Brahmagiri: An account

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Image Courtesy Team G Square blogpost on the same place

 

This is a guest post by my friend Srikara. He explores history of places with a particular interest in Vijayanagara Empire. In this post, he speaks of his visit to Brahmagiri Hills near Bellary, Karnataka.  From this visit he writes, “The sheer scale of devotion, prescience and benevolence that seemed to have gone into Ashoka’s vision of a just society over two millennia ago, when many other contemporary societies were busy tearing themselves apart with violence, amazed me.”  I find this continuing amazement with accounts of the past and the contrast with the present, as a key driver for our interest in history. 

 

It must have been just past eight in the morning. The bus destined for Bellary had dropped me off on the highway, at the juncture of the road leading to Siddapura. ‘There is no stop here, we will only slow down, and you can get off!’ the conductor had said. I was off and was walking towards the village of Siddapura, five kilometers away. The sun was already in action, filling the world with its yellow spread. It was a lonely road for the most part, through expansive paddy fields with imposing boulder strewn hills peppered across them. Some humongous giant must have crushed solitary rocks with his bare fist and sowed the pieces in these fields as piles of stone. The sun, the paddy, the hills, and the silence of being alone filled me with anticipation for the setting of my destination.

The road ended at the village that had been recently anointed Ashoka Siddapura. And all around, petty shopkeepers, skinny elders wearing shirts, towels, and panches that were once white, and other idlers greeted me with curious stares. I smiled and moved on through the village.

The heat was getting stronger as I continued to walk on a road lined by plots with mud houses with sloping red-tiled roofs. Typical of rural settings in India, chickens running across the road, dogs barking at my perceived trespass, famished oxen tied to their posts, ruminating solemnly, and women carrying cans of water, all met my eyes as I pushed myself through. Just as I stepped outside the village and away from the hum of its life, a large bare hill loomed ahead, to the right of the road. Walls of ruined fortifications straddled the sides of the hill. ‘Brahmagiri.’ I thought. I was near.

I passed by a stone temple in ruins and reached an unusual structure at the foot of the hill. ‘This is it.It was a rather horse-shoe shaped edifice built of stone blocks, the whitewash on whose walls had mostly faded. It served as a shelter to the upper surface of a large boulder and had a staircase leading up to it. I absorbed my surroundings for a minute. I was looking up at the shelter in the silent shadow of Brahmagiri. A necklace of ancient fortified walls stared at me from the heights. In front of the hill was a vast fallow land that was, again, lined by gigantic boulder hills afar. Taking a deep breath of the eerie stillness, I climbed up the steps.

Atop the boulder, a cage enclosed what I had come so far to see. As I peered through the steel bars, deeply engraved runes on the boulder made themselves visible over an area of a standard Persian Carpet. The script was vivid and each of its characters was inscribed with elegance. As I observed each line in awe, I tried to remember what it said from what I had read about it.

The Brahmagiri Inscription is the southern-most of all of Maurya Emperor Ashoka’s myriad Rock and Pillar Edicts proclaiming universal peace and an embrace of humanity. They were inscribed over two thousand years ago across the Subcontinent, from Kandahar to Siddapura, Gujarat to Bihar. They mark Ashoka’s righteous rule after his adoption of Buddhism.

The Brahmagiri inscription announces to the lost city of Ishila that once was in the vicinity, that ‘the men of Jambudvipa had (since Ashoka’s reign began) become mingled with the gods’ and urged its residents to embrace the Truth, treat their parents, elders, masters and relatives with respect and obedience, and be compassionate to animals.

Other edicts across the country are more radical in their call for humanity. They proclaimed religious equality and freedom to pursue one’s faith, right of prisoners to appeal against sentences that were ordered to be dispensed justly to begin with, protection of several animal species by royal decree, provisioning medication and treatment of illnesses, facilitating long-distance travelers with the planting of large banyan trees and digging wells, and much more.

I tried to fit the Brahmagiri edict into Ashoka’s vast philanthropic jigsaw puzzle, as I continued to observe the curvy letters. The sheer scale of devotion, prescience and benevolence that seemed to have gone into Ashoka’s vision of a just society over two millennia ago, when many other contemporary societies were busy tearing themselves apart with violence, amazed me. The presence of this gem of history in what was now a desolate place was mystifying.

