Tuesday, 31 July 2018

eBook Review: Spicy Trail

Shipra Trivedi starts her eBook ‘Spicy Trail’ with a quote saying “Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all…” Having read her eBook, I must say, she truly has a love for spices, and the detail and research she has exhibited for each spice article is commendable.

The eBook not only acquaints us with many popular and rare spices but also shares historical and ancient text references to these spices often going back to their origins and early uses. It is a splendid combination of knowledge and information about the spices with dashes of history to add to its flavor.

The fact that Shipra has been able to find a spice for every letter of the alphabet shows us how well she has researched on the topic. On one hand we have the very common Cinnamon, Cardamom Fennel, Turmeric and their likes, while on the other we have rare spices like Kalapasi, Xacuti, Alkanet and Star Anise. Shipra has indeed given us a full repertoire of the spice world in her eBook.

The sprinkle of delight in each spice article is her ‘Dadi Ma ka nushka’ which surely makes us laugh in wonder as it also educates us on how easily these spices have always been used in a common Indian household. Along with references to the epics and puranas on the usage of spices in cooking in ancient India, the domestic usage of spices almost tempts us to try our hand again in our kitchen with some of the common spices at least!

Overall, Shipra’s eBook is indeed an aromatic and spicy trail of knowledge and information about the spice heritage of our land, and kudos to her for such an excellent compilation.

This eBook is a part of the Blogchatter eBook Carnival and can be downloaded from:

eBook Review: Finding Your Writing Flow

What interested me most about the eBook “Finding Your Writing Flow” by Sona Grover was an author writing about the writing process and being candid about the highs and lows of being a writer. I was keen to read about the author’s own experiences and experiments with the writing process and see if I could find some answers to the questions that lurked in my mind as a writer. I must say, Sona has not disappointed her readers at all on that count and on many occasions in the eBook has even exceeded them with her honest and practical approaches that she has explained.

The eBook makes for an easy read and right at the beginning the author shares her purpose and the flow of the journey of writing that she intends to take her readers on. While it surely is something that writers will enjoy reading and relating to, even newcomers to the world of writing with find it interesting and useful.

I especially liked the sections ‘Are you meant to be a writer?’, ‘Being Productive’ and ‘Renewal’ as they put the writer in you face to face with your inner fears and doubts and help you find answers and inspire at the same time. Sections like the one where Sona talks about the writer’s ‘Muse’ or being in ‘Gratitude’ are softer aspects of the writer’s mind and I am happy to see that she has handled that with due care. The eBook overall has a deft balance between the key yet routine and mundane part of the writing process and the moments of inspiration that comes while you write.

My heartfelt thanks go out to Sona for having written on such an important subject and having been so candid in her explanations, examples and descriptions of what goes on inside the writer’s mind and heart. I would recommend Sona’s eBook as a must read to everyone who wishes to write well and dreams of oneself as a writer.

The eBook is a part of the Blogchatter eBook Carnival and can be downloaded from:

Monday, 25 June 2018

Blochatter eBook Carnival - Here comes the eBook Relay chain !

............ I take on the Baton of Blogchatter EBook Carnival from Ruchi whose ebook 'That Year I Found Me' is also part of the mix. 

About Ruchi's ebook: "Neha runs away from her family to the big city with only her diary as her friend. Will she be able to give love a second chance and reunite with her family? Dive into this tale of entangled emotions and accompany Neha in her journey of healing and Self Discovery".

Now presenting my eBook Ancient Cities of India which presents an easy re-telling of the history of select ancient cities of India. Packed with mythological tales and historical anecdotes the stories bring alive the imperial kingdoms of the past, for you to re-discover India’s heritage in a new light.

I am delighted to participate in the Blogchatter eBook Carnival which has turned the limelight onto my first and exclusive eBook which spun out of my debut run in the Blogchatter A2Z challenge 2018: a milestone which became an inspiration for me to write more and write better!

I pass on the Baton of Blogchatter EBook Carnival to Maheshwaran whose ebook 'Puglia: Hidden Treasures of Italy' is also part of the mix. 

About Maheshwaran's ebook: "Travel guides give people detailed lists of places in a region. But one finds it difficult to plan and worry about the lack of time to see so much. This book is a new type of travel guide with clear details on what to do every day and the sequence to see them".

May the chain of good writing carry on non-stop..............

Sunday, 24 June 2018

eBook Review: Love in the Battleground

Writing historical fiction is no mean feat, as it calls for bold handling of characters which are already entrenched in their casts in time, of depicting situations which are already known to everyone as having unfolded in a particular manner. However, the success of writing historical fiction lies in finding and highlighting the lesser known stories and the alter-facets of the powerful characters and presenting well known events in a new light.

Author Kathakali Mukherjee, in her work "Love in the Battleground" makes a bold attempt to present to us enthralling but lesser known stories of a well known period of Indian history, the Maratha Renaissance. I find her intention very brave in the first place as she chooses the very star of the Maratha Renaissance, Shivaji as her protagonist, but very skillfully places an anti-hero too in the narrative in Raghupati, who gradually creates his own space in the readers' mind. While it is easy eulogize an already epic character, the author does not fall for the temptation instead uses her characters deftly to compliment each other. 

The title of the book 'Love in the Battleground' may sound like a giveaway to the readers in the beginning as to what they can expect in its pages, but then it is historical fiction and without the key elements of love and war, any tumultuous period of history is incomplete. The author again shows control and maturity in handling the narrative as she well balances the saga of Shivaji's battle and political upheavals against the lyrical love story of Raghupati and Sarayu. Both aspects are written and dealt with the right amounts of emotions they deserve. 

