ‘restoration’ to an ‘original’ structure. South Asian history is full of colonial efforts to ‘restore’ its history and culture that were blundering at best and disastrous at worst, with ill-effects that are still all around us. Still, I wonder if the heavily overgrown, grimy stupa would have drawn me the same way that this utterly magnificent piece of scuplture and its serene, beautifully organised grounds did. But then, the entire tourist/nationalist/historicist frame through which the serenity of Sanchi has been produced and which surely influenced me, wouldn’t have existed. The same with the contemporaneous Heliodorus pillar in nearby Vidisha, with its inscription to the deity Vasudev by an Indo-Greek nobleman devotee: it wouldn’t have been resurrected for proper historical consumption by middle-class Indians or global tourists, but would have continued to be worshipped by the local fishermen as a pole-god, kham-baba. Truth be told, I felt silly photographing it, but then I couldn’t *not* photograph it either. I mean, there I was, in front of Heliodorus’s pillar!
At Omkareshwar, which is the site of one of the twelve Jyotirlinga shiva temples and therefore a hallowed stop on many pilgrimage routes, it’s easy to forget everything else – the river Narmada is bewitching, and makes you forget all the hustling priests and the bustling devotees.
The only thing that looms large and dwarfs any other geography is the big-assed, ugly dam right near the Omkareshwar island. I suppose it’s only fitting – India’s ancient and modern temples, cheek by jowl.
I also ate a local delicacy called Dal-Baafle – a blob of greased wheat dough that is boiled, roasted and then dunked in some dal – that is heavily overrated and hard on the teeth, I thought. But I did have some egg curry with bhakri at a small shanty in the Melghat forest that probably ranks among my top five meals of all time. The ten kilometre hike in the forest that preceded it no doubt had something to do with it, but still.
Melghat was my first exposure to the Satpuda mountain range: neither as majestic as the Himalayas, nor as riotously dense as the Sahyadris closer to home, but gentle, quiet and rich in its own way. This forest, now a large tiger reserve, is a delicious mix of teak, bamboo, gum, spiders, bears and is bursting with birdlife.
More photos are here.
A wonderful way to wash off a rough semester, what?