Siddapura is like an all you can eat buffet for history-buffs. It has a preserved site of megaliths, written records on stone, forts atop hills, ancient temples in ruins, artfully carved veeragals, saffron-clad mendicants and, most importantly, a weight that keeps pressing on you, filling you with enigma and wonder, a weight of history, of the place having been there, and seen it, for thousands of years, a weight of ghosts that had dissolved in the air with time. I had only savored a starter, and was salivating for more. I walked down the stairs.

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Road to Hampi

Hampi landscap. It brings alive the imagery of early Indian novels in English, with bend in the river, villages around it and the grand temple in town.

Hampi landscap. It brings alive the imagery of early Indian novels in English, with bend in the river, villages around it and the grand temple in town.

Time is slipping by way too fast lately. Between school, university and work travel has suffered. While I am still processing my earlier experience, another ride is being considered.

Sitting on a bench at a tea stall in the bazaar area of Hampi I tried making sense of the cluster of shacks, huts and small houses that appeared scattered around grander looking structures of the past. There was a massive temple gopuram towering above everything else around which sat very small houses huddling as though they still retained the class order of the fallen Vijayanagara kingdom. I had spent a night in one of these houses, in a lane off the Virupaksha temple. Many of these houses offer rooms on rent. These rooms are annexed to the residing family’s quarter and looks like one of the main sources of income for the families living here. These make the bulk of guesthouses in Hampi. You’d take one if you are on a budget and a scrape-the-bottom kind of traveler.

The previous night, after riding into the town and settling in the room I read Satish Chandra’s account of Vijayanagara and Bahamani Kingdoms. It was a quick overview of the history of the very place I was sleeping in. 500 years back I would have been sleeping amidst the people of the most powerful empire in the Deccan and would have bowed to Krishna Deva Raya.

The entrance tower of Virupaksha temple. All round it are settlements with hardly any cordoned off spaces. Even inside the temple, only the sanctorum is locked at night. The rest of the space doubles up as a large open air dormitory for visitors who aren't up for spending money in renting rooms in the lodges around.

The entrance tower of Virupaksha temple. All round it are settlements with hardly any cordoned off spaces. Even inside the temple, only the sanctorum is locked at night. The rest of the space doubles up as a large open air dormitory for visitors who aren’t up for spending money in renting rooms in the lodges around.

Later, I read Edward Carr’s What is History. Particularly the chapter on history as progress. After that, I read a bit of Pico Iyer’s Lonely Places – Falling Off the Map. He talks about how ‘lonely’ may not always mean physical loneliness, but that it could set-in, in spite of being a part of the greatest crowds or bustle of things. I found myself readily agreeing with it because this place is one of that kind. Loneliness, would at best be a state of mind. (Some would remark, of course!). I agreed with it because the Hampi ruins are almost unreal at one level. The people here seem to be oblivious to the rather heavy weight of history that this place carries and which travelers (and riders and backpackers) come seeking. They appear to be looking for the remains of a mighty empire which had a lasting impact on this part of the world in 15th and 16th century. Whereas, those who live here seem to go about their work and daily life with an obliviousness or perhaps indifference. I don’t know!

Every apart of this erstwhile city, which once had a perimeter of over sixty miles as Nicholas Conti, an Italian traveler reported, continues to be inhabited. They farm, they live and they carry on with their lives here leaving the ruins not to themselves but embedding them in ways which are quite functional. These are, so to speak… living ruins, in my opinion.

This is such a contrast to the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. May be not in the scale of construction but in terms of beauty and elegance. Hampi is way too rich in the experience that it stands to offer to a visitor and the way it situates itself in an interesting integrated manner with the local people. Yet, Angkor gets over two million visitors annually whereas Hampi doesn’t even see 80,000 visitors in a year.

Visiting Angkor I felt it has this ghostly feel to it. A sense  of abandonment and extreme loneliness overcomes the visitor (an Indian visitor at least who comes from such thriving and populated places of history from Gulbarga to Hampi). Hampi, however, is festive. It drives in a sense of continuity of history, as I felt visiting it for the first time. Although, one might find the state of maintenance of most structures inadequate.