The narrative at times is fast paced and hooks the reader on the journey excitedly, while also allowing for suitable respites at certain points where the love saga takes its episode. The author also provides enough foreground and background knowledge and context for the reader in preparation of the core story, which is an important element for any historical fiction. It was nice to see that the author has not neglected setting the correct context. Also, she has done a great job in her detailed description of the characters, situations and settings for each scene and episode, thus enabling the readers to almost visualize the action and feel the emotion. The result has been a very well written and succinctly bound plot that keeps its readers going with the story from start to finish.

In her note, the author has mentioned that this was her retelling of the historical tale of the Maratha Renaissance which has been earlier written - Maharashtra Jiban Prabhat. Whilst I have not had the opportunity of reading the referenced text, I was quite overwhelmed by reading 'Love in the Battleground' as an independent historical fiction. In my opinion, Ms Mukherjee has spun out a powerful and engaging historical novel which readers will both enjoy reading as well as benefit from refreshing their knowledge of the Maratha Renaissance. Therein lies the success of 'Love in the Battleground'.

The ebook is a part of the Blogchatter eBook Carnival and can be downloaded from: 

Saturday, 9 June 2018

History Bytes and an eBook

When I decided to try my hand at the Blogchatter A2Z challenge, I didn’t really have a clue of what a Blogging marathon was and what it took to come out successful at the end. Towards that, my journey through this has been totally one of learning and full of positives, as it has been of crazy fun and of an exhilarating writing adventure.

When I announced that I would be writing on Ancient Cities of India with their historical and mythological references, many around me opined that I was selecting a difficult theme for myself. But then, I had just completed reading a couple of history-based books and had also written a six part series, in my own blog https://sayanwrites.blogspot.com/, tracing my very own family lineage to the ancient lost city of Kanyakubja; an exercise which had deeply immersed me in India’s ancient history and mythology. Thus at that time I could think nothing beyond India’s ancient history. To me, it was also a means to re-live and wallow in the rich heritage of our country, explore the cities and eras of the past and what better than to be able to narrate some of these stories to my readers and better acquaint them with the ancient cities that we would have read about in our history books in school.

Thus was born the concept of ‘Ancient Cities of India’ as a compilation of light-reading historical tales, and across a gruelling April, as I toiled in my research and continued to write about the ancient cities, it expanded to include stories of 25 Ancient Indian cities and some traveller and historian accounts. The endeavor was to export the reader back in time to many of our famous ancient cities and re-tell the history and fate of imperial kingdoms and mighty kings who ruled our land. Vivid descriptions of battles which changed the political, economic, geographical and social fabric of the country across the eras. Also at one point, the attempt was to explicitly identify and recount the era when time crosses over from what is classified as mythology, to the better recorded ancient history of India.

I am glad that throughout the duration of the Blogging challenge when these stories continued to appear daily on my blog, and the weeks even beyond, they have received good readership, encouraging comments and appreciative reviews from readers and veteran bloggers alike, and have been shared widely on social media. Finally, at the end of the marathon, the compilation “Ancient Cities of India” saw itself published as a successful eBook. I truly owe my thanks to the Blogchatter team and my readers across different virtual mediums for generously encouraging this exclusive eBook.

Stories of imperial kingdoms and tales of valour of kings have always been recorded in history, first orally by the bards in the royal courts, then in scripts by chroniclers and historians, until in the last few centuries via printed books authored by scholars. Mighty kings like Ashoka, Harsha, Akbar and Shahjahan find themselves entrenched in such pages forever across the centuries, but would they have fancied finding mentions in an eBook of the digital era?!


The eBook “Ancient Cities of India” can be downloaded for free from: https://www.theblogchatter.com/download/ancient-cities-of-india-sayan-bhattacharya/

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Reflections on Blogchatter A2Z 2018

At the end of a month of hurricane blogging and reading, I am still wallowing in the delight and amazement of the entire exercise. I cannot but thank the Blogchatter Team enough for this stupendous initiative and introducing me into a whole new level of blogging. Truly, at the successful completion of the A2Z, I was able to take my blog to the ‘next level’.

The A2Z started out as a first-of-its-kind experience for me, as I had never tried my hand at serious blogging before. But once it started, it was a roller coaster all the way. Choosing the theme was the first important step and that done, the journey only got better. Blogchatter made A2Z easy for us with a well-structured plan, clear rules, timely linkies and prompt replies to our queries. The DM groups run by Blogchatter introduced us to our fellow bloggers who very quickly became our friends as we shared thoughts, opinions, likes and support with each other.

My blog had hitherto not seen such an influx of readers and visitors and thus the experience was one of a delightful learning for me. Almost every post that I wrote in the A2Z was read, commented on and appreciated by my fellow bloggers and other readers. This in itself was a rocket of inspiration and urged me to write better in each subsequent blog-post.

The Blogchatter team left no stone unturned to ensure that we had the time of our blogging life during the A2Z by continuously ‘liking’, ‘retweeting’ and sharing our posts and links on Twitter and other social media. The ‘secret activities’ and ‘badges’ kept us thrilled and our morale high. The veterans of earlier A2Zs soon turned mentors for newbies like us, where they answered our questions, offered advice and constantly encouraged us with their comments and appreciations.

The other aspect of the A2Z which became as integral to the journey as the blogging itself, was the group of new-found friends among the fellow bloggers. We discovered many talented writers amongst ourselves who wrote on varied subjects, different genres, adopting a range of impressive styles of writing thereby giving us a myriad of blog-posts to read every day. Discovering and subsequently following others’ blogs was yet another wonderful find of the A2Z.

 A marathon as the A2Z has its own share of challenges as well. Time and time sharing was the primary challenge that I felt hit us hard. While composing our own blog posts every day, amidst the daily chores of work and life, took up the major share of our time, reading so many good blogs by others also necessitated that we devote due time. Gradually, it all fell into a daily routine, but then the learning was to come better prepared the next time around.

