The Lost Town of Vidisha – Under the Shadow of Sanchi
Certain circuits in India are so abundant in archaeological heritage that it is almost impossible to do justice to all of them. While a few of them have been lucky to achieve worldwide fame and consequently more funds to maintain themselves, there are thousands of hidden or neglected treasures scattered all over the country. Hardly a surprise, considering the antiquity of the civilization.
The dusty town of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh is one such location whose current condition does not quite do justice to its glorious past. As an important trading post at the centre of the subcontinent, Vidisha or Besnagar has been mentioned in many ancient scriptures and apparently it thrived as early as 5th or 6th century BC, thus making it one of the most important archaeological sites in India. Among others, Ashoka the Great himself used to be a governor here during his father’s reign and married a local princess.
As of now, it is a typical hinterland town generally used as a resting point to visit the Sanchi Stupa as it is the nearest major railway station. Sanchi is one of the more privileged destinations here, being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sprawling complex has been masterfully restored and is immaculately maintained, drawing thousands of visitors every year. But in comparison, many other sites are scattered in and around the town of Vidisha. Let us have a look at some of them.
As an important trading post at the centre of the subcontinent, Vidisha or Besnagar has been mentioned in many ancient scriptures and apparently it thrived as early as 5th or 6th century BC, thus making it one of the most important archaeological sites in India. Among others, Ashoka the Great himself used to be a governor here during his father’s reign and married a local princess.
The Udayagiri caves follow the same glorious tradition of the famous rock cut caves that dot the country. While not as famous as the likes of Ajanta and Ellora, Udayagiri is one of the most important remnants of the Gupta Era that thrived between the 4th and 6th century AD. It is not more than 10 kms from Vidisha town and any three-wheeler can take you there in 20 minutes. It is a cluster of 20 caves, containing Hindu and Jain sculptures.
Not all the caves are still in good condition. Some of them remain locked for “maintenance activities” that seem to last forever. Among the accessible ones, the most striking one is the Cave No. 5 with its intricate sculpture of Varaha, the third incarnation of Lord Vishnu. It depicts the creation of order out of chaos by the avatar, accompanied by personified forms of the earth goddess Prithvi and the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. Other noticeable artifacts include the strange Shiva Linga within Cave No. 4 with the face engraved on, and the large sculpture of a majestic reclining Vishnu inside Cave no. 13 in the classical Ananta Shayya position with the serpent Adi Shesha.
One does not even have to buy tickets to enter this compound. There are a couple of caretakers who gladly show people around for a small tip, which is the least the visitors can do in order to cheer them up and ensure the survival of this archaeological masterpiece.
As the name suggests, the Heliodoros Pillar is just a pillar. But there is an interesting backstory to its outlandish name. It is not very far from Udayagiri and the locality is surrounded by squalid cowsheds. The Bactrian Greeks mostly remained limited to the North Western India, thus making such a Greek heritage an unexpected find so deep down in the Vindhyas. But according to the Brahmi and Prakrit inscriptions on the pillar, it was gifted to the local king by a Greek ambassador called Heliodoros from Taxila. He evidently embraced Hinduism and this pillar was meant to honour Lord Vasudeva (Vishnu). Considering the time frame of Indo-Greek rendezvous, it must be even older than the Udayagiri Caves.
An interesting stop right inside the town of Vidisha is the Bija Mandal. It houses the remains of an 11th century Parmara temple with some vital inscriptions and intricately crafted artifacts. More importantly, it represents a different era altogether – the Golden Age of India. The ancient city of Vidisha disappeared for a couple of centuries after the fall of the mighty Guptas. It bounced back later in the medieval times under the reign of the Rajput dynasties – the Parmaras being one of them.
The museum of Vidisha is also worth a visit for lovers of antiquity. Apart from that, there are many small locations nearby that preserve many unexplored gems of Madhya Pradesh. Places like Gyaraspur, Eran and Sironj are just waiting for their stories to be recounted. As for Vidisha, the administration restored the official name to its classical form a few decades ago instead of the corrupted “Bhelsa”. It’s high time the Indian tourist developed an awareness of its own rich heritage, makes efforts to uncover these dusty treasures far from the touristy madhouses, and demands the better amenities and maintenance that this erstwhile royal city deserves.
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