Going just by the name of it in the contemporary language, it means the city of Banyan trees. You don’t even look for the proof because in Vadnagar, Gujarat, you would find numerous Banyan trees even today. Filled with pristine peace, luxurious green from the trees and blue from the water bodies splashed everywhere in the town and rustic in form, the town made me thank its guardian Gods that the destructive hand of modernization has still not found Vadnagar. Don’t bother to visit it if you think that development and achievement are exclusively characterized by the so-called industrialization as we know today. On an odd day, the town looks quiet. When you talk to its people, they seem to live amid the legends, but their daily encounter seems to have let small details slip.
Vadnagar is the erstwhile home-town to the Vadnagara Nagars. Immediate association with this community is achieved by many who recognize the poet-philosopher Narsinh Mehta, whose bhajan Vaishnava Jana To Tene Re Kahiye Je… is made famous by Mahatma Gandhi. The second is a pair, twin sisters Tana-Riri. These are the sisters who sang the raag Megh Malhar with such precision and power that the rendering caused the rain characteristic to the name of the raag. This rain was the antidote to the intense and unsettling sense of burning in Tansen’s body because he had sung raag Deepak in the court of Akbar. When Akbar found out about these singers, he wanted them in the Delhi Durbar. I have heard that he first sent the Palki – a palanquin to fetch the sisters. When they declined, he sent an army. The sisters preferred to end their lives than going to Delhi, and the army burned the town. Today, there is a memorial made for the sisters on the outskirts of Vadnagar.
The people of Vadnagar told me that the town has been rebuilt 8 times. Yet, inside the walled town, there is a Shivalay still intact – the Hatkeshwar temple.
Carved with the same exquisite skills as the twin kirti-torans, the temple has all the features characterizing a proper Shiv temple: Banyan tree, a water well, a compound, a path-shala where one can read and contemplate or perform rites/dharm shala for wayfarers and small little temples dedicated to the satellite deities.
Nearby, there is an enchanting lake Sharmishtha. As I said, the identity of Sharmishtha has slipped. But looking back in the lore, there is only one famous Sharmishtha: the daughter of the asura (or, the demon side) king Vrushaparva, whose Guru was the sur (or, the gods side) Shukracharya.
The story of the two is an amazing journey of fabled events – and interestingly, provides a point of origin for tribes like Mlechha and Yavan, which are usually scorned, but also for the heroes like the Yadavas, Pandavas, and Pauravas. More stories on the descendants of these lines, some day.
Well, near the Lake Sharmishtha, there are these grand, imposingly beautiful and exquisitely carved gateways. These gateways were known traditionally as Kirti torans.
A toran is an ornate hanging that one adorns one’s gate with, when something auspicious has happened. It could be a festival, or something worthy of celebration. Usually these door hangings are floral, or made with leaves of Ashok tree. But when a king does something legendary which people want to celebrate for long time, a stone toran is carved out, naturally one also needs a fitting door to hang it on. Thus, beautiful arches and gateways are erected traditionally in Gujarat, Malva and may be other regions, too.
Today one can see stones strewn around the twin-torans of Vadnagar – must have been a temple once, according to a plaque placed nearby. How long would it have taken to erect these torans? Who would have been the architect of these ever-lasting Gaurav-Gathas? Who would have managed the project and managed the human resource? Beats me.
A walk along the periphery of farms scattered on one side of the torans leads you to another pond connected to the Lake Sharmishtha. On one side, there is an old, crumbling varanda-type structure, which the pujari of a near-by ancient temple identifies as the place of contemplation for Rishi Yagnyavalkya.
Yagnyavalkya, himself one of the seers of Ved was also the husband of Vidushi Maitreyi, known as Brahmavadini- the one who spoke of the ultimate truth.
Not faraway from the lake Sharmishtha is also Mehta ni vav and Gauri kund. Both are water bodies, but a vav is a carved, stoned descent into and covering of a well. Mehta ni vav – I do not know which Mehta is it a memorial of – is unique because of its length.
The water level is so high that one cannot see below first ten steps. But its length is easily running into two hundred meters. There is a stone column supporting the length and there are eleven or twelve such columns. on one end of the vav, there is the well, and on the other there is a resting place. The surrounding is really in poor shape, neglected and un-cared-for. Opposite to the Yagnyavalkya spot, there is another stone descent into the pond, known as the Sapta-Rishi aro. An Aro in Gujarati is an ornamental, usually carved stone descent into a water-body – usually a river or a lake. This aro is decimated and some of the figurines are clearly installed recently.
Well, gauri kund is also wasting away, and the water is green with algae. Trash floats on the top, but there were faithful visitors including a pujari who had come to perform daily rites in one small temple located inside the kund, and a family who had come for performing some of the last rites following a death of their family member.
By this time I had a sumptuous dose of the visual beauty in its unkempt splendor and a strong urge to spend time remembering the lore of Sharmishtha and Yagnyavalkya. Tossing in my hand a few Teta – the round, red fruits of Banyan, having taken the suggestion of a local person to make its chutney, I return home.