Here is once instance where I see a contest for physical space happening in perhaps most of the inhabited spaces across the world. Projects in conservation and preservation of heritage continues to fight this contest and the only approach it seems to be adopting often is to sanitize the space occupied by heritage structures and monuments, cordon it off and in a way, keep them in a frozen state. This often ends up aggravating the contest. An interesting project which moves away from this idea and is seeking to create a ‘living space with heritage’ is Aga Khan Foundation’s work in conservation and restoration of Nizamuddin basti (with Humayun’s Tomb) and space around it, in New Delhi. I heard the project team’s Ratish Nanda give an elaborate presentation on the project a couple of months back at NGMA Bangalore.

This, I feel is the direction heritage conservation in India should move in and not the European style of preservation which is akin to deep freezing. Even as Hampi gets a substantial fund from Government of India towards its conservation, I hope it learns from the Nizamuddin Basti program and not fall prey to the European and American experts on conservation of heritage. I am certain that there is an Indian approach and style waiting to be developed in this space!

An almost crumbled temple from the Hampi cluster.

An almost crumbled temple from the Hampi cluster.

A structure within the Vitthala temple, one of the best kept in the Hampi set of ruins.

A structure within the Vitthala temple, one of the best kept in the Hampi set of ruins.

Another case of being too early: Governor’s remarks on APU

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(Image: todays-quotes.com)

Being always late when required and way too early when not required is a pathological condition in India, especially among those of the political and bureaucratic lot. Of them the Governors of states are a unique lot. In the recent times, it has become rather difficult to understand what role does this class of administrators (if one can call them that) play in a state other than occupying colonial bungalows. With some of them almost behaving like those who occupied those bungalows before independence. Last week, the Governor of Karnataka, H.R. Bhardwaj in a ceremony at the Raj Bhavan (the Governor’s residence) remarked that Azim Premji University (APU) is not ‘living up to its promise of helping the poor and economically-weaker students’.

I happen to attend a graduate program in development at this university. Clearly, I have spent more time than the Governor in this university and can see that he has arrived way too early into an impact assessment party which is not happening. And it in this case it is neither required nor solicited. That he is a “Visitor” at this university and not the Chancellor is a relief!

Obviously, such a remark grows out of a distance from a life of struggle and realities of the country that the office of the Governor reflects. How does one assess the impact of a university which was set up in 2010 and has just seen its first batch graduate? Since his remark, many have suggested that it is premature to judge APU which is a fair point. But let us indulge this remark as it happens to have received some coverage in the newspapers. So, if he would have cared to even visit this university in question for at least one continuous week he would have learnt a thing or two about restraint, civility and definitely a good load about the realities of people, lives, livelihoods and education in an India which is different from what it appears from the windows of the Raj Bhavan. This learning put together would be worth more than a typical luxurious and soporific term in the office. One needs to look at the areas of work that the university is working in – primary education, government teachers’ training, education capacity building in districts and blocks, policy research, empirical studies in education and development – to gain a sense of the expanse that this institution is hoping to contribute to.

His remark was particularly about helping students of economically poor background. For one he clearly has no idea about the scholarships, financial assistance and pre-placement offer like arrangements that the university has with the students, in spite of he being listed as a visitor here. Second, this is a vacuous, opportunistic statement. If the assumption is that this would evoke a response from the university or the foundation that runs it or even the people who manage it, then it is a clear miscalculation. Because there is not a spare moment for indulging remarks like these in this establishment. And civility with hard and real work is valued here more than watching things out of a window. Those who are at the helm do not spend their time addressing banquets but trudge the paths in the hinterland understanding the country better and developing an appropriate response to help the situation, if necessary.

Bottomline is, there is much more happening here than what goes out in the world. People here are media shy and tend to take the last row of chairs when it is time for accolades. This to some is an alien thought.

A colleague suggests that this post is flat on substantial point about the university and that it verges on being a rant. So here goes further evidence of the kind of thinking and scholarship that the university hopes to produce. In Putting Scholarship First the university’s registrar, Giri talks of the Gordian knot of higher education in India today. It is an interesting piece, particularly for those who are interesting in questions with a slant of ‘impact’.

In the Indian context, the overarching social purpose ought to drive research. Research that informs policy and can contribute towards social benefit, even if not published in international journals, should be valued. Such research by teachers serves to bring their students into the world of inquiry, discovery and to appreciate that knowledge is not something to be merely consumed but to be continuously generated.

How does one then look at the impact of a new university within three years of its start? For all we know, a vision such as this might not even create an impact as understood and expected by those sitting at positions from where they should rather be more telescopic in their thinking.