As I reflect on the recently concluded A2Z, I must say a BIG Thank You to Team Blogchatter and my fellow Bloggers of the A2Z, especially the ones with whom we formed a close knit group of daily camaraderie, for a very enriched, delightful and rewarding experience. While my blog had seen its next level, A2Z has also opened doors for me into newer and exciting territories of writing. Armed with more confidence and the boost of appreciation and encouragement gained from A2Z 2018, my mind is already planning for my theme for A2Z next year!


Sunday, 29 April 2018

Z for Zafarabad

The city of present-day Zafarabad finds its origins in the ancient times but offers a chequered history as over time the city changed its character at the hands of many rulers who ruled over it. However, as it never was a city of much strategic or political importance, Zafarabad’s name remained low-profile and it was only of any importance to the immediate local region. Zafarabad is situated on the banks of the Gomti River, to the west of Allahabad.

Origins in the ancient times

 Zafarabad in the ancient days was a part of the proud kingdom of Kosala and was ruled over by the Suryavanshi (Solar dynasty) kings of Ayodhya. At that time the city was called Manaichgarh, a name that it carried until it was taken over by the Muslim rulers who changed the name and character of the city. In the ancient times and early Vedic period of history, Manaichgarh was a centre of culture and religion of the Hindus and the Buddhists as established by the ruins of temples and stupas found in abundance in the region.

Early history of Zafarabad

The region flourished under the reign of King Harsha during the 7th century when it came under his empire. After the later Guptas when entire north and central India was thrown into political chaos, for a brief period, the region was annexed by the Pala kings of Bengal. But they were soon overthrown by the Pratiharas and Bhojas who exercised their control over the region.

The last Hindu king of Manaichgarh was Jayachandra of Kannauj, who is also credited to have built a strong fort here, enclosing eight acres of space to the west of the city. The ruins of Jayachandra’s fort can still be seen in present day Zafarabad. After King Jayachandra’s defeat and death at the hands of Muhammad Ghori in 1194, the entire region passed under the clamp and rule of his Turkic generals, who completely ransacked the area and razed all religious monuments and buildings, bringing in chaos, destruction and anarchy.

The naming of Zafarabad and its later history

From the time of Muhammad Ghori’s conquest till the reign of Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq in the Delhi Sultanate, the region came completely under the influence of Islam and gradually began to change its character. It served as an important stop on the route between Delhi and Lakhnauti (Lucknow) and started to grow in importance. In 1321, Zafar Shah was appointed as the governor of the region and he made considerable improvements to the city. It is after him that the city came to be called as ‘Zafarabad’.

The advent of the famous Muslim Sufis, Makhdum Sadr-u’d-din (titled Aftab-i-Hind) and Makhdum Asad-u’d-din (titled Chirag-i-Hind) made Zafarabad an important seat of Islamic learning and culture. Zafar Shah himself gave the city the name ‘Shahr-i-Anwar’ (city of holy lights), but the appellation could not substitute its popular name Zafarabad and the city continued to be known so.

In 1394, the Delhi, Sultan Nasiruddin Muhammad Shah (IV) Tughlaq, appointed Malik Sarwar as the new governor of Zafarabad and the adjoining region of Awadh. However, very soon, Malik Sarwar rebelled against the Sultan and proclaimed his independence calling himself ‘Malik-us-Sharq’ (the ruler of the east). The dynasty founded by Malik Sarwar which ruled over Zafarabad (and later Jaunpur) was known as the Sharqi dynasty and their kingdom the Sharqi Sultanate of Jaunpur. The Sharqis ruled over Zafarabad and the region till 1479 when the Bahlul Lodhi defeated the last Sharqi ruler Hussain Shah and the kingdom was permanently annexed to the Delhi Sultanate by Sikander Lodhi.

During the Sharqi dynasty reign, the capital was shifted from Zafarabad to the neighbouring new city of Jaunpur. In 1359, Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq had founded the city of Jaunpur and had named it after his brother Muhammad bin Tughlaq whose given name was Jauna Khan. Under the Sharqis, Jaunpur gradually assumed all importance in the empire and once it became the capital, Zafarabad was eclipsed and relegated to being the second city of the Sharqi Empire. However, Zafarabad continued to remain in the glory of its Sufi traditions, music, architecture and also emerged as a major centre for paper manufacturing, for which it also was called ‘kagaz ka shahr’.

The town remained in insignificance thereafter in history and during British India period it was made a part of the Bombay agency of Kathiawar state, forming a part of the territory of the Nawab of Janjira. After independence, Zafarabad was made part of the state of Uttar Pradesh and is today a small town and ‘nagar panchayat’ in the Jaunpur district of Varanasi division in the state.


Photo: The Atala Mosque built in 1408 in Jaunpur, 7 km from Zafarabad

Photo credit and source: Pinterest, School of Architecture.

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘Z’.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Y for Yavana

References to the ‘Yavanas’ are abound in various texts and literature of ancient India. From the Ramayana to the Mahabharata, the Puranas and later Buddhist and classical Sanskrit compositions, all have referred to the ‘Yavanas’ over the ages. However, it is interesting that the ‘Yavanas’ have always been portrayed as the enemies of the ‘Aryavarta’ kingdoms. Mythology refers to the ‘Yavanas’ as a tribe residing in the further western sphere beyond the reach of the Indian kingdoms, while later history refers to them as barbaric people of foreign origin who are uncouth in their ways, speak an incomprehensible language and are unruly in their behaviour.

