Once upon a time...
In a befitting finale to the Heritage Drive, we seek peace in the sanctity of Sanchi, get awestruck by the magic of Khajuraho, go birdwatching in Keoladeo National Park and finally come home to the Qutb Minar. Simran Rastogi reminisces the end of an epic tale
We didn’t know this before we started this feature but are well aware of it now. There’s a rough list of standing of how historied and culturally significant a country is. India is among the very top of that list of countries, with 35 World Heritage sites certified by UNESCO. We can now, with confidence, attest. We’ve been halfway across the country - and there isn’t a polished way to put this - getting our own minds blown by 14 of those World Heritage sites, from historically significant monuments to natural wonders to the earliest signs of mankind, even.
Starting from Delhi and the Happy Move - Save Our Heritage initiative by Hyundai India, we rediscovered Humayun’s legacy at his tomb, before trying to catch a train with a 100-year old legacy in Shimla. The trail past the rails led us to what many consider to be the birthplace of the mighty Himalayas, in the Great Himalayan National Park.
Back in the plains, we got a crash course - first in the Modernism school of architecture at the Capitol Complex, Chandigarh - then in naked-eye astronomy at the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. From there we travelled to the little-known Champaner Archeological Park, an example of Hindu-Muslim architecture and the transi- tion across ruling dynasties. Moving further south, we got to the engineering marvels that are group of caves at Ajanta and Ellora (some say alien technology had to have been involved!), which though separated by a hundred kilometres, perfectly illustrate the transition of religious influences across centuries - Buddhist to Hindu to Jain. Finally, at the southern most point of our journey, we actually witnessed the confluence of north and south Indian temple architecture at the Pattadakal ruins in Karnataka.
From there, we entered Madhya Pradesh which is a treasure trove of World Heritage sites, including the oldest signs of human life at the Bhimbetka rock shelters. Archaeologists estimate that the small thumbsized indents in the walls of the caves here are over a million years old! And further, that those indents or cupules actually pre-date any other form of rock art by several thousands of years. That puts it at the timeline of Homo erectus, the grand father to Homo sapiens (well, us humans) and the direct descendants of the apes! From Bhimbetka’s signs of early, early man, we move on to the other end of the spectrum. A species that is alive and well – the Homo touristus. As we find out at the next destination, the group of Buddhist monuments at Sanchi. Not a significant distance from the capital of Bhopal, the Creta made short work of the trip.
The right time to visit Sanchi is earlier in the day than we did, to escape the heat and packs of loud and sometimes obnoxious examples of aforementioned touristus species. Not to mention to be able to fully appreciate the significance and serenity of the first Buddhist stupa in the country.
With a foundation laid by Ashoka the Great, the Sanchi site that now encompasses multiple stupas, temples and pillars started out as just a low-level stupa made of brick and a monolithic pillar, to serve as a resting place for the mortal remains of Buddha. At the top of the now-famous Ashoka pillar sat a motif you’ll probably recognise. Yes, a larger-than-life sized version of the Ashoka pillar on our currency, is currently in a museum at Sanchi while only the base of the pillar remains on site. This stupa number 1 was then later enlarged, stairways added and the famous carved gateways or toranas erected.
The carvings you’ll see here depict scenes from the life of Buddha according to the Jataka tales and it’s worth the while to hire a guide to explain the scenes in detail. For example, there’s the Mahakapi-Jataka tale where Buddha’s reincarnate was as a monkey king. Now, the mountain that the Bodhisattva or monkey king and his followers called home was also home to the most delicious fruit in the land - and one of those fruits happened to find its way by accident to a local king, who immediately ordered his army to go out in search of this fruit. When they finally found the
WE HAD CROSSED OVER
INTO THE DOUBLE DIGITS OF HERITAGE SITES, WITHIN A COUPLE
OF DAYS ENTERING MADHYA PRADESH
fruit on the mountain of monkeys, they attacked the monkeys with their arrows. In a merciless display of human greed, chasing them further and further up the mountain till they had no place else to escape to. The Bodhisattva, however, laid his body out from the top of the mountain to another peak and thus gave his family and followers a way out. Battered and bruised after the ordeal, the monkey king lay on the verge of death. The (human) king recognised the selfless effort and asked why he sacrificed his life for the lives of his subjects. To this the Bodhisattva replied, “O king! Verily my body is broken. But my mind is still sound; I uplifted only those, over whom I exercised my powers for so long.” With this the Bodhisattva died in peace. Now, imagine this and countless more morals in sculptures and you get the idea, as to why Sanchi stupa makes for a great educational visit, with the right guidance.
