Post 53 – Day 29 ‘The Tomb of the Wet-Nurse, and other stories’ (Pt 2)

Post 53e Post 53d Post 53b Post 53c

The highway to Ujjain is two lanes wide, either side. It is new, it is ultra modern. It is an autobahn of the First World, and it is totally devoid of potholes. There is no place upon its wide expanse for house cows and ambling ox-drawn carts piled high with the produce of village fields, but neither is it a thoroughfare for speedsters, for trucks ply this national highway at a leisured pace. But on this road their horns are silent.

The city of Ujjain is located on the eastern bank of the Kshipra, or Shipra, River; the word ‘shipra’ denoting the state of purity, chastity and clarity. The river is said to have originated from the blood of Vishnu’s hand, cut by Lord Shiva when in a rage. However, the ancient Hindu Puranas suggest the Kshipra originated from the heart of Varaha, Vishnu’s manifestation in the form of a massive boar. Every twelve years the ‘Kumbh Mela’ takes place on the city’s ghats. This festival is a mass Hindu pilgrimage in which Hindu’s gather at the river to bath as an act of purification. The timing of the location of the Kumbh Mela is dependent on the position of the planet Jupiter (Brhaspati) and the sun.

Excavations at Ujjain date urban beginnings there to the middle of the first millennium BCE, the occurrence of pottery known as ‘Northern Black Polished Ware’ being a hallmark for archaeological dating. Under the name Ujjayini, Ujjain was mentioned in the epic Mahabharata, and was the capital of the Avanti kingdom. Ujjain lay on the main trade route between northern India and the Deccan, and today it is one of the seven most holy of Hindu cities, and the site of one of the eleven ‘Jyotirlinga’ shrines to Lord Shiva. Some of the earliest references to the city date from the time of Guatama Buddha, and the city was reputed to be the residence of Asoka when he was viceroy of the western provinces of the Mauryan Empire. Following the fall of the Mauryan Empire Ujjain was ruled by the Sungas (185-73 BCE) and later by the Satavahanas (circa 230 BCE – 220 CE). The emergence of the Satavahana dynasty came from that of a simple chiefdom, the newly established rulers practising Vedic rituals of sacrifice as an act of legitimatisation. They likely arose from positions of administrative function first held during the Mauryan period, taking the opportunity of kingship as the Mauryan Empire disintegrated. The first Satavahanan king to achieve a position of historical significance was Satakarni, his conquests taking him across the Narmada into Malwa. Satakarni was the first king against whom Kharavela of Kalinga campaigned. Ujjain was considered to be the capital of Chandra Gupta II, one of the most powerful rulers of the Gupta Empire, ruling during the late 4th and early 5th centuries; a period in which the empire reached the height of its achievements. The city is mentioned as ‘Ozene’ in the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’, the ancient treatise on the sea ports and trade centres of the western Indian Ocean.

Ujjain has been the ‘Prime Meridan’, the point of longitudinal differentiation at which the Earth is arbitrarily divided into east and west, as of 0o of longitude, by Hindu geographers since the 4th Century. In the western world the Prime Meridan is determined as running through the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England. The late 10th – early 11th Century Islamic scholar Abu Raihan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, in his ‘An Accurate Description of all Categories of Hindu Thought’, more popularly known as ‘Alberuni’s India’, says in relation to the location of Ujjain “The city of Ujain, which in the tables of the longitudes of places is mentioned as ‘Uzain’, and is situated on the sea, is in reality 1900 ‘yojana’ distant from the sea. Some undiscriminating Muslim astronomer has uttered the opinion that Ujain lies on the meridian of Al-shaburkan in Al-juzajan; but such is not the case, for it lies by many degrees of the equator more to the east than Al-shaburkan. There is some confusion about the longitude of Ujain, particularly among such (Muslim) astronomers as mix up with each other the different opinions about the first degree of longitude both in east and west, and are unable to distinguish them properly.” In this argument I’m voting on the side of al-Burini the only small detail at possible issue being the calculation for the conversion of a yojana as a measure of distance. Literally meaning ‘harnessing’ or ‘yoking’, popular values for conversion vary from 1 yojana equalling 2.5, 4.5 or 9 miles, or their metric equivalents, making for the inconvenient problem as to just where precisely one draws the line. The ‘error’ factor can be considerable, and not at all helpful as a tool to safe and accurate navigation. Less precise historical methods of calculation, for example, using the distance a god can fly in a given time, or the distance a team of animals can travel without yoking, are not necessarily any more helpful.