Thus far, in this series of Ancient Cities of India, we have seen glorified kingdoms, imperial cities, exemplary rulers and magnificent cities. As we draw to the end of the series, it would certainly be interesting to know about the ‘Yavanas’, who were considered the enemies of ancient Indian kingdoms! Were they truly enemies of the ancient Indian kingdoms and caused damage and destruction, or were they just another race of people whom the ancient Indians failed to comprehend? Mythology and history have many theories and counter-theories on the subject, but we will attempt to understand the most logical of them.

Etymology of the ‘Yavanas’

The usage of the term ‘Yavana’ has been particularly linked with the Greeks and ‘Yavana kingdom’ with the Greek kingdoms which neighboured and sometimes occupied territories of the north-western region of ancient India.

The Greeks are known to have worshipped Ion, the son of Apollo. Ion was once a peaceful worshipper at Delphi but later turned into a warlord and won great battles. The Greek tribe of Ionians who resided in the (ancient) kingdom of Ionia were famous as the Eastern Greeks. Ionia was the region of Anatolia in present day eastern Turkey. The Ionians were always in strife with the Persians who were their neighbours. Many of the Ionian Greeks migrated further east and came to reside in the north-western region of ancient India. The Ionians thus had interactions and often wars with the ancient Indian kingdoms.

The terms ‘Yona’ and ‘Yavana’ are transliterations of the Greek word ‘Ionian’ in Pali and Sanskrit respectively, and were the first Greeks to be known in the East. This theory has been established in many ancient mythological and historical texts in India. Thus we may understand that ‘Yavana’ originally meant and referred to the Greeks who settled in their tribes in the north-western neighbourhood of ancient India.

It is interesting to note that the Eastern Greeks were referred to by similar sounding names by other races of people as well. The Egyptians called them ‘j-w-n-n’ while the Assyrians referred to them as Iawanu. The Persians called them Yaunas while the Babylonians called them Yaman or Yamanaya. In Biblical Hebrew, the Greeks are called Yavan, while in Arabic they are referred to as Yunan. In Indian Sanskrit they are called the ‘Yavana’ tribe.

References of Yavanas in ancient India.

The Mahabharata classifies the Yavanas with other tribes who stayed ‘beyond Uttarpatha’, viz., the Kambojas (Indo-Iranians), Pahlavas (Parthians), Shakas, and Bahlikas. The Yavanas were the Greeks and the Indo-Greeks. Their kingdoms were situated beyond Gandhara, which was considered to be the outer-limit of the north-western frontier. These five tribes together were called the ‘Mlechchas’ in ancient Hindu terminology, meaning people of foreign extraction.

We also find references of ‘Yavana’ invasion of Majjhidesa (central India of the time) mentioned in the Mahabharata. Ancient texts also cite strong prophesies and warnings against wars and destruction to be caused to Indian cities and traditions by the ‘Yavanas’ and ‘Mlechchas’ in due course of time in the Kaliyug.

Buddhist texts of 2nd century BC and later also cite strong references and mentions of Yavanas. The Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Milindapanha, all mention detailed interaction with the Greek kings and subjects while spreading Buddhism. The Greco-Buddhist monasticism is also said to have taken shape during this period. Tales of the Yona (Greek) monk Dharmarakshita are also found in detail in the Buddhist texts written in Pali language.

During the rule of Emperor Ashoka (250 BC), his Rock Edict nos. V and XIII found in ancient Gandhara region, mention the Yonas along with Gandhara and Kamboja people as his subjects in the frontier towns of the north-west. The inscriptions also attest that Ashoka had regular links with the Greek kings of the west and sent emissaries to their courts. “Amtiyoko nama Yonaraja… (The Greek king by the name of Antiochus)” quotes one inscription, which unambiguously establishes Yonas as the Greeks.

Gradual expansion of the term ‘Yavanas’

With time, the term ‘Yavana’ began to acquire a much broader meaning and scope. While the Greeks left the neighbouring kingdoms of the north-western border and retreated, interaction with them also diminished. Their erstwhile kingdoms came to be occupied by newer tribes who still remained foreign to the Indian kingdoms. The term ‘Yavana’ therefore stuck to them and grew to include in its meaning and reference, people of foreign origin with a different language and way of life. As most of the tribes occupying that region continued to have wars and skirmishes with the Indian kingdoms, their behaviour were always referred to as barbaric and damaging.

Thus by the 3rd century AD, the name ‘Yavana’ had grown to mean uncultured, barbaric people of foreign origin who were always out to wage war, destroy and loot the Indian kingdoms. In one word, ‘Yavana’ therefore meant a barbaric enemy. The ‘Yavanas’ would come in hordes (armies), attack and kill people mercilessly, pillage and plunder the cities and destroy its life, culture and architecture and go back with a wealth of loot.

In later history (of the period 4th till 13th century) accounts and literary compositions, everywhere such enemies and invaders are thus called ‘Yavanas’. The term has got so entrenched in its latter meaning, that even till date ‘Yavana’ find its use as referring to barbaric plundering people, in phrases and folklore.

The later Yavanas in Indian history

Given the expanded meaning, scope and application of the term ‘Yavana’ in the later Vedic and medieval period of Indian history (600 – 1300 AD), the term almost became synonymous with the Turkic and Islamic invaders who launched repeated attacks on the Indian kingdoms 1000 AD onward.

The first of such ‘Yavanas’ mentioned in many historical texts, was Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni who attacked the Indian kingdoms and ancient cities and ransacked them during his seventeen invasions of the country. The next famous Yavana whose mention we find in historical texts is Muhammad Sihabuddin Ghori who also attacked India multiple times.

There is also historical evidence in the description of the battles of Muhammad Ghori with Jayachandra the King of Kannauj in 1194 AD, where the former is addressed as “Yavaneswar Sihabuddin” (The Yavana king Sihabuddin).