The Heritage Drive had crossed over into the double digits of heritage sites visited, quickly going past the dozen mark, within just a couple of days entering Madhya Pradesh. The state also boasts of what is easily some of the best roads in the country, with vast, open landscapes to take in as you travel them. The only caveat being the herds of cattle on the road you’re likely to come across before, after and during every village you cross. The national highway plots a course across lot of villages and given the sensitive nature of anything cow-related nowadays, a lot of our driving was with a light right foot and a heavy hand on the horn.
MP’s last treasure for us actually highlights a long forgotten side of our culture, that perhaps most outsiders know our country for. But it’s only spoken about in hushed tones at home.
Khajuraho is well regarded as having some of the most intricate temple art in the world. These temples were built between 950 and 1050 AD by the Chandela dynasty, amongst date and khajur trees and that’s where the name comes from. Originally a group of 80-plus temples of Hindu and Jain faiths, only a fraction remain after having been ransacked by Muslim invaders or overrun by vegetation.
Now, you’re more likely to find touts waving copies of the Kamasutra at you than date palms. At least we did, from the moment we parked the Creta and set off towards the ticket counter. As always, we highly recommend ask-
ing for a guide, though they are on the expensive side compared to the other heritage sites we’ve experienced, probably down to the exchange rate of the British pound, currency of the seemingly predominant tourist here. Two Rs 500 notes should get you the services of a guide who will point out the significance of the sculptures along the walls, as
well the particularly explicit ones, if you ask nicely.
The most famous are the erotic sculptures on the outside walls of the western group of temples. There are various interpretations to the carvings. Some say it represents leaving behind lust and desires before entering the temples. Reinforced by the fact that there are no carvings of sex inside them. Others view the imagery as an interpretation of Hindu philosophies that say nirvana can be achieved when one is done with the pleasures of a worldly life. In some instances, the tantric beliefs can also be clearly derived.
There is more to Khajuraho, with five broad catego- ries of sculptures found across the 22 temples here. The erotic sculptures make up roughly ten per cent of the overall but probably rake in the most crowds. But, hey, if it helps put this otherwise small town on the map, so be it. In fact, of all the World Heritage sites we’ve visited, Khajuraho is the only one for which an airport has been constructed, with international connectivity that would put tier two cities to shame.
Leaving behind Madhya Pradesh meant crossing over into Uttar Pradesh and we heard some of the roads weren’t in the greatest condition. So into the Creta’s onboard navigation went the closest big city, Kanpur, while we let the system figure out the quickest route to get to Agra, which happened to be on the excellent Taj Expressway. Excited to be able to once again set the Creta in its tall sixth gear, perfect for quick highway speeds, a quick confirmation from our maps app was all we needed to set off towards the erstwhile Bharatpur bird sanctuary, recently renamed the Keoladeo National Park.
Just at the border of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, sits one of the largest sanctuaries for our winged friends. And one of India’s only UNESCO World Heritage sites that attracts almost as many photographers as it does birds.
In the interest of preservation of the bio-diversity,
EROTIC SCULPTURES MAKE UP TEN PER CENT OF THE OVERALL BUT PROBABLY
RAKE IN THE MOST CROWDS
Several heritage sites under the ASI have moved to a code-scanning system, stream lining entry after you purchase tickets. One of the first temples you’ll see when you enter the western group is dedicated to Shiva’s reincarnate as a boar, while other temples are dedicated to Vishnu
KHAJURAHO (Madhya Pradesh) Since 1986
Criterion Representative of religious acceptance, zenith of Indian temple art
integrity Temple boundaries encompass all excavated structures, one temple an active site of worship
ProteCtion Against encroachment from locals, temple areas wellguarded and policed, no desecration of structures Much of the erotic art can be found on the walls of the Kandariya Mahadev temple. Kama, or pleasure, is one of the four goals of life according to Hindu beliefs, leading one closer to Moksha, or rebirth, also represented in the sculptures. As you climb closer to the inner sanctum, the carvings depict more safefor-work scenes
the only transport allowed is rickshaws though locals can be seen on two wheelers. Apparently, the route through the park is a shortcut for children heading to and from school! While there is the question of convenience, a fragile eco-system such as this must have more stringent measures in place.
