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Posted on : January 4th, by
Diya at Diwali
“Diya” – an oil lamp at Diwali

It is a Saturday, 6 PM. It is dark outside – the kind of cold chilly evening air that winter brings. The last few weeks were busy. Diwali came. I love this time. The Diyas (earthen oil lamps……….. bring light, the preparations for this festival of lights abound. The children are excited. The fireworks are let off. The stories of bygone eras – of a Ramyug are told and retold.
My sister, Vandana and I grew up in Durgapur in West Bengal. I have vivid memories of 22/15 Newton Avenue – of a little house with a small garden to the front and a larger courtyard to the back, large enough to host three cashew trees which we climbed all the time or so my memory tells me. We would carefully select our fireworks in the shops after extensive discussions just like children still do.

kids choosing fireworks, Hyderabad
kids choosing fireworks, Hyderabad

We would then lay out our fireworks in the courtyard – throughout the month before Diwali. We believed that if we kept them in the morning sun the gunpowder in the fireworks would be dry and so we would not have a single dud firework. We looked at them lovingly just like many children do. The care and precision with which we placed the “Bhoomichakra” (Ground wheels) was such that all sides would evenly get the sun, turning them gingerly around every two hours or so. This went on for a month. With each sunny day that passed the expectation of pleasure at the performing fireworks grew. It was a great time of year. There would be colourful earthen pots, flowers in the streets, new clothes and an air of festivity that can only be felt. And in West Bengal you have Kali puja, too There would be huge pandals which had a bustle, noise, lights and scents – the aroma of lit Dhup (frankincense) on hot coals in clay earthen pots which devotees twirled around making such fanciful dances with their footwork and twisting hands all set to rhythmic cymbals. The whole Dhup Naach (Frankincense Dance) was so memorable and enchanting. The Goddess was huge – a blue-skinned lady with a red tongue jutting out of her mouth, a garland of small skulls – it was her mission to rid earth of all evil people and the skulls were proof of how potent she was. And blue as every kid knew she was dark in colour. I often wondered why Krishna was painted blue as was Kali – of course both had this intense colour. Only years later when I saw a truly dark person form south India that I realised that one can have such a dark colour that there are hints of blue in the skin. It actually looks beautiful. It happens only occasionally but as a child I never understood that and hence the wonderment remained. Kali was “Shakthi” (Strength) personified. We heard she was the demonic form of Parvati,, that Shiva was her husband and she was returning from her bath in the darkness of night when she stepped over a man on her path and when she saw it was her husband, she bit her tongue in blushing remorse! And hence the red tongue that you see with the colour intensity so it draws attention to that act of biting her tongue. It is an act you would only understand if you lived in India. When one makes a mistake unintentionally there is an instinctive reaction of biting one’s tongue in a gesture I have not seen elsewhere in the world. To my enquiring mind much did Kailash mountains in the Himalayas and yet here Kali (a form of Parvati) is black (or blue) and Shiva lying on the floor is in white in calendar art. Was Kali symbolising darkness within fair Parvati? Years later I realised the complexities of stories of a dark Parvati generating inner heat to become the fair goddess ‘Gauri’. But these thoughts and readings came later, much later as I matured to read scriptures. At that age of childhood innocence, all I remember is that this disparity of colour across stories troubled me. I soon put it aside. I loved the spectacle and though I do not get to see it now, one day I will go back to Bengal to see all those lovely sights again.

