I bus through golden fields and climb a pilgrim’s hill, I trace out carvings of Buddha’s life and fly through Delhi at the flicks.
Centuries before the great Hindu epics were written (see my Ramayana post here), the Buddha lived in northern India (see my introduction to his life here). In 262 BC the emperor Asoka, horrified at the carnage of his latest conquest, renounced violence and became a follower. He sent missionaries as far as Sri Lanka to spread the message and for 1000 years Buddhism was practised across India, before Hinduism re-absorbed it.
Not unlike the emperor Constantine when he converted to Christianity six centuries later, Asoka introduced some compassionate reforms, carving edicts commanding kindness to women and animals and beggars, yet was unable to fully relinquish his imperial ways and maintained tight control through his military and secret police.
Throughout his empire Asoka erected polished columns topped by four outward-facing lions, which are now a state symbol of India and printed on banknotes. He also built a brick dome or stupa for Buddhist relics at Sanchi, near the birthplace of his wife. It’s the oldest stone structure in India, now a UNESCO World Heritage site (see whc.unesco.org), and only 46 km north-east of Bhopal.
The bus station was a few blocks from my hotel. The bus looked rather dilapidated – the door said “EL OME” – but had comfortable new fabric seats. I grabbed one at the front left, i.e. west, i.e. shade. As we waited to depart, sellers of water, bananas, peanuts got on and off. Then a veiled Muslim woman, and a Hindu holy man with a tray of incense, both soliciting alms. Chains of plastic flowers dangled over the driver; Lord Shiva with his trident and holy bull stood on the dashboard. One and a half hours later we reached Sanchi, a town of about 7000.
The stupas are on a small hill along with small Greek-like temples and the ruins of Buddhist monasteries. Only knee-high walls demark the individual cells and some structures are still being excavated. I stood on a stone wall to survey the view and took a deep breath of clean air that refreshed my spirit. Golden wheat fields striped with parallel lines – straight or gracefully curved. Patches of emerald green rice. A tractor puffing smoke. Distant hills. I hired an audio guide with atmospheric Buddhist chanting, climbed past a modern temple for Sri Lankan pilgrims, met a laughing group of Vietnamese monks and nuns, and approached the Great Stupa.
Asoka’s original dome was later surrounded by a stone wall, balustrade and gateways, and crowned with a triple stone parasol. It subsequently lay abandoned for around 600 years. The gates fell over and foliage grew over the rest, until it was rediscovered in 1818 by a general in the Bengal cavalry. A few decades later, stone boxes were found with bone fragments from two of Buddha’s first followers. One historian compared it to finding the graves of St Peter and Paul. Exactly 100 years ago, the jungle was cleared and the main structures rebuilt.
The Great Stupa now stands 16 m high, 37 m in diameter. Stone elephants, lions and potbellied dwarves hold up triple architraves on the four gateways. Every surface is covered in carvings. There are scenes of bravery and compassion from the Buddha’s birth after his mother dreamt of a white elephant entering her womb. There’s his life of renunciation, and his other lives. When incarnated as an elephant, Buddha helped an ivory hunter saw off his own six tusks. As a monkey king, he gave his life to save his companions.
In this early art Buddha wasn’t shown in human form but represented by a lotus flower, bodhi tree, empty throne, footprint or umbrella. Statues of the Buddha came centuries later. There’s a whole menagerie here: herds of elephants, lions (some winged), bulls, horses, camels, cobras, peacocks. Busty wood nymphs lean down to welcome visitors, and there’s all the human comedy from armies to artisans.
In 2007 I bought wooden souvenirs of Asoka’s lion column to give to friends, so I sought out the original third-century BC capital in the museum before returning to Bhopal. Loved the ride back: by an open window with a cool breeze, people waving to me as we passed, and the fields totally gorgeous in the setting sun.
To balance out Buddha’s nonviolent serenity, today I played my best heat-avoidance card: a midday movie. Two and a half hours of air-conditioning in a padded seat! “Agent Vinod” was a recent Bollywood thriller that my hotel clerk said had flopped. Indeed the cinema was near empty. From front to back were bronze, silver, gold or platinum tickets. I went for the gold: at Rs.100, twice the cost of live theatre a few days ago. They still have an intermission here, when I bought a pastry veg-puff. It tasted like it had been sitting out all night, and I started to imagine stomach-rumblings in the second half.
I understood disappointingly little of the dialogue and the plot seemed overblown, but I enjoyed the chase scenes in Indian auto-rickshaws. Best was the helicopter view of central Delhi where I was two weeks ago, as Vinod desperately flew a ticking nuclear bomb out of the city, fare-welling the heroine on his phone as she expired from gunshot wounds, whispering with her last breath the password to deactivate the detonator with only seconds to spare. No melodramatic cliché was spared.
I’d entered the cinema through a spacious foyer, but was shunted out through a narrow passage and brusquely deposited in a dirty parking lot behind the building. It was a rude transition from chilled-out illusion to hot smelly reality that would test the detachment of the Buddha himself, but nicely encapsulated this country’s contrasts.