Also, it seems that some Indian tourists need to be constantly reminded that birds don’t like loud laughter - most other tourists don’t either, when a picture of an elusive species gets ruined by said bird getting spooked and flying off.
We were told by our guide/rickshaw puller given the season and time of day (rainy and mid-afternoon), we’d be lucky if we spotted anything at all. Lucky for us, an unscheduled release of water to the artificially maintained wetlands the previous day meant a return of several winged species.
From our garden variety parakeets, bulbuls, ducks, to herons, storks and more, the species we spotted still remains a mere fraction of the total. The best time to visit is in winter. This is when the critically endangered Siberian Crane makes its 8,000km flight from Siberia to Keoladeo. The sanctuary remains one of the only wintering spots for the rare species. Unfortunately, we couldn’t wait around for cooler weather. We were now on the home stretch.
Our 14th and final stop lies in the heart of Delhi. The entire Qutb complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The minar or minaret is a 73m tall tower made of sandstone and marble. That makes it the highest brick minaret in the world. At its base is the Quwwatu’lIslam mosque, the first mosque to be built in India. It
LUCKY FOR US, AN UNSCHEDULED
RELEASE OF WATER TO THE ARTIFICIALLY MAINTAINED
WETLANDS THE PREVIOUS DAY MEANT
A RETURN OF SEVERAL WINGED SPECIES
Either park outside the gate, or at one of the two lodges inside the park boundary. Rickshaw
pullers are very knowledgable about the species here and don’t cost much for the four hours worth of birding knowledge they impart. Without which, this caption would read ‘cute owl 1 and cute owl 2’ instead of ‘cute collared scops owl and cuter Indian scops
owl’. We also spotted this sinister looking monitor lizard, multiple parrots, herons and magpie robins apart from majestic storks
and swans KEOLADEO NATIONAL PARK (Rajasthan) Since 1985
Criterion Represents important area of preservation of bio-diversity, wintering grounds for endangered species
integrity Much of original area under protected boundary, delicate balance of flora-fauna preserved
ProteCtion Motor vehicles prohibited but locals are not subject to rule, strictly no hunting allowed
is said that the ornamented shafts actually come from the Hindu temples that were once demolished to construct the mosque, leading back to the conflicting stories about the Qutb complex’s origins.The Qutb Minar is perhaps the most actively protected site, with several signs reminding tourists to respect the vicinity.
When it comes down to it, we’ve seen that the UNESCO World Heritage site tag lends more credibility to a monument. Even without, with the living history lessons we have scattered all across our country, more efforts should be taken to preserve and conserve the centuries that have gone before us.
With any luck, our next Heritage Drive can cover the remaining heritage sites that too deserve more than their moment in the sun.
THE QUTB MINAR IS PERHAPS THE MOST ACTIVELY PROTECTED SITE,
WITH SEVERAL SIGNS REMINDING TOURISTS TO RESPECT THE
VICINITY. Built to commemorate Qutbu’d-din Aibak’s storming of Delhi, the tallest tower stood as a tall reminder of victory of the first Islamic dynasty in the region. Other stories say it was constructed for prayer calls. Idol worship is not permitted in Islam, so the walls of the surrounding structures carry verses from the Quran carved into it as decoration. The area also houses the first mosque in India - the Quwwatu’l-Islam, actually commissioned before the minaret
QUTB MINAR (Delhi)
Since 1993 Criterion Oldest mosque in north India, tallest brick minaret in the world
integrity All funerary buildings contained within boundary area
ProteCtion Strict guarding of heritage structures from tourists, efforts made to provide modern amenities like Wi-Fi on the site