Sitting in a taxi I watch the landscape roll by. I’m on the outskirts of the city of Ujjain in western Madhya Pradesh on a pilgrimage of sorts— tracing the footsteps of two of my favourite writers. Kalidas, sometimes referred to as the “Shakespeare of India,” lived hereabouts. But I’m not the first to come here in search of him. The same road, which winds through villages on the west bank of the Shipra River, was probably taken by novelist E.M. Forster, who toured this area in a tonga in about 1913-14.
At that time, Forster had started planning A Passage to India, which would become his most famous novel. According to Forster’s travel essay, The Nine Gems of Ujjain, he learnt that Kalidas had been a court poet of the Guptas, an empire that marked something of a golden age in fifth-century India, and that one of their capitals was at Ujjain. That’s when he decided to go check it out.
Even though Ujjain by then had clocked in a history of two and a half millennia, making it as old as Rome, Forster was told that there were no antique structures dating from Kalidas’s days. In fact, the Scindia royal family had undertaken much restoration and modernization around that time—which means that today, a hundred years later, the city sports delightful squares which we might now consider old. The most spacious square is centred on a grand clock tower which must have been brand new when Forster dropped by.
Making enquiries, Forster relates that he heard rumours about one palace ruin and hired a tonga to take him there. The tongawalla tried to palm off every ramshackle structure along the road as old. Forster insisted they go on until finally, arriving at the River Shipra, he found a ruined palace on a tiny island, surrounded by beautiful if desolate pavilions. He assumed it was the Gupta court and returned feeling somewhat satisfied.
Making my way to that very island, I find the road crosses a charming stone bridge. On the island is a handsome red sandstone structure—known today as Kaliadeh Palace—with very Islamic-looking cupolas, meaning it is probably less than a thousand years old. It is not quite a ruin—so Forster exaggerated a bit. Visitors can walk through the arches into high-ceilinged cobwebbed halls provided they remove their shoes at the entrance as instructed by the watchman.
As it turns out, the Muslim era palace built by a Malwa Sultan circa A.D. 1485 is now a temple dedicated to Surya, the sun god. There aren’t any pilgrims around, though. The watchman explains that this remote spot used to be the hangout for bandits, but after it was consecrated a couple of years ago, and guards employed, the bad men vamoosed.
I go around the ground floor, my socks wiping a snail’s trail on the dusty stone floors. Adjacent to the palace, I walk into an unlocked guest house built by the Scindias. It is in bad shape—windows broken, doors missing, walls covered in graffiti, floors waterlogged, and monkeys cavorting.
Leaving the palace island, I begin my hunt for something that could actually date back to Gupta times— anything that Kalidas might have seen with his own eyes. Perhaps there’s something that Forster missed.
So I prepare to travel further back in time. The bazaars of Ujjain are evocative, and in the many garment shops the beautifully printed Behrugarh cotton cloth is sold. Already 2,000 years ago Behrugarh cloth was exported to Rome—whose citizens knew of Ujjain as “Ozene,” the place from where one imported onyx, porcelain, and “mallow-tinted cotton” as mentioned in the Periplus Maris Erythraei (Circumnavigation of the Red Sea, a Greek travel guide dating to A.D. 80 written for traders crossing the Indian Ocean).
I ask my taxi driver to take me to Behrugarh (also spelt as Bhairogarh), which turns out to be a small hamlet right across the river from Ujjain. Its name appears to stem from the Kal Bhairav Temple, which was first mentioned in the Skanda Purana (an ancient text quite possibly written at the Gupta court). The temple is within walking distance of the district jail where I spot a few felons in white prison uniforms fixing a clogged ditch by the high prison walls.
I’ve heard a lot about Bhairav. When I first set foot in Ujjain, one enthusiastic policeman at the railway station—who took it upon himself to offer free advice—told me the temple is a must-see. He called Bhairav “the beer drinking god.” Anybody who drinks beer is a friend of mine, so I go for darshan, and find the temple surrounded by liquor vendors.
As it turns out, the god, who is a particularly intimidating manifestation of Shiva, expects to be fed Royal Stag whisky—judging from the number of devotees who line up outside the impressive temple gates clutching 180 ml bottles. Climbing into the pillared hall, I queue up to watch the priest transfer the beverage into a small plate, and then touch it to the lips of the stone idol, who proceeds to slurp it up. If I hadn’t seen it with my own sober eyes, I would scarcely have believed it. The god apparently polishes off some 250 bottles of hard liquor each day.
Suitably inspirited, I explore Behrugarh village. Excavations have unearthed structural remains from the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C., thought to mark the original site of Ujjain—the one Forster did not find. Along the main road are cloth shops, but in a narrower side alley I make the discovery of the day—a batik workshop that employs about half a dozen people busy creating patterns on cloth with wax, before boiling it in dye. The impression is of an activity that’s been going on more or less in the same manner for hundreds of years. Might Kalidas also have worn the colourful clothes from this village? If Behrugarh cloth was in fashion in Rome, he must have, I decide. The proud proprietor takes me to his godown and I buy a few batik shirt pieces at ₹160 each. To round off my spree, I pick up a yellow tie-and-dye hankie for ₹30 in the bazaar. Unfolding it I find it bears a stamp, “Made as China.” Behrugarh’s textile workshops clearly have their own strategies to meet modern competition!
Heading back across the river to town, I come to the concrete, boxy Mangalnath Temple, which possibly stands on the spot of a Gupta-era astronomical observatory. The temple is, as the name suggests, dedicated to the planet Mars and worshipping here will remove any Mangaldosha that might be bothering one’s horoscope. Several rituals are in full progress in the temple yard where Brahmins chant mantras on behalf of the young couples hoping to be blessed with child.
