One day in an ancient Indian city

One of the tragedies of India’s tourism is the lack of surviving physical structures of the pre-colonisation period (ie. before the 1600s). Varanasi is of course there, as the world’s oldest continuing city. But a lot of the magnificence is no more to be seen. On a visit to Tanjavur last year, I was able to see the extraordinary temple there that the great Raja Raja Chola built and so get a glimpse of the creative outpouring that fed big stuff like Angkor Wat and Ayuttaya in other lands.

So, it strikes me that ancient India’s cities (of the likes of Thanjavur & Konark) must have been fascinating places in their golden moments and if ‘recreated’ well, can add a lot more depth to our tourism. And with this thought in mind, I have been scouring a lot of literature to find out exactly how an ancient Indian city would have been.

I struck pay-dirt a couple of years ago and not in any obscure place as you might imagine. It was in A.L Basham’s seminal historical work, ‘The Wonder That Was India‘, where he quotes an early Tamil poem, the ‘Garland of Madurai‘ which describes a day in the life of the city of Madurai. Captivating stuff. And since I cannot do any better, I am reproducing in its full, the relevant page from that book. Here it is (it is a much longer piece than I would normally have in this blog where I have a self-imposed rule of brevity, but its beauty lies in its comprehensiveness and so..):

The poet enters the city by its great gate, the posts of which are carved with images of the goddess Lakshmi, and  which is grimy with ghee, poured in oblation upon it to bring safety and prosperity to the city it guards. It is a day of festival, and the city is gay with flags, some presented by the king to commemorate brave deeds, flying over the homes of captains, and others waving over the shops which sell gladdening toddy. The streets are broad rivers of people, folk of every race, buying and selling in the market-place or singing to the music of wandering minstrels.

A drum beats, and a royal procession passes down the street, with elephants leading to the sound of conchs. A refractory beast breaks his chain, and tosses like a ship in an angry sea until he is again brought to order. Chariots follow, with prancing horses and fierce footmen.

Meanwhile stall-keepers ply their trade, selling sweet cakes, garlands of flowers, scented powder and betel quids. Old women go from house to house, selling nosegays and trinkets to the womenfolk. Noblemen drive through the streets in their chariots, their gold-sheathed swords flashing, wearing brightly-dyed garments and wreaths of flowers. From balconies and turrets the many jewels of the perfumed women who watch the festival flash in the sunlight.

The people flock to the temples to worship to the sound of music, laying their flowers before the images and honouring the holy sages. Craftsmen work in their shops – making bangles of conch shell, goldsmiths, cloth-dealers, coppersmiths, flower-sellers, vendors of sandalwood, painters and weavers. Foodshops busily sell their wares – greens, jak-fuit, mangoes, sugar candy, cooked rice and chunks of cooked meat.

In the evening the city prostitutes entertain their patrons with dancing and singing to the sound of the lute, so that the streets are filled with music. Drunken villagers, up for the festival, reel in the roadways, while respectable women make evening visits to the temples with their children and friends, carrying lighted lamps as offerings. They dance in the temple courts, which are clamorous with their singing and chatter.

At last the city sleeps – all but the goblins and ghosts who haunt the dark, and the bold housebreakers, armed with rope ladders, swords and chisels, to break through the walls of mud houses. But the watchmen are also vigilant, and the city passes the night in peace.

Morning comes with the sound of brahmans intoning their sacred verses. The wandering bards renew their singing, and the shopkeepers busy themselves opening their booths. The toddy-sellers again ply their trade for thirsty morning travellers. The drunkards reel to their feet and once more shout on the streets. All over the city is heard the sound of opening doors. Women sweep the faded flowers of the festival from their courtyards. Thus the busy everyday life of the city is resumed.

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