Ballimaran Se Dariba Talak

Tujshe milna purani Dilli mein
Chhod aaye nishaani Dilli mein
Ballimaran se Daribe talak
Teri meri kahani Dilli mein

From Ghalib’s haveli


One steps out on to the street

Delhi, April 2016

on Gali Qasim Jan

Delhi, April 2016

through the narrow dark streets of Ballimaran

Delhi, April 2016

where boatmen once lived but over the years were followed by soldiers, hakims, Ayurvedic healers, jalebi makers, kabab walas, mattress makers, plastic suppliers and other people

Delhi, April 2016

with Mughal domes jutting out in the far distance along with electric cables, air-conditioner units and modified roofs

Delhi, April 2016

And of course Lal Kila stands in the distance at the Dariba Kalan corner on Chandni Chowk

Delhi, April 2016

To round it up, in my book, based on my limited literary sense, one of the greatest Gulzar compositions ever


Why so secret? The Ajanta Experience

The first thing that strikes one is how thoroughly concealed these caves are. You can only see it once you are in the complex. No one, even a kilometre away, would have a clue that something like this exists. On three sides, it is hemmed in by hills. And from the north side, you only see the back of the hill. One can’t even see it from the MTDC facilities at the entrance. You climb up the stairs, turn round the curve of the hill and there in front of you, they stare back at you. It is not difficult to reach. But you will never know where is it.

Ajanta Caves, July 2014The first sighting of the caves, if you follow the present day access road


Every one knows the terrain and the shape and the contours and other topographic details of the caves.As the Waghor river snakes through the hills making one hairpin bend after another (or horseshoe bend), you have pairs of basalt hills side by side separated by the river. On one particular bend, the caves are cut on the southern face of a hill on the north bank. If you come from the north, you can’t see it. The hill on the south bank completely hides it from view if you are on the highway in the south. There are no access points from east or west as you have hills interlocking and creating a natural curtain of sorts.

Waghora River, Ajanta, July 2014Following the Waghor river from the north east side towards the caves


My immediate thought was that these caves were designed for absolute seclusion. Almost all the other cave monasteries that I have been to can be seen from the plains below. Travelers on the road below can sight them easily and work their way towards them for shelter and or enlightenment. Not so for Ajanta.

A similar concept can be seen in forts where the gates are hidden from view. But the difference is that the fort builders have to design and build their fort walls in a way such that the gates are hidden. In the case of the caves of Ajanta, the effect of concealment is a natural feature.

After pondering all this, my next thought was why and how did the first batch of monks choose this location. Were they being persecuted and needed to hide? Were they working on something that was very sensitive and needed to be done in a place where there was no prying eyes. Kanheri and similar caves provided seclusion but they were very much open to public view. Who selected this location? Did that person have a similar accidental discovery as the Englishman who found it in the early part of the 19th century? There must have been something in the Buddhist pioneer’s mind which led him to pick this very specific horseshoe bend of the river. One will never know and therefore one can only imagine many possible scenarios, one as crazy and wild as the other.

Cave 9, Ajanta Caves, July 2014Cave 9, a chaitya hall excavated circa 1st century BCE, part of the initial set of caves


Once one cave was excavated, circa 2nd century BCE, and populated by a few monks, the other caves started coming up. This went on for hundreds of years till about the 1st century CE. Walter Spink, one of the leading researchers on Ajanta, is of the view that the caves were abandoned from the 2ndt century CE till the 5th century CE. After that, for about a hundred odd years, kings, noblemen and commoners donated to the excavation and artistic development of the site which was now inhabited by a new generation of monks. Which means that the place was well known in most parts of the country in those times and Buddhist monks consciously chose that secluded spot for their monastery. Here again there are some thoughts that get triggered as you see each cave.

Monks would most probably be drawn to this complex because the incumbent people must have been some kind of masters and leaders in their field of thought. Almost every cave which served as a dormitory had at least three discussion spaces – a large pillared hall inside, a verandah and an open courtyard by the river. Spending time with these monks must have been extremely fruitful for students of Buddhism – both young initiates into the monastic order and visitors who cut across royalty and commoner. This is validated with the inscriptions found everywhere. It is also validated by various travelogues of those times including Huein Tsang.

The level of artistic brilliance on display is at a level far superior to what we see today. Let’s assume that craftsmen of those times produced extraordinary work for even the most mundane commissions. But this is not a mundane commission. This is an ultra secluded Buddhist sanctuary, one of thousands in the country, virtually invisible even to villagers in nearby areas and the craftsmen produce work which is, as per all the such caves which have been studied, one of the best there is. Surely they were briefed that these caves were special. So what was so special that was happening in this cave, first between the 2nd century BCE to 1st century CE and then again in the 5th century CE?

Cave 29, Ajanta Caves, July 2014Cave 29, one of the last caves to be done, outdoes all the others in terms of the sculptures


And why did it disappear from all consciousness? Coming back to Kanheri, there are inscriptions of 11th century CE of Parsees visiting the caves and meeting the Buddhist inmates there. Which means for at least 600 years after the last known inscription in Ajanta, Kanheri continued to function. But Ajanta seemed to have gone into a decline earlier than the others.