Later historians in Sanskrit have continued to address any invader and oppressor thereafter as ‘Yavana’, as we find in ample instances during the wars and annexations done by the Delhi Sultanate rulers. In some much later instances we find even the British being referred to as ‘Yavanas’.

While Yavanas do not exist as a tribe neither does their kingdom within any ambit of modern India, the name which started as a reference to the first Greeks of the north-west frontier, lives on in mythological and historical references forever attaching the epithet ‘Yavana’ to the sworn enemies of the ancient kingdoms of India.


Photo: The first Yavanas – the Greek invaders

Photo credit and source: Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘Y’.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

X for Xuanzang

Xuanzang is the historic Chinese pilgrim and Buddhist monk who came to India in the 7th century to study and acquire knowledge on the core tenets of Buddhism. Xuanzang was known by a few name variations in his birth land China and was known in India by the name of Hieuen Tsang.

He is famous for not only having travelled throughout the expanse of India but also for the closely detailed accounts of his travels that he has left behind. These notes and accounts have been invaluable in establishing details about many of India’s ancient cities when the later historians and archaeologists set out to identify and record the history of these cities.

Hieuen Tsang’s notes helped not only to reveal locations of lost ancient cities, but also gave us sufficient glimpses of the life in India’s ancient cities in his time. We come to know about religion, kings, culture, art and architecture, literature and language, administration and even earlier history of many of our ancient cities through Hieuen Tsang’s descriptions.

It is only fitting and necessary that while on the theme of Ancient Cities of India, we take a look into the life of Hieuen Tsang and his expansive travels across many ancient cities of India.

Hieuen Tsang’s early life

Hieuen Tsang was born in 602 AD in the Henan province of China and from his boyhood days itself was drawn to reading religious books and stories of ancient sages. Though his family followed the religion of Confucius, he followed in the footsteps of his elder brother and took a deep interest in Buddhism. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of twenty and by then had travelled to many cities in China in search of Buddhist books and treatises.

Hieuen Tsang was most moved by the incompleteness and differences he saw in Chinese Buddhism and what he learnt of Indian Buddhism at that time. When he no longer found answers to his questions in China, he decided to visit India and the Central Asia regions where Buddhism had spread, to learn the Indian Buddhism doctrines right in the cradle of the religion and in the land of the Buddha himself.

Hieuen Tsang knew about Faxian’s (Fa Hien – another Buddhist monk and traveller who had visited India in the 4th century) travel to India and like him was confused with the misinterpreted nature of the Buddhist books that had reached China. Having decided to undertake the travel to India, Hieuen Tsang learnt Sanskrit and also took interest in the metaphysical Yogacara school of Buddhism. Accordingly he left his homeland in 629 AD and started the long and arduous journey to India in the quest of knowledge of the true doctrines and practices of Buddhism.

Hieuen Tsang’s route to India

Upon leaving his province in China, Hieuen Tsang travelled across the Gobi Desert to reach Hami city (in Xinjian area of China), there onwards following the Tian Shan mountain range westwards to reach Turpan in 630 AD. He travelled further west and crossed the Bedel Pass and entered Kyrgyzstan, where he toured a few monasteries of the Mahayana Buddhist school. Continuing further, he visited Tashkent and Samarkand (in present day Uzbekistan) and impressed the ruling Persian king with his preaching. He also visited the abandoned Buddhist monasteries and relics in these cities.  Moving southwards and crossing the Pamir mountain range and passing through the famous Iron Gates, he reached Amu Darya and the city of Termez where he met a large congregation of Buddhist monks. Their abbot Dharmasimha advised Hieuen Tsang to visit Balkh in Afghanistan and see the Buddhist sites and relics at the Nava vihara. It was here that Hieuen Tsang met another notable Buddhist monk Prajnakara with whom he stayed and studied the scriptures for some time. Together they travelled to Bamyan where they saw the two mammoth and magnificent Buddha statues carved out of the rock-face.

Hieuen Tsang then crossed over through the Shibar Pass and reached Kapisa, in the Kabul region, which had 100 Mahayana Buddhist monasteries and more than 6000 monks. Hieuen Tsang participated in religious debates here and engaged other monks on his discourses on the various schools of Buddhism. It was here that he first met the first Hindus and Jains of his journey. Towards the end of 630, Hieuen Tsang reached Adinapur (modern day Jalalabad in Afghanistan) where he thought that he had reached India.

Hieuen Tsang’s travels in India

From Adinapur, Hieuen Tsang crossed the Khyber Pass and reached Purushapura, (ancient Peshawar) the earlier capital of the Gandhara kingdom. Buddhism was on the decline in Peshawar at that time but had an immense wealth of ruined monasteries and stupas. The most notable of them was the Kanishka stupa which Hieuen Tsang described in his accounts. Much later, in 1908, the Kanishka stupa was rediscovered by archaeologist D B Spooner with the help of Hieuen Tsang’s records.

Hieuen Tsang then travelled further east and crossed the Indus River at Waihind (modern day Hund in Pakistan) and moved on to Takshashila. Takshashila had been a very famous centre of learning especially for Buddhism in the latter years, but by the time Hieuen Tsang reached there the place had been ruined. He laments in his travel account of Takshashila, “the place is ruined and desolate though some monks continue to live on… the city is now a dependency of Kashmir, though once it was a part of the Kapisa (Kabul-Gandhara Empire).”

Hieuen Tsang met a very talented Buddhist monk Samghayasas in Kashmir in 631 AD and with him visited many monasteries in the region. Between 632 and 633, he spent 14 months visiting about 100 monasteries and interacting with many monks and studying early scriptures of Buddhism under the well-known monks Vinitprabha and Chandravarman. He also visited Lahore during this time along with other cities in the region. His accounts also give us the earlier history of these ancient cities alongside the description of life during the time of his visit.