Further down the road is Sandipani Ashram, said to have been a centre of learning for at least 3,000 years. It is believed that this is where Lord Krishna was taught maths by Guru Sandipani and, apparently, the priests who manage this ashram today are the guru’s direct descendants. Not much else remains from those days—except for the temple tank in which Krishna washed his writing slate between classes. I imagine that Kalidas must have visited the ashram, maybe to lecture the students on literature. When I ask for more information, a holy man who presides over the temple hall instructs me not to bother so much with looking for evidence from the past, but instead see to it that the children of the present treat the elderly with respect.
Suitably chastised, I continue on to the charming Gadkalika Temple, just two kilometres away on a side road, which is dedicated to the goddess Kali. It has a chessboard patterned floor and its foundations are said to date back to the first century B.C. The poet was a worshipper—dasa—of the goddess, and hence his penname, Kalidas. Local legend has it that he used to be unable to write until he came here and Kali granted him a boon, turning him into one of the greatest writers of the world. Kalidas then sat down to pen his immortal epics, one of which is the poem Meghaduta, perhaps India’s oldest travelogue and in which a flying cloud eulogizes Ujjain’s temples, palatial buildings, handsome people, and the dancing Shipra River.
I kneel before the deity, thinking that this is perhaps the only thing in Ujjain that Kalidas himself probably laid eyes upon. I take darshan, get my forehead red with vermilion powder, and feel a little sorry for Forster, who missed this experience.
Not far from the temple I find an interesting cave monastery, on the bank of the Shipra River. Bharthari Cave is a stronghold of ash-smeared Nath babas, one of whom is enthroned out front and receives respect and cash from pilgrims. A few claustrophobic corridors tunnel through the cliff. One leads me to a subterranean chamber. Stone platforms line the walls and I get the feeling that Kalidas may have come here too—it is next to his favourite temple—and enjoyed philosophical debates with the resident ascetics.
It is also said that Gupta ruler Vikramaditya’s stepbrother, the poet Bharthari (after whom the caves are named) retired from his hectic life as a litterateur to become an ascetic here. Vikramaditya himself struggled with a vampire-like infestation hereabouts— at least according to the tales of Vikram and Betaal.
To my enormous amazement, as I step out of the caves, I find myself face to face with a spooky, bigeyed stone effigy of that same Betaal, leaning against a wall in the outer courtyard. It’s as if I’ve suddenly crossed some invisible barrier between now and then, and come within touching distance of the Gupta era and its stories.
Ujjain is in western Madhya Pradesh, 192 km/3 hr west of Bhopal and 396 km/7 hr east of Ahmedabad.
By Air The closest airport is at Indore, 55 km/1 hr south of Ujjain (taxis charge ₹1,500 one-way).
By Train There are frequent trains from Bhopal to Ujjain (3-4 hours).
By Road Ujjain is a 3-hour drive from Bhopal, and a 1-hour drive from Indore. There are frequent buses from the two cities.
Ujjain’s old town is north of the railway station, while the areas south of it are modern suburbs. Within the old city it is enjoyable to lose oneself in the bazaars or take an auto-rickshaw (upto ₹50 for travel within the old town). To see the sights on the outskirts of the city, it is best to rent a taxi for the day (MyTaxi; 94248 79090/98935 65655; ₹1,000 for a non-AC cab for a 6-7 hour tour).
There are budget hotels across the road from the railway station. Hotel Rama-Krishna is basic and clean and has a Punjabi-style vegetarian restaurant (www.hotelramakrishna.co.in; doubles from ₹1,300). A similar rate is charged at the slightly better Prem Palace on Madhav Club Road, south of the railway station (0734-2552070/2555677; doubles from ₹1,300). Many more hotels are located along Madhav Club Road where you find one of the best options: Shipra Residency is comfortable and has an AC bar that does tandoori snacks (0734-2551495/96; www.mptourism.com; doubles from ₹2,990).
Food in Ujjain tends to be robust and vegetarian. The typical breakfast is savoury poha with a cup of tea (₹10), available pretty much everywhere. In front of the railway station there are canteens that do a variety of meals. Chanakya specializes in south Indian tiffin, like masala dosas (₹60) and a local favourite, the deep-fried idli. To try Malwa flavours, head to Mahadeo in the complex by the bus stand which is known for its dal-baati, a dish of roasted dough balls served with fiery gravy (₹28).
Visit the clock tower square or “Tower Chowk” just before sunset to find dozens of tidy pushcarts serving chaat. The menu includes dhokla, sabudana khichri, tawa-fried ketchup pizzas, and aloo tikki chaat with chhole, all for ₹20-₹30 per plate.
For a hygienic fast-food option, try the city’s favourite Apna Sweets on Dewas Road (near Kalidas Academy) for chaat, sweetmeats, and superb tandoori pizza. To beat the heat, try Dinshaw’s Ice Cream. For a chilled out afternoon or evening, head for the airy rooftop Mehfil Bar with comfy sofas at the Prem Palace Hotel on Madhav Club Road; local Hunter beer costs ₹150 and a fish tikka platter ₹250.
If you walk up any of the streets leading north from the railway station, you’ll come across the bazaars of Ujjain. They are charming, though a bit crowded. Textiles are popular wares here, and there are plenty of retailers to choose from. If you decide to head to Behrugarh village to source some authentic tie-and-dye cloth and batik work, look for Sajida Batiq Art, which sells anything from bed sheets to saris (0734-2574536; 52 Main Road).
Appeared in the May 2016 issue as “Once Upon A Golden Age”.
is the author of crime novels "Once Upon A Time in Scandinavistan" (Hachette India, 2010) and "Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru" (Hachette India, 2012). His latest novel is "Hari, a Hero for Hire" (Pan Macmillan India).
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