Nevertheless, in the 10th and 11th Centuries Ujjain was a major centre of mathematical and astronomical study. One of its most famous mathematicians and astronomers was Brahmagupta, believed to have been born in 598 CE in the present-day state of Rajasthan, and rising to become the head of the astronomical observatory at Ujjain. He was the first to use ‘zero’ as a number. The modern rule that two negative numbers multiplied together equals a positive number first occurs in his treatise, the ‘Brahmasputa siddhanta’, the ‘Corrected Treatise of Brahma’. The Brahmasputa siddhanta appeared in 628 CE, but I must admit to a condition of ignorance as to the notion of its premise for I have never managed to get my head around the contention that a negative value multiplied by a negative value comes out on the black side of the ledger. I am not alone in this view for all my attempts have failed to persuade my normally obliging bank manager that if he simply multiplied the negative values in my various credit card overdraughts together both he, the bank’s shareholders, and my financial solvency, would all be on the winning side. Am I missing something here that Brahmagupta so ably grasped, and that my cranial grey matter refuses to accept or acknowledge?

But the powers of mathematical computation and astronomical brilliance rarely stand against the machinations of political and military ambition, and in 1235 CE Ujjain was invaded by the forces of the Delhi Sultanate, and in the 16th Century, under the Mughal emperor Akbar, the city was to become the capital of Malwa. Akbar, Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar, or just Akbar the Great, lived from 1542 to 1605. He was a contemporary of King Phillip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Akbar was the third emperor to sit upon the Mughal throne, and was the son of Humayun. During his reign the Mughal Empire came to cover most of northern and central India. Aged only 13 when he ascended the throne, and though initially winning battles against the Pashtun and the Hindu king Hemu (1501-1556), it took nearly 20 more years of campaigning to secure his rule. During this time Akbar’s expansionist reign led to the conquering of the Punjab, Gwalior, Gujurat, northern Rajputana (now Rajasthan), Jaunpur, Jammu, Malwa, and the kingdom of the Gonds. In his capture of the Rajput fort of Chittorgarh some 30,000 defenders and inhabitants were massacred, the Rajput women within, before the fort’s fall, being told to commit ‘Jauhar’; death by self-immolation. At odds with this point of history, the later period of Akbar’s reign is known as one of tolerance towards Hinduism and other religions, including Roman Catholicism, that of the Portuguese Jesuits he encountered from Goa. This religious liberalism on his part also ushered in a time of high culture, art, and architectural achievement. It was Akbar who ordered the illustration of his grandfather’s autobiography the ‘Babur-nama’. His grandfather, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, was the founder of the Mughal Empire, and the Babur-nama records the victories and disappointments of Babur’s many military campaigns coupled with candid comments on his family and enemies. It includes graphic descriptions of Afghanistan and Turkestan, but most importantly Hindustan; its climate, plants, animals, population, trade, water supply and customs. Originally written in Babur’s own hand the work is a fresh and spontaneous recital of the things the first Mughal emperor accomplished, saw and heard. Akbar not only bestowed grants of land and money for mosques but also gave similar endowments to many Hindu temples, and Christian churches in Goa. But though he was accomplished in hunting and was acclaimed for his military genius, Akbar was illiterate. He was greatly interested in the teachings of Jain scholars, and though sceptical of their atheistic views on God and creation, he was influenced by their philosophy of non-violence and vegetarianism, came to deplore the eating of flesh, and issued imperial edicts banning the slaughter of animals. Akbar the Great died of dysentery in the year 1605. It was the year in which Guy Fawkes plotted to blow up the English Houses of Parliament, and in the German city of Strasbourg the world’s first newspaper was published. In 1691 austere Hindu rebels broke into Akbar’s tomb, and desecrated his remains. Payback of a kind.


I reach Ujjain in time to briefly explore the ghats at the riverside. Bodies are cremated further upstream but I do not go there. Exploring several secondary streets on the way back to the parked car I encounter the body of a young man, maybe in his late 20’s or early 30’s, laying in the street. The man has assumed the pose of sleep, curled to the right on his left side in a partial foetal position. My driver says it is a city where cannabis intoxication is commonplace, but death has a familiar ring to it no matter how subtle and comforting its embrace, and I am well acquainted with its shroud. I continue on, as do the many others walking this thoroughfare.

In my room at the hotel I dine on complimentary tea and coffee, as well as bananas and mandarins purchased that morning. The day ends almost as it had begun amongst the tomb ruins of Mandu; one of contemplation of the anonymity of death. I could have spent the night in fitful reflection, but I keep the nightmares at bay playing air guitar; Steppenwolf’s ‘The Pusher’, Cream’s ‘White Room’, The Animals’ ‘When I Was Young’. I did two vocal encores of Joe Cocker’s rendition of ‘Came in Through the Bathroom Window’, and the movie instrumental intro to Bette Midler’s ‘The Rose’. I even hit the high notes in The Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’. The only number I fumbled was The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’, but it needs a 12-string guitar, and I hadn’t factored that instrument into my dream.

Through it all Rupmati and Baz Bahadur danced timelessly on, out from the mahal of the younger sister of the wet nurse, and across the high terrace of Rupmati’s Pavilion. It was almost like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers …….a cliché I know, and the use of a diacritic I could not avoid.

Post 53a

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