Travel

A journey through time

Vidisha is home to hidden historical treasures from centuries ago

A journey through time

For the Bhopal part of our recent trip to Madhya Pradesh, my wife and I had planned a day for the Northeast route of Sanchi-Udayagiri and another day for the Southeast route of Bhojpur-Bhimbetka. On our Northeast sojourn, after completing the exhilarating visit to Sanchi, we had planned to make a short visit to Vidisha after lunch. When I mentioned this to our taxi driver, he was perplexed, and told us there is nothing to see in Vidisha. Yet, we persisted.

Vidisha, although a district headquarters, is a small, dusty, nondescript town full of narrow alleys. The thali lunch at a small restaurant wasn’t great either, except for the rotis. The restaurant had booths with tacky curtains to hide behind. Clearly, its main customer base were young college students who couldn’t find private spaces in the town. The dramatic setting of the restaurant apart, Vidisha felt like a town you are only meant to pass through on your journey to greater sights. But this was not always true for Vidisha. This was an important city in ancient India and Emperor Ashoka’s first wife Devi, a merchant’s daughter, was born and raised in Vidisha.

Hence, while our driver cursed his way through the narrow lanes, I was trying to imagine the young Ashoka gallop through these lanes on one of his horses. During the time, Vidisha was known as Besnagar and was an important trade centre. The first place we wanted to visit was an ASI monument called Bijamandal. Google Maps was making us drive in circles, which was not helping our situation with the man at the wheel. I decided to stop and enquire with a gentleman. He smiled and said, “It is right here, about 100 metres up the road on the left.”

He was also kind enough to convince our driver that the car can easily go up to the entrance. The monument had an unusually large and sturdy gate.

As we entered, we caught the attention of the two ASI caretakers; we were the only visitors. The signage said that this site had a mosque built by Aurangzeb in the late 17th Century and the remains of a temple from the Parmar dynasty. The premises have a number of beautiful sculptures strewn around. Each of them beautifully carved in stone.

Dancing female figures, keerthi mukhas and one wonderfully carved Mahishasuramardini were the most notable ones. We had many questions to ask, and decided to explore on our own. It was interesting to find a step-well in the premises. The entrance to the well was flanked by carved pilasters and the water level was quite high, which meant that we could not estimate the number of levels. This step-well dates to the 7th Century AD, much before the temple.

The main mihrab area of the mosque, along with the prayer hall, had been cordoned off using a metal grill. Archaeological excavations in the 1970s led to the discovery of the two-metre-high adisthana and many other remains of the ancient temple. The approach to the area is from a flight of steps on three sides, which indicate that the temple might have been of substantial scale.

A journey through time

We had one more stop to make. Within a short distance of four kilometres, we made the journey from 17th-Century India to ancient India — to the fascinating Heliodorus Pillar. It was easy to find, standing innocuously in a compound on an interior road in what looked like a residential area. It is incredible that this pillar has been standing here since 110 BC, for more than 2,100 years! The pillar is very similar to the pillars in Sanchi — a tall stone pillar with a carved capital on top. This is supposed to be dedicated by Heliodorus as a Garuda sthamba for the temple of Vasudeva (Vishnu). Archaeological excavations have proved that there indeed was a Vishnu temple here, although nothing remains of it now. On the pillar, there are inscriptions written in the then common language Prakrit. As per them, Heliodorus was a follower of the sect Bhagavat — a Vaishnava cult, and he was a resident of Taxila, and had come as an ambassador of the Indo-Greek king Antialcidas to the court of King Bhagabhadra of the Shunga dynasty.

Interestingly, the pillar is locally known as Khambaba. Here also, we were the only visitors, which seemed to perplex the children playing cricket in the compound. I tried telling our driver about the historical importance of this pillar, but he did not seem excited.

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Printable version | Mar 26, 2020 1:08:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/a-journey-through-time/article25788008.ece

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