In 634, Hieuen Tsang arrived in Jalandhar, before entering the Kullu valley where he visited the non-Mahayana Buddhist monasteries to study their doctrines. He turned southward and then visited Bairat, another important Buddhist monastery location, and then finally traversed up the Yamuna River to reach Mathura. Though a Hindu-dominated place, Mathura had 2000 monks from both the Hinayana and Mahayana faiths of Buddhism. Having visited many monasteries which dotted the region, Hieuen Tsang then crossed the Ganges River and reached Kannauj the capital of King Harsha’s empire at that time.

Hieuen Tsang was completely overawed by King Harsha’s grand capital and the peaceful co-existence of religions in the region. King Harsha played an excellent host and installed Hieuen Tsang with great honour in his court. Religious debates and discourses flowed and Hieuen Tsang continued to visit monasteries in the region. He found a wealth of information to study, not only in Buddhism alone, but also gaining knowledge of Hinduism, reading many texts composed in Sanskrit and taking a taste of classical and religious literature. He continued to stay on in Kannauj under the patronage of King Harsha and records state that he visited few hundred monasteries and interacted with the monks there. He writes that he was greatly impressed by the King’s patronage of both scholarship and Buddhism.

Hieuen Tsang next visited Ayodhya in 636 AD, which was the homeland of the metaphysical Yogacara school of Buddhism. Over the next year, he travelled to Kaushambi (near Allahabad), Sravasti, Kapilavastu in Nepal and finally reached Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace. In 637, he started his travel again and visited Kusinagara (the place of Buddha’s death) and moved on to visit Varanasi and Sarnath (the founding seat of Buddhism) and further making stops at Vaishali (north Bihar), Pataliputra (modern Patna) and Bodh Gaya. From there the local monks took Hieuen Tsang to Nalanda where the Mahavihara (university) was fully functioning at that time.

Hieuen Tsang stayed on in Nalanda University, enrolling as a student under the tutelage of the very famous Buddhist monk Silabhadra. He studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit and the Yogacara school of Buddhism during his time in Nalanda. The venerable Silabhadra was the superior of the Nalanda Mahavihara at that time and his association with Hieuen Tsang became legendary. Rene Grousset, the French historian specializing on Oriental history, writes, “The Chinese pilgrim had finally found the omniscient master, the incomparable metaphysician who was to make known to him the ultimate secrets of the idealist systems... Silabhadra had been trained by the founders of Mahayana idealism, and was thus in a position to make available to the world the entire heritage of Buddhist idealism. The “Siddhi”, Xuanzang's great philosophical treatise... is none other than the summary of this doctrine, the fruit of seven centuries of Indian Buddhist thought.”

From Nalanda, Hieuen Tsang travelled on to the Eastern kingdoms of India and visited notable monasteries at Tamralipta (Tamluk in West Bengal), Sylhet (in present Bangladesh) and Pragjyotishpura in Kamarupa (Guwahati in Assam) before treading on to South India where he visited the monasteries at Kanchi (Kanchipuram) amongst other cities. Across the Deccan, Hieuen Tsang also visited Nashik, Ajanta and Ujjain before proceeding northwards onto Multan.

In 643 AD, Harsha invited Hieuen Tsang back to Kannauj where he had organised a great Religious Assembly. This was followed in the same year by another Religious Assembly at Prayag (Allahabad), which was titled the ‘Mahamoksha Parishad’. Glorious descriptions of both the Assemblies are given in Hieuen Tsang’s accounts. Harsha had made Hieuen Tsang the Chief Guest of the Assemblies and honoured him with the title of “Master of the Law”. These religious assemblies were attended by many neighbour kings and large congregations of Hindu Brahmins and Buddhist monks. Hieuen Tsang was greatly impressed by the magnanimity of King Harsha towards all religions and his generosity towards his subjects. “History does not present another example of a king who gave away his wealth so freely to the believers and the needy, as did this king…” Hieuen Tsang wrote about King Harsha at the end of the Religious Assemblies.

Hieuen Tsang’s return to China

Hieuen Tsang was given a grand farewell by King Harsha in 645 AD in Kannauj and he set out laden with a caravan full of gifts and accompaniments. He travelled through the Khyber Pass of the Hindu Kush Mountains and reached China, sixteen years after he had left his homeland. His return was greatly celebrated by the Chinese Emperor Taizong of Tang who offered him special appointments in his empire. But Hieuen Tsang declined such appointments and instead retired to a monastery where he spent time in translating Buddhist scriptures and texts and assimilating his travel accounts. It is said that he returned with over 600 Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist texts, 7 statues of the Buddha and over 100 relics. Hieuen Tsang passed away in 664 AD, leaving behind a wealth of information.

While his main purpose was to receive Buddhist scriptural knowledge, texts and instructions on Buddhism while he was in India, he had indeed done and left back much more. He had preserved the records of all political and social aspects of the cities and lands he visited and such chronicles have immensely helped later historians to reconstruct the history of the 7th century India and throw valuable light on the history of its ancient cities.

The Xuanzang Memorial Hall in Nalanda has been constructed in memory of this great Chinese pilgrim, traveller and Buddhist monk.


Photo: Portrait of Xuanzang (a.k.a Hieuen Tsang)

Photo credit and source: Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘X’.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

W for Waihind

The town of Waihind has been known in history by different name variants, as it has been held in importance by significant events which have changed the course of history a few times. Albeit an ancient small town, and now almost a hamlet, the history of Waihind cannot be ignored when we talk about ancient and medieval periods of undivided India.

The primary reason for its importance has always been the strategic location. Situated on the right (west) bank of the Indus River, about 15 km from present-day Attock and 80 km east from Peshawar, in the Swabi district of modern Pakistan, Waihind has always been the preferred point of crossing the Indus River and entry into Hindustan for every traveller from the west.