Walter Spink puts it to the decline of Buddhism and the rise of Hinduism as the state religion of most monarchs in the Deccan Peninsula. This loss of royal patronage could be one of the reasons. Possibly, the secret location turned out to its own nemesis as the monasteries remained out of sight and out of mind for most people, especially the various new empires, like the Rashtrakuta (which sponsored the Ellora Caves and some of the Elephanta cave temples), Chalukyas, etc. many of whom might still have supported them as they were known to be secular.

So who were these Buddhist masters who needed such an extreme level of seclusion? Did they achieve their goals which they had set for themselves? And who were the craftsmen who created all these works which would lie hidden in the jungles for over 1400 years?

More photographs of my Ajanta trip can be found here.

Sri Lanka Diaries – Dagoba Hopping in Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura, as the history books tell us, was the first capital of the Sinhala kingdom and the main Buddhist centre on the island. Today, there are two towns, like any historic city. There is the sacred city which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and there is the new town where local industry and the population live.

Typically, all the hotels, guest houses, home stays, etc are in the new town. The buses and trains also bring you here. On the first day I was here, I decided to venture out walking to the sacred city area.  The three wheeler autorickshaws were offering a full tour of the area for 3500 LKR (all tickets included). The general information I had was that one needed to buy tickets to access the area. The ticket value was LKR 3500 (but for Indians and other SAARC countries, there was a 50% discount). Later I found out, after buying a ticked for LKR 1750, that the tickets were only for the museums. In general all the other places were freely accessible. Most of them were holy sites which were still in use. So there were restrictions like leaving your slippers, dress code and body searches. But no monetary restrictions.

I thought the distance of 4 kms was easily manageable. I miscalculated the heat of the sun. But I did not want to take an autorickshaw and commit to a full tour. I wanted the flexibility to walk up, see the area and if I liked it then enter and engage with it. So I kept it simple. I found an auto driver who wasn’t very pushy. He dropped me at the entrance of the Maha Bodhi Tree.

Entrance path to the Maha Bodhi Tree From Sri Lanka Holiday

The Bodhi tree was planted when a cutting from the original tree in Gaya was brought here by Sanghamitta, daughter of Asoka in the 3rd century BCE. Her brother Mahinda had come earlier and had already converted Tissa, the third of the Sinhala kings. This was the birth of Buddhism in the country.

The tree stands till today but is heavily fenced.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

But the area around the tree is a throbbing place. This was the week leading to the Sinhala New Year and there were people thronging the area dressed in all whites.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

The place was decorated by multi-coloured patakas, the ubiquitous Buddhist pennants that are hung all over the place. It gave the whole area the feel of a fair without making it trivial or frivolous.

After spending about half an hour here, I started walking around the area.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

The entire place is littered with artefacts, structures (some in excellent condition, some merely blocks of stone). The first thing that strikes you is the sense of calmness – in all aspects. There is cleanliness on the roads and most importantly on the sides of the roads. There was order amongst the Lankans as they lined up peacefully to enter or exit the respective areas. There was no loud music playing on country made loud speakers. Traffic was sparse but orderly.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

Even taking photographs of water lilies could be done without worrying about any plastic shit floating on the waters.

A smallish dagoba on the side of the road    From Sri Lanka Holiday

The stupas of India and the pagodas of Burma are called dagobas in Sri Lanka. They are numerous. Spotless white, I had to really adjust my camera settings to distinguish the domes from the white clouds in the background.
As I said earlier, I did pay LKR 1750 at the Archaeological Museum. The ticket mentioned that I could enter three museums. I went into the first. There were two things that I found really interesting. The building itself and this giant lizard that kept running around.

A giant lizard scampering around the museum grounds   From Sri Lanka Holiday
The Verandah of the museum       From Sri Lanka Holiday

The entire sacred city area is spread over some stunning greenery.

The green areas around the different structures    From Sri Lanka Holiday

Everywhere there were odd stones, dolmens, monoliths, etc sprayed around. Some were randomly scattered, others were arranged in some geometric structure suggesting that there was some human activity here.
The Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba is the biggest of them all in Anuradhapura. It is also in active service. There was a fair crowd making its way in and out of the complex. Once again the cleanliness of the area was the first thing that caught the eye. Anyone who has seen any temple site in India will immediately wonder at the difference in attitude in an island which is just across a few kilometres away (the distance between the Indian coast and the Mannar jetty)

The Ruwanawelisaya     From Sri Lanka Holiday

I completed the walk about with a visit to Abhaygiri. This site is a ruin in the truest sense. But well kept of course. A bit far away from the Ruwanwelisaya, one had to take an autorickshaw to it. But it was worth the visit.

The Abhayagiri From Sri Lanka Holiday

The Abhayagiri vihara was a full fledged Buddhist monastery. The entire area shows evidence of living quarters, dining halls, pools for taking bath and latrines. One key element of Sri Lankan Buddhist architecture is the moonstone (not to be confused with the gemstone) – a crescent shaped stone platform on which are built the steps leading to any structure. From plain simple stone platforms to intricately carved ones (from what is possible to see today after all the erosion caused by weather and billions of human and canine feet). Later when I was seeing other places in Sri Lanka, this moonstone element seemed ubiquitous – from doormats to the leading step of a house to small souvenirs.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

I spent maybe 4 hours tramping around with an occasional ride in an autorickshaw when the heat became unbearable. Drinking lots of water along with puffing of the odd cigarette, I had a quiet but extremely filling day. I closed it with the physical filling of fried rice and chicken curry.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

That’s it for now.