In March 2018 I resumed my search for the subterranean architectures of western India known as stepwells. This took me near a village called Viratnagar, just a few miles from the main Delhi to Jaipur highway and close to the location of an old Buddhist site called Bhairat.
Many of my stepwell photographs are on display at the Silk Road Gallery showroom in Sheffield, you can see some images here.
We don't tend to think of Buddhism having been practised in Rajasthan, the semi desert state in the west of India, but there are a few scattered remnants of Buddhist culture to be found that date from the time of Ashoka. Ashoka was alive around 300BCE, about 300 years after the Buddha's lifetime and he was perhaps India's greatest ruler.
Bhairat, the site of an Ashokan stupa.
Ashoka's early life was characterised by ruthless conquests of neighbouring territories but seeing the carnage after one ferocious battle he regretted the suffering he'd caused and later converted to Buddhism. He determined to spread Buddhism throughout India and pronounced edicts that he wanted his people to live by. These were based on the basics tenets of Buddhism as it existed at that time.
He sent his stone masons out across his empire to find elephant shaped rocks to carve his edicts on and, more famously, to build stone columns for his edicts.
Buddhist site at Bhairat
After his death Buddhism slowly declined and the main religion of India returned to Hinduism. Ashok's edicts were lost, overgrown by jungle, broken, reappropriated for Hindu temples and lay undiscovered until the European Orientalists explored hidden and remote parts of India in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In addition to his rock edicts Ashoka built Buddhist monasteries and stupas, the circular domed architectural symbol of Buddhism.
Footings of the Ashoka Stupa at Bhairat
Bhairat has traces of an old Ashokan stupa. In 2017 we tried to find it but were given incorrect information in Viratnagar. In March 2018 I made another attempt, this time with the advantage of aerial photos from Google Earth which showed the path leading up to the hillside plateau and the site of the stupa.
The Salamander rock
The Skull rockThe hillside is dotted with strange shaped rocks, one shaped like a skull, another a salamander. Above the stupa site there are the brick footings of old monastery buildings. Below the stupa a Hindu temple has been built, local people regard the site only as the site of a Hindu temple, the old Buddhist presence is neither recognised or understood but in its time the white washed stupa would have been a prominent sight on the hillside, like the Hindu temple on another nearby hilltop.
Hindu temple, Bhairat
Across the valley we tried to find the remains of an Ashokan column, apparently the remnants of one still exist but we were only able to find an elephant shaped rock, recognised as an official site by the Archeological Survey of India, but without any carved edicts.
Elephant rock, Viratnagar