Diwali, the festival of lights, however, is celebrated all over India Diwali, of course, is the culmination of the journey of Rama. This tale is one of the two epics of India called Ramayana. Diwali is celebrated when Rama returns to his kingdom, after 14 years in exile, to his rightful place as ‘King of Ayodhya’. This journey from birth to this point in life is told in 24,000 verses in Sanskrit. It explores model behaviour and forms the basis of ‘Dharma’ an essential component of how to live one’s life as a Hindu
I have often wondered how Ramayana has been seen through the age. Only yesterday I saw a play called ‘Sita’s story’. Sita is Rama’s wife. So, instead of the story being Rama’s journey (i.e. Ramayana), the two actors, two really gifted young ladies presenting in street theatre format, brought to life the whole story from the perspective of the female protagonist. So, this interpretation cuts out the birth of Rama, their education, the story of the Monkey brothers Vali and Sugreeva It was an interesting play. On a similar theme, I saw a book at Landmark’s bookshop at Hyderabad with the theme of “Ravana’s story”. The blurb said “I am Ravana, the Asura, and my story is the tale of the vanquished.” The book itself is called “Asura: Tale of the Vanquished: The Story of Ravana and His People”. I have not read the book yet but in time….. that would be a good book to read.
I wonder if Ramayana changes as the context varies. Years ago, I worked in a little village called Borale in Mangalweda Taluka, Sholapur district, Maharashtra. There, over the course of a week, I saw Ramayana told in the temple courtyard. Ramayana was originally transmitted down generations solely in the oral tradition. Historian Michael Wood shows these scenes preserved in a Sanskrit school – a lovely piece of filming
Only centuries later did a written version come in a Sanskrit play. And then many centuries later did the medium of story telling change from Valmiki’s Ramayana to Tulsidas Ramchritmanas in Awadh So the stories are told of the bards who recited these themes. This tradition of memorising whole Ramayana and Mahabharata are feats that astound us as the Ramayana is 24,000 verses and the other great epic Mahabharata is 90,000 verses (in Sanskrit called Sholkas which is a couplet with each line being in 16 syllables One wonders if the tradition fell to disuse once writing of the story set in. These days with Wikipedia to hand and powerful internet search engines that go through databases of publications in milliseconds, slowly evidence is coming to light that the brain is losing the ability to recall from memory and replaces that recall ability with analytical skills. But as I said at the beginning of the paragraph, I wonder how Diwali would have been at different times of history e.g. in Sanchi during the next phase of our historical patrons? We covered Kushanas and Kanishka the Great. The next emperor who comes into focus like rising out of the mists comes from 325 AD/CE – from the Gupta period.
Near the South Torana that we covered in the last blog there is a Temple identified now as Temple – 17. It is thought to belong to the Gupta period. In 1912 when the renowned archeologist Sir John Marshall was involved with excavations standing amidst the Sanchi ruins, he thought Temple 17 “a simple elegant structure with a lot of restraint on embellishment……..” This temple was an early attempt at providing an abode for the gods. Gradually Buddha’s veneration had turned from symbols (wheel, stupa Lotus, feet, etc)

stupa represented on a Torana of Sanchi Stupa
stupa represented on a Torana of Sanchi Stupa
wheel represented on a Torana of Sanchi Stupa
wheel represented on a Torana of Sanchi Stupa

to a full complete form. Now the Gandhara schools and later the Mathura schools of art started depicting these forms. The Gupta period is absolutely fascinating. It covered a time more than 1500 years ago. Probably starting about 320 AD/ CE to 505 AD or so – often referred to as “Golden period” or “Classical period” but it does appear a lot of activity happened. It fills me with wonder how much thought was there – whether in maths, science, art, sculpture or literature – all kinds of literature. The times seemed to encourage thought – often I feel this is a sign of a prosperous kingdom. Once basic needs are sorted – like keeping communities safe from marauding armies, giving them enough to eat, providing shelter from elements, comfortable houses, keeping crime down and providing security and then work to keep people busy and value their output and thus themselves – the thoughts then turn to leisure, arts and science.
Imagine a man on a boat watching the buildings at the shore as he glides by – and then a thought occurs – that there seems to be a paradoxical movements and it looks as if the buildings are moving. I remember only a few days ago my eleven year old laughing at how when she was younger and travelling in a car she thought the trees were running away from her and this made her feel sad . Today she laughs at her silliness. But what if you went further and, instead of laughing, you looked the way the buildings are moving and then you started deducing which direction the boat is moving? And then extrapolated that thought to replace buildings with the sun and moon and say the apparent travel of the sun in the skies is actually only virtual – the real thing happening is that the earth is akin to the boat. Such a thought occurred to the mathematician Aryabhatta in 499AD. He went on to deduce that the earth is a sphere, that it rotated on its axis, that its shadows caused the eclipses. He calculated pi – all this obsession about circles must have led to thoughts about relationships between the circumference and the radius Other thoughts proliferated, too. Some decades later Varahamihira . brought astrology to explain its effects on life. Now these concepts sound strange and factually wrong but many streams of thought have to happen before truth is distilled. People thought about love, relationships, sex – Kamasutra was written by the sage Vatsyayana in about 400 AD. A veritable treatise looking at the art of love People defined social norms and categories were drawn – how people were to behave, what punishments to give them if they did not adhere to social norms – Dharmashastra Literature too flourished in the Gupta period. Kalidasa’s Sanskrit play on Shakuntala has captivated interest till present times I also think of Mrichakatika (the little clay cart)śāstra This play provided glimpses of urban life in those times. The absolutely wonderful film Utsav was loosely based on parts of this. I remember Shekhar Suman and Rekha in that movie. There was more literature – so much more. E.g. Subhandu’s Vasavadatta. This was the first Amar Chitra Katha comic strip that my dad bought for me. That story of a lovely princess Vasavadatta was bought on the railway station at Hoogly river. I was sitting in the train and the vendor passed the comic strip through the iron bars in the window. And a whole new world opened on that journey of Coromondal train which took me down West Bengal through Orissa to Andhra Pradesh – a journey of two nights on the train. I loved reading Vasavadatta
There were other spheres too – systems of thought, religious formulations etc. The Gupta period produced books and discourses on Logic (called Nyaya – a system of analysis). They produced discussions on characteristics, talking of the universe being made of atoms called Anu but surmised that the metaphysical characteristics of the soul Atma being different to this – one being perishable and one living forever in cycles of life and time. There were discussions on dividing time into aeons and concepts came of linear time and cyclical time. There was imagination of a cycle of Kalpa being defined as 4.3 million years. This cycle was divided into 14 Manavantras. They talked about each Great cycle having 4 Yugas. Such concepts needed huge imagination at a time when the Western thought was grappling with the worlds’ age being 7000 years. Cyclical time now feeds into Inflational theory of Genesis of the Universe and Deep time concepts.
But back to the connection with Sanchi. Temple 17 was built in the Gupta period.

