Chunar: discovering the home of the famous sandstone

One cool November morning we decided to visit Chunar. Our driver Mishraji, took us on my parent’s second and my maiden visit to Chunar. Any Indian history, art, design, architecture and archaeology student or enthusiast would have heard of Chunar – the birthplace of sandstone that made the buff coloured majestic Asokan pillars with his edicts and the serene Buddhas. But where is Chunar, in case you want to visit?

Chunar is located in the Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the largest state in India. The name of the state means the Northern State (District of India), and it has remained at the pinnacle of civilisation, culture, nature and technological innovations since centuries. It is home to the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, Sarnath with the Asokan Capital, our national symbol and the Buddhist stupa, the Kashi Vishwanath temple, the Benaras ghats, the Jim Corbett National Park and Chunar.

Offerings for the temple
Offerings for the temple

I had tried to find out about Chunar from the tourism websites and other virtual sources but failed so it was best to find out where it was – in the wilderness. The Chunar I found was divided into three parts – the ancient, the medieval and the Colonial. The ancient is characterised by the Asokan pillar making site, the Durga kund temple of Kamakshi Devi and small reservoir nearby, the rock shelter with Brahmi inscriptions dating back to the Gupta age; the medieval by the grand fort built and rebuilt by the Sultans including one of my favourite historical characters Sher Shah Suri, the Sufi shrines, tombs and pavilions built during the Mughal era; and the Colonial when the British East India Company used it as an important outpost and built buildings like the one where Warren Hastings stayed for some time.

This part of the post is dedicated to the ancient part of Chunar; the next part is for medieval and Colonial Chunar.

Part 1: Ancient Chunar

The incomplete sandstone boulders strewn around
The incomplete sandstone boulders strewn around

We drove through a smoothly tarred road from Benaras, straight on for about 35 kms, then turning left from Jamui bazaar crossing, across a small bridge and railway signal to arrive at a rocky road with not much pretensions of tar. This road took us through a rocky terrain where boulders were strewn around; there were some small trees on the area resembling a plateau. We were told that these boulders were the unpolished parts of the Asokan pillars!

To just brush upon your memory of Asokan pillars – Asoka, one of the greatest kings of Indian history, was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, who established the Mauryan dynasty at Magadha (present Bihar). This dynasty reigned between 322 – 185  BCE with their capital at Pataliputra, present Patna, the capital of Bihar.

Asoka imprisoned his father Bindusara and killed nearly all his brothers to become king, and then waged several gruesome wars to retain his throne and expand his empire. Due to the vibrant atmosphere within his empire where several religious thoughts prevailed – the Ajivikas lived along with two new sects Buddhism & Jainism – Asoka was always inclined towards peaceful coexistence. This inclination received a strong impetus after he surveyed the destruction and killings he had brought upon the people of Kalinga (present Orissa) through a long war he waged against them in his hunger to conquer that land to gain access to the nearby port. After deep contemplation, Asoka decided to give up violent means of control and embraced a peaceful path to existence.

Close up of an incomplete sandstone boulder
Close up of an incomplete sandstone boulder

Asoka awoke to a new life and decided to spread these thoughts and knowledge to the people of his empire through a permanent means of communication. He got this learning transcribed in the form of guidelines towards a better way of life on pillars and edicts. Depending upon the location of the pillars and edicts, he got the guidelines engraved in the popular language of that region ensuring a more effective reach. Some of these pillars survive till today, even after nearly 2, 500 years. The more important pillars have been found at Vaishali and Lauriya Nandangarh in Bihar and Sarnath in UP. Their importance lie in the messages that Asoka got written for the people whom he referred to as citizens and not subjects – a unique idea to practice so many years. These pillars and edicts are the only archaeological proof of Asoka’s reign, no palace or monument survives from his reign!

The engraved tally marks can be still seen - purpose unknown
The engraved tally marks can be still seen – purpose unknown

Now that you remember something about Asokan pillars, let me drive you back to Chunar and the site of the boulders. Some of the boulders that were strewn around had inscriptions on them that look like tally marks, were these marks for the team of sculptors and the workforce to remember how many boulders have been taken from the site already? Or were these signs of the number of people working for each pillar?

When you look at the boulders you can understand what the sculptor who was scouting for good quality stone might have been thinking of. He was probably trying to locate a stone that would be easy to carve upon, stand tall for a long time, and convenient to transport on the Ganga that flowed nearby. Now, the Ganga has changed her course, replaced by barred land.

Barren landscape now
Barren landscape now
Detail of the notches on the boulders
Detail of the notches on the boulders
The notches on the boulders
The notches on the boulders

The notches on the stone boulders were made to dislodge the portion of the boulder required for the pillar. Looking at the remnant of the boulder I was trying to figure out how the pillar might have been removed from the boulder, carried to the site and then carved in the local language? How do we find answers to these questions? We do not have any details on the process of carving and construction; we have only information about the pillars from the inscriptions on them, and writings by authors of those times. We hardly know anything of this engineering feat, a marvel of those times when only hammers and chisels were used for carving. Can you even imagine carrying out such an activity today, without the presence of heavy machinery and tools?

There was a serenity and understated atmosphere about the whole place, similar to Asoka’s presence. We do not know how Asoka looked like! All we know of him from the edicts is that he referred to himself as Piyadassi or the ‘beloved of his people’. One of the most important emperors of his time and even later ages, who commanded an empire that spread from Afghanistan to Orissa did not identify himself as Asoka, ever – no wonder he is known in Indian history as Asoka the Great.

The reservoir of the temple
The reservoir of the temple

There was a small temple precinct dedicated to the Goddess Durga as Kamakshi Devi near this site. That temple could have been a resting place for the team of sculptors and traders as a small stream flowed through it, and a tank trapped the flowing water at different levels.

The temple precint
The temple precint

 

This temple and tank structure is still in use though very dirty and unkempt. There was garbage strewn around, the water was stank, there were groups of monkeys all around. Nothing about the place could make you realise the value or sanctity of the place – how we treat our past is appalling!

 

Remnants of sculptures on the old temple wall
Remnants of sculptures on the old
temple wall

The original temple structure has been added on in the Gupta period, 4th – 7th century CE; lines of epigraphs and small carvings can be glimpsed behind an ugly metal fence. Of course, there is no attempt at cleaning it in keeping with the sanctity of the important and small shrine.

 

Some of the faint inscriptions
Some of the faint inscriptions

With great difficulty, we could find some inscriptions in Brahmi and Devanagri, though the lack of any information about their content and the place kept it mysterious and dark for us. We did not understand why there was not even a small board explaining the importance of these inscriptions or the sculptures. Why do we get so much pleasure in withholding information and not sharing with everyone?

From here, we drove on towards Chunar fort, a place enclosing many stories within it. The Chunar fort story will be continued in the next post.

DSC_0076
The Chunar sandstone quarry. All photos in this post: Poulomi Das
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