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A monumental error

india Updated: Oct 22, 2011 14:29 IST
Nayanjot Lahiri
Nayanjot Lahiri
Hindustan Times
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What is it about this photograph of parallel brick walls in a setting somewhat reminiscent of the visuals in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider that is worth contemplating? Why is a man walking through the passage? And why should Hindustan Times readers, who know nothing about this place, be asked to think about it?

The masses of bricks are found near Junagadh, a town in Gujarat famous for reasons that have little to do with the relict walls in the photograph. For one, Junagadh is located close to the majestic Girnar, the highest mountain in Gujarat in whose vicinity stands the historic rock where three ancient monarchs, starting with Asoka, got their edicts inscribed. For another, from the medieval centuries onwards, Junagadh became a centre of worship for Hindu and Jaina pilgrims. The parikrama around Girnar, which such pilgrims undertake from November onwards, remains the most important event in the sacred calendar of the town.

Much before its medieval fame as a centre of Jaina and Hindu worship, the hills of Girnar and the area of Junagadh was sacred to the Buddhists. There are several ancient rock hewn caves in and around it with dwelling chambers and water tanks for monks. Impressive foundations of brick built monasteries have also survived and one of these, at Intwa, was set up by the Saka ruler Rudrasena (c. 2nd century AD) for the bhikshu samgha there. These are monuments that are protected and conserved by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

What have been practically forgotten, however, are a couple of Buddhist stupas that still stand in the Girnar forest. The walls in the photograph form part of the most impressive of them, known locally as Lakha Medi.

The Lakha Medi stupa is built on a rocky knoll, about seven kilometres to the east of Junagadh, in a delightfully secluded valley from where the rugged Girnar and the Datar hill, the highest after Girnar, can be seen. The valley is visited by those who come to pay obeisance at the Bhor Devi temple there. Hardly anyone, though, remembers the presence of a colossal stupa in the jungle adjacent to the temple, originally as large as the great stupa at Sanchi, and one which was excavated in 1889 by JM Campbell of the Bombay Civil Service. Campbell is generally remembered as the compiler of the Bombay District Gazetteers. Less known is the massive cutting that Campbell left behind at Lakha Medi as a consequence of his excavations at the stupa. From the available account of that excavation, it seems that first, the top of Lakha Medi was sliced off to a depth of 22 feet, then a trench 20 feet wide was driven across the stupa (seen in this photograph), followed by further digging, which revealed a stone coffer containing a stone pot in which was found a little copper pot, then a silver box and finally a little gold box. In the gold box were an aquamarine bead, a ruby, a sapphire, an emerald, some coaly grit and a ‘relic’ described as a flake of burnt stone ware. No inscription was found, but from the still standing solid mass of brick work in herring-bone bond, this seems to be a late centuries BC stupa.

No further excavations took place at Lakha Medi. But nor was it repaired. Now its ancient bricks are being used to expand the modern Bhor Devi temple. That it has survived in this cut up contorted way is because the jungle clad knoll where it is situated has survived, forming part of the reserve forest of Girnar. In the Girnar jungles, incidentally, it is state foresters and freelance naturalists who know more about the location and state of ancient monuments than archaeologists. My own tryst with the Lakha Medi stupa was made possible because Junagadh’s well known nature man, Rasik Bhatt (who can be seen in the photograph) had roamed these forests looking for medicinal herbs and plants.

Of course, Lakha Medi’s fate — where those who discovered and explored it did it in a way that disfigured and half-ruined it — is not an isolated one. This is true for many stupas across India, including those at Sanchi where the extent of damage was so considerable that a British officer in the 19th century, in discussing the work of the archaeologist Alexander Cunningham, is known to have commented that “a thousand years of time and weather have not done so much injury to the invaluable Topes at Sanchi as was caused by the action of major-general Cunningham.....who years ago mined deep into the Topes in the vain search for coins or inscriptions, and never filled in his excavations.”

The difference, though is, that by the time Lakha Medi was dug into, repairs at the Sanchi monuments had begun and, what we see there today — large exposed and conserved stupas and shrines — had been more or less completed by 1919 or so. Sultan Jahan Begun, the ruler of the Bhopal Darbar, was Sanchi’s main benefactor. The conservation work undertaken there by John Marshall, director general of the ASI, the construction of the Sanchi museum and the publication of the Sanchi volumes were largely financed by her Darbar.

Sanchi is now a World Heritage site but Lakha Medi still remains forgotten. Surely, with so many programmes that speak of adopting monuments, can an archaeological saviour for this forgotten stupa step forward? Such a saviour is urgently required if future generations are to remember Girnar not only for the wildlife that thrives in its beautiful forests but also for the historic heritage that these forests have protected.

Nayanjot Lahiri is professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.