UDAYAGIRI near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh is a well-known archaeological site for the study of the Gupta dynasty, in the late fourth and early fifth centuries Common Era (CE). But before the Guptas arrived there, Udayagiri had been a flourishing centre, according to the earliest available evidence, from the second century CE.
A recent book, The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual: Temples and the Establishment of the Gods, by Michael Willis, Curator with the British Museum has attempted to explore this far past of Udayagiri. The Guptas understood and used the place to revitalise the Hindu kingship, who they perceived as not merely as chakravarti but as the supreme devotee of Vishnu, according to Willis. The book focuses on astronomical-geographical location of the land Udayagiri and the understanding and use of the place by the Guptas.
Udayagiri was a centre of astronomy and calendrical activity as it lies in the natural path that cuts through the lower part of the hill where a carved tableau of Vishnu is located or near the passage. The book extensively quotes sources from epigraphy, historical astronomy, ethnography and landscape archeology to strengthen on-field observations. Willis says that the book “represents my own effort to inject a measure of dynamism into the static, desk-bound forms of analysis that have so far governed the study of Indian inscriptions, sculptures, built environment, and landscape.”
For instance, he talks about the reading of the inscriptions, which are printed in books. He says, read as a text, it gives the image of “an overconfident cultural narcissism.” Whereas, reading the inscriptions in situ, along with the religious and other images around it amplifies the political and cultural meanings. Willis has done that throughout the book. Not merely ‘reading’ the inscriptions or carvings, but reading them with an understanding of the time and place when it was written and the significance of that in that given political milieu. The text with context approach.
The book makes an exhaustive study of the system of time keeping and astronomy. Water clocks that maintained the time day and night and during cloudy days and the sun-dials, the rock cuts that registered the rays of the sun have been explained with diagrams. The position of the images of Vishnu and other deities are related to these. All these go to show yet again how precise the Indian measurements were astronomically. We knew of the longest and shortest days and nights, the shifting of the sun between the northern and southern hemisphere etc. and all this at a time when nearly the rest of the world had not even discovered that the Sun and not the Earth was the centre of the Universe. These points need not be emphasised more here.
An interesting observation cannot escape notice. Willis says that Udayagiri was the original location of the iron pillar at Mehrauli (Qutb Minar). The idea was first mentioned by R. Balasubramaniam. The iron pillar inscription mentions that it was “raised on the hill (called) Vishnupada.” The author feels that the evidences support this view and also proves that Vishnu’s footprints were enshrined in the temple on the northern hill in Udayagiri.
Property dispute constitute the bulk of pending cases in the judiciary today. And yet, India had a well-developed sense of law and property by the fourth Century CE. The book describes the various land dealings that were carried through and how they were recorded and kept out of dispute.
The author declares Udayagiri “as a sacred place that sustains and authenticates cosmology and religious belief far beyond oral or textual traditions, beyond even the individual icons of the gods and goddesses that are carved into the rocks at the site…more historically, Udayagiri is a place where the rising power of theism was harmonised with ancient systems of ritual and knowledge…”
An exhaustively researched book, with nearly 125 of the total 375 pages given to notes that support every statement and observation. The images and illustrations used in the book have come largely from the British Museum, making one wonder how much of our heritage is lodged in foreign museums and libraries, the one consolation being that they would be looked after better there and put to good use, like this. An absorbing academic work that touches the Indian history, culture and politics beyond Udayagiri too.
(Cambridge University Press, c/o Cambridge University Press India Pvt Ltd., Cambridge House, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj New Delhi 110 002.)