Category Archives: Bhopal

Bollywood, Buddha, and the Stupas of Sanchi

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.

sanchi-buddhist-great-stupaThroughout 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, 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.

sanchi-columnThe 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.

sanchi-column-buddha-feetThe 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.

buddha-agent-vinodTo 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.

agent-vinod-filmI’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.


Chilling in Mosques and Boiling in Bhopal

I sleep on a train, study at a madrasa, rage at litterbugs and relax in mosques; I walk from the coast to the Himalayas in a few hours, sweat like dogs and play chess with Krishna.

The Leprosy Mission and Allahabad Bible Seminary had looked after me for over a week.  On Friday I set off on my own again, for the big push south towards Bangalore on three overnight trains.  As I waited for the driver to take me to Allahabad Junction station, I heard the students singing at Friday evening chapel, “Because I know He holds my future… all fear is gone.”  I had earlier sung with them, “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah, pilgrim in a foreign land.”

train-meal-hindiI travelled second class AC, on the upper bunk.  With my bag alongside my feet, I just had room to sit or stretch out; in third class which is three tier I’d be hunchbacked.  Towels, sheets and blankets are provided on the blue vinyl mattress.  With mesh pockets to hold bottle, book and glasses, and your own reading lamp, once you draw the curtain it’s a cosy little shelter.  Vendors move along the carriage droning “pani water pani water” – chilled water bottles, “chai coffee chai coffee” – Western teabag or coffee, “masala tea” – the Indian brew, “tomato soup” – with croutons.  Each is poured from a thermos into a small paper cup for five rupees, about ten cents.  There are cartons of juice, punnets of yoghurt, packets of chips; and omelette, “veg” or “nonveg” meals.  I bought the vegetarian for Rs 50.  Like an aeroplane meal, it comes in a tin foil tray: three chapattis, vegetables, runny yellow dal that almost spilled until I spooned it onto the rice.  I inserted my ear plugs, and had more sleep than I did on trains in 2007.

It was a 12 hour trip, arriving at 8 am in Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh.  It’s a quiet city with only 1.5 million inhabitants, and has seldom made headlines since the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak that killed perhaps 20,000 people.  (One of my English students in Bangalore is a drummer and once played there to commemorate the disaster.)  After the Hindu interlude in Ayodya and Allahabad, I was back to a more Islamic city.  Bhopal is 40% Muslim, way above 15% nationwide, with over 400 mosques.  From my hotel room balcony, I could see the minarets from two of the most famous above the jumbled rooftops.

I spent my first day exploring these mosques and the markets in between.  Although one of India’s largest mosques, the Taj-ul Masjid seemed almost deserted.  On the west side towards Mecca was the prayer hall, with fluted arches, white onion domes and two 18-storey pink towers that reflected in a square pool for ablutions surrounded by plastic stools like mushrooms.  Dull pink walls lined the other three sides of the courtyard, punctuated by dozens of bright blue doors.  Arabic scriptures hinted at the world inside: a madrasa or Muslim school, with, I was told, 500 students.  Teenage boys emerged for a morning tea break after studying since 7 am, and ushered me into their room.  Perched on a bed, they eagerly asked how many Muslims were in New Zealand, and how many mosques in my city.  Many spoke little English, but an older student told me he was learning English to spread Islam across the world. bhopal-mosque-arches

Back outside, young boys laughed and chased a school of fish around a pond while their elders sat in the shade.  Beneath the stone vaults of the prayer area, students bent over books on low benches; blackboards with math sums and English vocab stood between the pillars.  As I left, I saw a wrinkled state government sign glued to the wall.  It referred to yoga, which is compulsory in most schools but may offend Muslims:

Authorities will not compel the students to undertake the exercise of Surya Namaskar or Pranayam and will not take any action … if the students of such educational institution do not perform the aforesaid exercise.

For lunch I sat on a step with a bread roll and banana.  I was looking around in vain for a bin for my peel, when a goat approached and gobbled it up: a pleasingly perfect, zero-waste solution – two of us fed from one banana!  I’m less impressed by the homo sapiens.  I saw one guy, flanked by rubbish bins one meter to either side, drop his takeaway plate to the ground.  Wanted to grab his collar and shout, “That’s why your country is such a stinking mess!”  Indian writers lament the lack of public ownership or social responsibility, although people scrupulously clean their own homes.  Shopkeepers look strangely at me when I ask for a bin, and when my bag gets cluttered with empty bottles I wonder whether I’m being stupidly idealistic and should ditch them in the gutter like everyone else.  At other times, I have self-righteously preached in my mind to onlookers: “Watch carefully sir.  See, the wrapper simply goes into the trash can.  One more time now: that’s iiiiiiiiinto the can.  It’s not so hard, is it?”  At least there’s some show of concern from the top: the paper said the Bhopal Municipal Corporation was introducing spot fines for littering.