Temple 17, Sanchi site built in the Gupta period.
Temple 17, Sanchi site
built in the Gupta period.

It hosts an inner Sanctum Sanctorum at Garba Griha – Garba means womb and Griha means residence. Outside this was a portico where people could stand in respect and offer prayers. The pillars at the margins of the portico have representations that show a lotus – a flower of such beauty growing gracefully in absolutely dirty lakes and ponds. They inverted the lotus and put it on the top of the pillar much like Greek Corinthian columns– this symbolism must make man stare at a lotus from below and contemplate amongst other things the grace in sculpture. The Gupta period refined Buddha – they felt a need to create a feeling and emotion in sculpture – what they called “Rasa”. There were discourses on whether a supreme being or intellect like Buddha who had found the answer to life’s problems of unhappiness or Dukkha would have characteristics of divinity or greatness. The journey of how to represent this in icons started. And what a journey that was.

The Gupta Buddha is the icon that represents Buddha everywhere now. But back in those Gupta times there were discussions on traditional bodily markings of a great person – the Mahapurushalakhshana. Descriptions like Lion chest, well rounded shoulders, broad back, doctrinal marks on soles, long and beautiful arms, a protuberance on the head, the Usnisa, all were contemplated. They were incorporated, too. This was the result of a dialogue between Hindu and Buddhist Logic which led to this syncretism. While the physical descriptors were important, the mood shifted to what Buddha was about – that his way of life was to lead to serenity. And then flowed the idea of showing this emotion, this Rasa to capture the essence of Buddha. In his book “Akriti to Sanskriti – the journey of Indian forms” Harsha V Dahija talks about how the Rasa that was distilled and identified was “Shanthi Rasa” – an inward serenity of a person who had realised Dehija describes how that Shanthi was depicted as half closed eyes with a gentle smile. And so it is now in Buddhas all over the world. When you see Buddha in a Tibetan form or Borubodur or in Ajanta and Ellora caves, the eyes are half closed and the smile is gentle and the effect is of a serene Buddha.


Buddha in Ellora caves - the eyes are half closed and the smile is gentle and the effect is of a serene Buddha.
Buddha in Ellora caves
– the eyes are half closed and the smile is gentle and the effect is ….
of a serene Buddha.

That ability to leave an image that has lasted 1500 years and has not been changed – that is the Gupta period’s gift to the world, that and so many other things like Pi, Kalidasa, Kamasutra.
For me, the Sanchi story is advanced by this image and the stupa started in Mauryan times moves through histories and reaches Gupta period 600 years later and yet the story continues.