Importance of Waihind in ancient times

References to Waihind are found in the 12th century poet Kalhana’s ‘Rajatarangini’ (History of Kashmir), wherein the town is referred to as Udakabanda, which could be a colloquial shortening or derivative of the Sanskrit term ‘Urdhva-banda’, meaning ‘an upper town’ [In Sanskrit: Urdhva means Upper and Bhianda means Town; the word ‘banda’ most likely is a derivative of ‘Bhianda’.] Some other texts of the time refer to the town as ‘Udabhandapura’ which is yet another derivative of the same name. During the ancient period of the 8th to 11th century, the place was more popularly called Waihind, which later on got corrupted to Ohind and finally came to rest as Hund, the name with which we know it in the present day.

Waihind was the site of Alexander the Great’s crossing of the Indus and entering India, as it was centuries later for all the other invaders from the west, viz., the Scythians, Kushanas, Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori, Babur and also the Chinese pilgrims who came to India via the Hindu-Kush route, all crossed the Indus River at Waihind to enter the plains of India.

During the 2nd century, the city was made a part of the Kushana empire spanning entire Gandhara region with the capital at Purushapura (ancient Peshawar). From the excavation findings in the area, it is seen that the Kushanas built settlements, houses, and gateways and planned streets in Waihind. Around the 7th century till the 11th century, Waihind and the entire Gandhara region were a part of the Hindu Shahi Empire being ruled from Kabul. After the Hindu Shahi kings, Jayapala and his son Anandapala were defeated in Kabul and Peshawar, their first and second capital cities, the Hindu Shahi dynasty moved their capital to Waihind and ruled their empire, albeit reduced in territory, from the city.

However, the status of Waihind as the capital of Gandhara under the Hindu Shahi kings was short-lived as Mahmud of Ghazni defeated King Jayapala in the First Battle of Waihind in 1001 and his son Anandapala in the Second Battle of Waihind in 1008, thus pillaging and destroying Waihind considerably. The Hindu Shahi king, Anandapala ceded Waihind to the Ghaznavid Empire and moved his capital to a new location Nandana in the Salt Range Mountains. Waihind lived on as an eastern frontier town of the Ghaznavid Empire but lost all its glory, status and economic prosperity forever.

References of Waihind in earlier texts

Kalhana in his Rajatarangini described Waihind as “to the North of the Indus, there is a city of complete merit by name Udabhanda where communities have made their home … protected by the chief of kings Bhima of terrible valour by whom the earth was protected… It is a place where kings ousted from their own territories by enemies, found safety…”

By the last line, it is supposed that Kalhana was referring to the ousting of the Hindu Shahi kings by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1001, and the shifting of their capital to Waihind.

According to the Hudud al-Alam, an anonymous tenth century work, Waihind was a large town and received merchandize such as musk and other precious stuffs. It served as a trade centre between India and Central Asia. An eminent Muslim writer of the time, Maqadsi describes Waihand, “with its fine gardens, numerous streams, abundant rainfall, good fruits, cheap prices and general prosperity of its people. On the outskirts of the city were walnut and almond trees and within it bananas and the like. The houses were made of wood and dressed stone. The city itself was greater in size than Mansura (Sind)…”

Waihind in the medieval and modern periods

Waihind was included as a part of the Delhi Sultanate and was ruled over by different generals under the dynasties that took the throne at Delhi by succession. However, the town had reduced considerably in its political significance by then and remained important only as the point of crossing the Indus.

Understanding the strategic importance of Waihind and a cross-over point on the Indus, Mughal Emperor Akbar ordered the construction of a large fort on the mounds of the place. However, the final nail to the importance of Waihind was also driven in during the reign of Emperor Akbar. The final construction and formation of the Grand Trunk Road (it was named so later by the British) and the building of massive bridges at Attock to easily cross over the Indus River, robbed Waihind of all its traffic, travellers and commercial activity related to the travel route from which it had benefitted so long. Waihind thus continued to languish and was relegated into insignificance.

Post the decline of the Mughal Empire, and with no focus whatsoever on Waihind, the city became part of the disintegrated smaller kingdoms held by different regional tribes. The notable among them were the Khans and Mians who mixed with the families of Balar Khel and Habib Khel in the region to establish their control. The name of Waihind had also changed to Hund by then, primarily under colloquial reference and influence. Their most popular ruler was Khadi Khan.

As the British took over the entire region, the chieftain of the Balar Khel village of Waihind, Khan Bahadur Khan joined hands with the British forces to fight against the advancing Maratha armies. Post these wars, Waihind came fully under the control of British territory and the land was snatched from the local Khan rulers.

After independence and the creation of Pakistan, the city continues with the name Hund and also houses the Hund Museum which stores the artefacts found in different excavations conducted in the area. The Mughal Fort built by Akbar right across the village, still stands, but in considerable ruin.

In the words of Dr Ahmed Hasan Dani, a chronicler of the Gandhara civilization, (in an interview to The Express Tribune, Pakistan)“It is often said that history repeats itself and present day Hund is a testimony to this fact. From the courtyard of the Hund Museum, one can see vehicles crossing the Peshawar-Islamabad Motorway Bridge over the River Indus in the winter haze. It was in 1586 when Akbar built the Attock bridge-crossing on the River Indus... The construction of Grand Trunk Road and the Attock bridge-crossing had pushed Hund into oblivion. Today, the new motorway bridge signifies that history is retracing its steps to Hund…”


Photo: Restored ruins of the Fort and village at Hund.

