India 6: a wise man at Sanchi

February 8, 2010

John McCarthy writes:

Saturday 6 February: Sanchi 

At the entrance to the site of the Great Stupa at Sanchi a Bodhi tree rises high, covered in bright green leaves and with multi-coloured prayer flags wrapped around its trunk. The story goes that it started as a cutting from the actual tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment over 2,500 years ago. Or rather that the cutting was taken from a tree in Sri Lanka that was taken from a cutting of the original tree which grew away off to the east in Bihar state.

It’s a nice story and whether or not it is true, Sanchi has the same serene atmosphere that I have encountered at other Buddhist sites. The gently rounded hilltop is dotted with the remains of temples, monasteries and the magnificent stupas that are the heart and soul of the place. Basically a stupa is a mound and looks like a deep, upturned wok. Which doesn’t sound that great but they are very powerful, albeit simple structures. Originally small burial mounds to contain the ashes and belongings of the Buddha and his followers, as they became objects of pilgrimage they were often enlarged, but remained solid with no interiors. I think it’s their shape, which leads the eye off in every direction, which makes them so calming. And though temples were to become far more elaborate, the stupa continued as Buddhism’s basic building block.

We are really lucky to have Yoichi Yamagatta, a Japanese Buddhist, as our contributor. He has been living at nearby Bhopal for the past four years leading a Japanese government funded rural health programme. In his spare time he comes to Sanchi and sketches the buildings, their details and decorations. He shares his knowledge of the site and its place in the development of Buddhist art and architecture with enormous warmth and enthusiasm.

We sit chatting as he sketches an elephant carved on one of the exquisite gateways that lead through to the colonnaded ambulatory passage that runs around the stupa. A gentle breeze stirs the quiet, warm air around us. Yoichi tells me that he comes here on most of his days off to spend the day sketching, trying to connect with the artisans who worked here 1500 years ago. Next year he is due to go back to Tokyo but such is his love of this holy hill top that he thinks he may stay on. Pointing out over the wide, green plains that lie below us, he observes that there are other hills nearby, but for some reason this one was chosen to be a place of pilgrimage. He reasons that probably this was a place of worship long before Lord Buddha’s time.

Yoichi reflects on how faiths have always borrowed ideas and adapted them to express new insights into the meaning of life. So too, of course, have nations and cultures evolved.

Making this series has taken me to wonderful places across Japan, China and now India, meeting fascinating, wise people like this gentle man. For the umpteenth time I’m struck by how privileged I am to have this job.

Some people are even more privileged though and we have to leave the site for around two hours to make way for a party of VIPs, members of the State Parliament and their families, to have a look round. A convoy of more than a hundred vehicles sweeps up the hill and fills the car park. With them come a small army of soldiers, yet despite a sudden profusion of carbines, AK47s and Sten guns, Sanchi maintains its soothing and welcoming atmosphere.

Not so soothing or welcoming is our hotel here. It’s called the Gateway Guesthouse. When we arrived the gateway was definitely closed and it was a while before our driver’s hooting encouraged two grim, gun-toting guards to let us in. Once in reception, where one is always greeted with a smile, only long faces greeted us.

A very odd place indeed but we reckoned that they were totally preoccupied with a major party they were clearly preparing to host the next day. And in retrospect the party was probably for all those VIPs.

Sunday 7 February: To Khajuraho
From Sanchi we drive back to Bhopal, stopping at a level crossing to film some train action. Being India, train action tends to be great, with trains a mile long hurtling past with horns blaring constantly. Being India, you can set the camera up right beside the track and no one bats an eye – filming, or ‘shooting’ as they refer to all our activities, tends to be pretty straight forward in public places.

From Bhopal we take a train to Jhansi and then embark on a four hour night drive to Khajuraho. Given the distance is only 100 miles away you’ll appreciate that the trip isn’t the easiest. It is a long grind over often rough roads with heavy traffic. But though uncomfortable – at times surreal even, it is a great travelling experience. We are undoubtedly less fazed by the madness of the driving here now, better able to roll with the manic rhythms of humans, creatures, machines and physical environment.

There so many people out on roads. Whole families walk along, even toddlers, right at the tarmac’s crumbling edge. Our headlights catch women in Saris walking with stately tread, bales of grasses or bundles of firewood balanced on their heads, their poverty borne with such grace.

Farm workers endure a commute of grim confinement standing packed so tightly they sway, probably even breathe as one. We count 17 people in and hanging from one auto-rickshaw. The passengers’ faces remain impassive as the machine buzzes into the night, its path lit by a feeble headlamp.

It seems odd that so many people are on this road as villages, let alone towns, are few and far between. Tania explains that people head off this road on tracks to their villages ‘in the interior’. Away from the main road all is darkness and with so little light pollution the sky glitters with stars.

An eerie tune by Lebanese musician Claude Chalhoub gives me an MP3 soundtrack as we stop at a police checkpoint. We are waved on and find the road getting very rough again. Where are we going?

At times it feels as though we are journeying through some wild frontier place, where people travel by ox-cart and pull off at night to set up camp around blazing fires. And the villages are little more than one street affairs with little stalls lit often only with candles. After a long stretch of dark, potholed road we are suddenly passing a blaze of coloured lights around a huge tent. It is guarded by men in old style costumes, sporting false beards and sitting on horses. A wedding party. Fantastic!

We continue on across the central Indian plain. The remoteness of Khajuraho has been seen as a reason for its temples to have survived so well, so long. I can believe that. I think it’s going to be a rather special location to end our ‘shooting’ in India.

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One Response to “India 6: a wise man at Sanchi”

  1. Sanchi Says:

    Thanks for nice informations .Article was really nice and easy to understand .

    Thanks again


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