bhopal-mosqueHot and tired and sick of wading through garbage and threatened by a headache from the symphony of horns, I climbed the steps of the smaller Pearl Mosque, removed my shoes – and socks to air my toes – and slipped inside.  Mosques are often a lovely refuge of cool, clean quiet.  This afternoon, the tiles were so hot I put my socks back on and stayed on the narrow strips of carpet crossing the courtyard.  Cables were strung overhead to hold, I presume, an awning for the Friday prayers.  I leaned against a pillar in the shady breeze of an open arcade and watched schoolgirls play hide and seek on the rooftop across the street.

At 1:30 pm men flooded towards the pool in front of me, mostly dressed in loose white kurta tops and pyjama leggings – most suitable for the heat.  They washed arms and feet, rinsed faces, blew noses, scrubbed teeth with fingers and spat the water back into the gutter around the tank, all as prescribed by Islam.  Some asked my country while they purified themselves.  As they lined up and began to pray, latecomers straggled in, often with more Western or secular clothing.  Some had no head covering and borrowed a white prayer cap from a stack on the floor.  Behind the men, two boys imitated their prostrations at double speed, giggling and bumping each other.  Apart from this quarter hour of action, there was no one much around except a few men sleeping.  With traffic muffled by the walls and reflections dancing in the water, I nearly dozed off myself, and felt little desire to re-enter the chaos.

I later realised one reason for my apathy.  In early March, the temperature was apparently lower than usual, but now it was above average.  By the mid-30s, my shirt is permanently wet.  As the mercury climbs towards 40oC, I don’t consciously notice a rise in temperature so much as increasing exhaustion – I relate to the dogs lying half dead on their side – and decreasing appetite.  I mostly breakfasted well at my hotel buffet, reading the paper, writing my diary and mapping out a plan of attack for the day.  By early afternoon I’d emptied several one litre bottles – surprised at how quickly chilled water becomes warm – but eaten little except a packet of chips to replenish salt lost in sweat.  I’d go to a restaurant by mid-afternoon, more to rest my feet in the cool than to fill my stomach.  If air con is lacking, I’ve learned to ignore the waiters’ directions and grab a seat underneath the fastest-turning fan.  When I reach my room, it’s shirt off, fan on full, collapse spread-eagled on the bed beneath it.  Some evenings I roll my sleeves up and down, up and down, as heat and mosquitoes battle to dominate my attention.  It’s always gratifying to see Indians mopping their brows too: I’m not just a wimpy Westerner who can’t handle the heat!

bhopal-museum-of-mankindThe next day I took a rickshaw to the National Museum of Mankind.  This is an open-air tribal complex where “the communities are the curators” and villagers from throughout India practise their crafts in traditional houses.  Straw was tied into bundles and hoisted onto roofs for thatching.  Guys dug a hole to erect a totem pole they’d just carved, in front of a ceremonial hall hung with horned skulls.  Murals on mud walls showed scores of figures farming, weaving, building, hunting, cooking, playing, fighting, copulating.  There was a coastal village with a fishing boat and a Himalayan village of two-storey stone buildings with balconies, slate roofs, and paintings of the Buddhist wheel of life and death inside.  Bamboo-panelled houses on stilts.  Crudely modelled clay village gods.  Past the peak season, there were few people around and again I had a sense of Bible times, as in the villages I visited with the Leprosy Mission (see here).  Had it been 10o cooler, it would have been a totally lovely day.

I descended the hill to stroll alongside India’s biggest man-made lake, bypassing the many snack carts for an iced chocolate shake and veg puff (flaky pastry with samosa-like filling) on a café balcony.  Coming from the seaside city of Auckland, the view reminded me slightly of home.  Children were feeding geese on the beach and splashing in paddle boats.  Dinghies were anchored offshore, while people rowed out to a low grassy islet with a Muslim shrine to the patron saint of local fishermen.  Across the water was the old city and minarets of the mosques I’d seen the day before.

That evening I saw a live Hindi play for Rs 50, about $1.25.  It was an excerpt from the Mahabharata epic, which is eight times longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined, or four times longer than the Bible.  (In Ayodya I saw a snippet of the Ramayana, India’s other great epic – see here.)  The audience sat on carpeted steps; I was the only white face.  The stage was simply set with several white pillars, what looked like an inverted mosquito net, and giant chess pieces: a king, queen, castle and knight.  I caught a lot of individual words and the play seemed to involve female machinations to manipulate weak men – the blurb indicated a feminist twist to the ancient tale.  It opened and closed with Krishna, the divine hero of the Mahabharata, playing his flute under soft rainbow lighting.