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Spiritual, intellectual awakening in Madhya Pradesh

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Madhya Pradesh  /  Wed, October 11, 2017  /  09:07 am
Spiritual, intellectual awakening in Madhya Pradesh

A quiet place: The interior of the Taj-ul-Masajid grand mosque in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. In between prayers, students gather inside to recite the Koran together. (JP/Sebastian Partogi)

Journey to the heart of India promises an expansion of mind and spirit. Mid-August this year, The Jakarta Post’s Sebastian Partogi was invited to stay for six days in Madhya Pradesh as a delegate of the first India-ASEAN Youth Summit. Here is his story about the state.

With Indian authors Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy having been two of my favorites since my teenage years, I have always been curious about visiting the country. I find myself being hypnotized by the spiritual and intellectual traditions of the place.

Madhya Pradesh is a state in central India. The fifth-largest state in the country by population, the region has a long-standing tribal heritage, with several monuments having been named UNESCO world heritage sites. Besides its cultural heritage sites and museums, the state’s hospitality scene is also unique.

We stayed in the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel. Different from the hotels owned by multinational operators, the Jehan Numa exhibits a very vintage and ethnic design, and it is not a high-rise building. The whole hotel is a spacious labyrinth-like three-story complex located in a big compound. The hotel itself used to be a palace for the local royal Muslim family in the 19th century ruled by the begums, or Muslim ladies of high rank.

The hotel boasts beautiful tiles and the architectural influences of British colonialization, Italian renaissance and Greece, hypnotizing the visitors with the smell of incense and spicy coffee served with cardamom. 

One morning, we took a cruise ship to cross the crystal-clear Bhopal Lake near the hotel. A flock of swans were sitting on the dock or making their way across the water over there. I was zoning out for a while to feel the breeze caressing my face on that sleepy morning when music started to play.

The great beauty: The façade of the beautiful Taj-ul-Masajid as seen from its square.The great beauty: The façade of the beautiful Taj-ul-Masajid as seen from its square. (JP/Sebastian Partogi)

First, it was just a few people dancing spontaneously on the deck, before most of the summit’s delegates descended there to join them. My vivacious friend Sandhya Manoj was teaching us how to perform an Indian-style dance as we made our way across the water. Soon I was able to let go of my shyness and danced energetically, in union with them.

I was hoping that the cruise disc jockey would put on “Chunari” by Salman Khan and Sushmita Sen – I first heard it in Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding and God, how can you not dance to that music? But I did not get my wish. Still, I was very happy.

A visit to the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya and Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum allowed us to learn about the biological and cultural evolution of humankind. Both museums present the evolution of the human agricultural processes and societal systems through beautifully designed rooms as well as interesting relics such as war weaponry used by the ancient people. Human beings turn out to have been a war-mongering species for a very long time.

The opposite of war’s destructiveness is our creative endeavors through the arts. The Tribal Museum, in particular, is designed in a sophisticated and contemporary architectural style, which is set to blow your mind the first time you see the façade of the museum itself, which looked like a huge traditional hut with ornaments decorating its roof and walls. Inside, it is rich with ornaments decorating the walls, with beautiful relics arranged unconventionally.

For example, the museum features makeshift caves featuring real live bats, which visitors can walk inside. Contemporary visual artworks and installations embodying local mythology related to the cycle of life are also present in the museum.

Both museums show us that human conditions, including communication, violence and community, are expressed differently throughout history, from the hunter-gatherer period to today. The experience of visiting the two museums became more complete after I took my friend’s recommendation to read Sapiens, a book by Yuval Noah Harari.

A walk through time: Through cutting-edge and colorful galleries, the Tribal Museum in Madhya Pradesh chronicles the journey of human beings throughout time.A walk through time: Through cutting-edge and colorful galleries, the Tribal Museum in Madhya Pradesh chronicles the journey of human beings throughout time. (JP/Sebastian Partogi)

We also traveled to the Sanchi Buddhist complex by bus on a highway through agricultural fields, where cars had to stop or swerve their way to maneuver through a number of cows, which frequently crossed the roads. Many car drivers had to honk their horns loudly when the cows made their way slowly across the road.

The Sanchi Buddhist complex features beautiful stupas and temples, dating back to the third century BC, erected by Ashoka the Great who, upon observing the suffering brought by war, decided to turn around and dedicate his whole life to spreading Buddha’s teachings. The buildings there showcase sophisticated architectural prowess, with circular shapes and complex reliefs.

The whole compound also has lots of big trees and you can see monks donning orange clothes sitting beneath the huge trees.

On our final day, we visited the Taj-ul masajid grand mosque in Bhopal, a huge square also comprising boarding houses for its students. The mosque itself has always been populated by Islamic students reciting the Koran in between prayer schedules. On a green pond situated in the middle of the square, you can see people performing ablutions.

When I walked inside the mosque, I was mesmerized not only by the beauty but also the tranquility brought by its interior. To our delight, the majestic building had a cool temperature inside. The views of the building and its elements seemed to pop out from the pages of the National Geographic magazine.

Both the Buddhist and Muslim sites are very pristine and I find them to be carrying incredible spiritual vibes that bring peace to our minds.