Photo credit and source: The Express Tribune, Pakistan – obtained through Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘W’.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

V for Varanasi

Mark Twain, being enthralled by the legend and sanctity about Benaras once said: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Thus to gauge and fathom the legend of Benaras in itself is an awe-inspiring and mammoth task. There are innumerable legends, myths and tales surrounding Benaras, spread across many ancient texts, mythology and historical accounts, in both Hinduism and Buddhism as it is across different eras of Indian history.

The Legend of Varanasi’s origin and its etymology

Varanasi or Benaras was known as Kashi in the ancient texts and mythological tales. In Sanskrit, Kashi means ‘the city of Shining Light’, an epithet that the city has truly lived up to, being a luminous centre of religion and learning from time immemorial. The name Varanasi comes from the city’s location, being based at the confluence of two of Ganga’s tributary rivers, Varuna and Assi. The name is therefore attributed to these rivers: the Varuna still flows as a channel in the northern part of Varanasi, while the extinct Assi River is remembered by the famous Assi ghat in Varanasi on the Ganges.

Varanasi or Kashi is believed to be the ‘city of Lord Shiva’. The ascetic that he was, Shiva decided to settle down in the plains (leaving his Himalayan abode) after his marriage to Parvati, and chose Kashi as his new home. Shiva therefore is known and worshiped as ‘Kashi Vishwanath’ (the Lord of the world in Kashi) in Varanasi.

The legend of King Divodasa who with the boon of Brahma established the utopian rule of the ‘Dharma’ in Varanasi and consequently banished Lord Shiva and all other Gods from the city, is very popular in mythology. Lord Vishnu finally managed to skilfully depose the righteous king Divodasa and return the city of Varanasi to Lord Shiva.

The oldest archaeological evidences found from the region of Varanasi dates back to about 1000 BC, but mythological references to Kashi take us back much earlier. In the Mahabharata, Bheeshma abducts the princesses of Kashi, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika to be the brides for his brother Vichitra Virya, who was the reigning king of Hastinapur at the time. The Mahabharata also mentions that the Pandavas came to Kashi in search of Lord Shiva to atone for their sins of fratricide and Brahmanhatya (killing of Brahmins) which they had committed during the Kurukshetra war. Kashi is considered as one of the seven holy cities as per Hindu beliefs, along with Ayodhya, Avanti, Mathura, Hardwar, Kanchi and Dwarka.

Varanasi as a centre of religion and learning

The city over the eras has emerged as a prominent centre of religious exuberance and entrenched learning. Lord Buddha is said to have founded Buddhism in Varanasi in 528 BC when he delivered his first sermon “The Setting in motion of the Wheel of Dharma” at the nearby location of Sarnath. The Chinese monk and pilgrim Hieuen Tsang wrote about Varanasi when he visited the city in 635 BC, “a centre of religious and artistic activities...” He referred to Varanasi as ‘Polonisse’ in his accounts.

In the 8th century Adi Shankaracharya established Shaivisim, the cult of Shiva, as the official sect for Varanasi, adding to the religious prominence of the city. Varanasi’s religious importance and celebration of Hindu culture continued even through the medieval period when India came under the dominance of Muslim rule. Tulsidas composed the Ram Charita Manas in Varanasi, and several luminaries of the Bhakti movement, viz., Kabir and Ravidas, were born here. An important Maha-Shivratri festival was hosted in Varanasi in 1507 which is said to have been attended by Guru Nanak, which gave an impetus to the founding of Sikhism as a new religion.

At the same time, Varanasi also suffered heavily during the invasions by Muslim armies, viz., Mahmud of Ghazni and Muhammad Ghori who destroyed and looted many temples in the city and killed and enslaved many of its people. Also during the reign of different Muslim dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, Varanasi was often attacked and ransacked by the invading armies. Such frequent attacks and plundering gave temporary setbacks to the city and its spirit of culture and learning.

Later history of Varanasi

During the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar, Varanasi experienced a revival of Hindu culture and religion. Akbar invested in the city and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, while other kings also contributed to building and restoring temples and promoting classical Hindu learning in Varanasi. The city saw another setback and lull during the reign of Aurangzeb who ordered the destruction of many temples and imposed restrictions on religious practices of the non-Muslims.

However, by 1737 the Mughals accorded official status to the Kingdom of Benaras under the ruling of the ‘Kashi Naresh’ (king of Kashi). Much of the modern Varanasi was built and developed by the Maratha and Brahmin rulers in the 18th century. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore and of the Sikh confederacy fame got the tower of the Kashi Vishwanath temple gilded in gold leaves. The sanctity of Varanasi continued during the British Raj with the British establishing colleges and modern institutions of education and learning. The Sanskrit College of Benaras, founded in 1791 by Jonathan Duncan was foremost among such institutions. The Central Hindu College founded by Dr Annie Besant later became the foundation of the creation of the Benaras Hindu University.

While the British technically ruled over the region and also transferred the capital of the Kingdom of Benaras to Ramnagar, across the Ganges, the ‘Kashi Naresh’ continued to remain the religious head of Varanasi and was much revered by its people.

The epitome of Varanasi

While Varanasi continues to be the cultural capital of North India since a long time, the epitome of its fame lies in its close association with the Ganga River on the banks of which the city is situated. The ‘ghats’ (embankment of stone steps going down to the river) of Varanasi are world famous, with the ‘Dashashwamedh Ghat’ being the most popular of them all. Other important ‘ghats’ are Panchganga ghat, Assi ghat, Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat; the latter two being where Hindus cremate their dead. It is a popular belief amongst Hindus that death in the city will wash away all earthly sins and bring salvation (moksha).

Varanasi also remains as an important centre for culture and music and is the place where the ‘Benaras gharana’ form of Hindustani Classical Music was developed.


Photo: The ghats of Varanasi on the Ganges.

Photo credit and source: Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘V’.

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