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Lost in Translation: Secret Histories in Ujjain

Sometimes you find inspiration in the most unlikely place.

We are all pilgrims- some head to temples, others to dusty museum rooms with neglected masterpieces. Talish finds hidden treasures in SORI, Ujjain


Talish Ray is a lawyer who imagined  that one day she will run her own firm and earn enough money to travel for vacations whenever she wanted and where ever she wanted . She got her wish. She runs TRS law offices and has a new address called midair somewhere . Only, she find herself trapped in between client and court tantrums with no time to see or feel the place . She is presently working up her courage to dump her firm, sell every belonging and run a shack in Goa where the feni will be free and the conversations by invitation only. This of course  will  happen if her new career avatar as a  bespoke history guide takes off enough to give her the wings. Till then she makes the most of every minute in a new place. In this sporadic column she will share her suggestions for the very best short cultural immersions to pack into a business trip anywhere in the country. Today, she discovers a treasure trove of secrets at the Scindia Oriental Research Institute of Ujjain.

6 hours were too little! My hopes for Mandu were smashed, plans for Maheshwari wiped and there seemed little charm in wandering all over Indore . Ujjain was suggested, but the initial vox populi was not encouraging. One of the oldest trading cities in India, it now seemed like a town that was visited primarily for religious reasons. Random research showed  up some museum, an Oriental institute and too many temples to count.

We can go and check it out but I have not heard of this place so I am not sure…”  trailed Anuj Kothari hesitantly at the thought of visiting the institute . A tall handsome persona, with a pacifist calm air about him,  he sounded uncharacteristically  panicky about the idea. A panic that  he had transmitted to me by 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Post my arrival we had raced down a super smooth expressway and reached the Vikram University at Ujjain only to be lost again . We were accompanied by two curious  friends (who tried hard to suppress their sniggers at the thought of exploring Ujjain with the mandate of  “lets avoid the temples” ). No one knew where the Institute was, not the Vikram tempo drivers ambling on the road, not even the students of the Vikram University. A quick detour through a Google-suggested route later, we arrived at the broken down gate of a dilapidated building (of the ubiquitous  Public Works Department School of Architecture). An equally rundown  board  tiredly read   “Scindia Oriental Research Institute(SORI)”. A  short walk in the direction revealed  a long train-like building, one corner of which has 4 steps graced by a bunch of locals sittings and playing cards. At their feet lay some discarded  gutka and pan masala wrappers, and a lone broken beer bottle. My misgiving compounded  further : after all I had  dragged 3 unsuspecting victims on a working day with the promise of a fantastic historical excursion based on hearsay dug from the very depths of the Interwebs.

The locals looked as shocked at seeing us and mutely pointed to the other end of the building. Another  20 steps and I could breathe . Strewn on both sides of an uneven walkway, uncared and unattended, were relics,  some of them identifiably a 10 centuries old. Broken and mutilated but distinctly post-Gupta sculptures . The door at the other end was guarded by keeper S.  On request, he opened the door to the ‘puratatva  sangrahalaya’. There within dancing dust motes lay a treasure trove.  Fossilized dinosaur  egg, a mammoth’s  skull,  some shiny painted grey ware, megalithic tools, pottery shards with pre historic paintings,  microlithic tools,  carved carnelian beads and all those fantastic things you read about in CBSE history books and distract yourself with the grainy pictures of, in the middle of a boring history class .  “ No one comes here “ announced S with a dragon-like pride “but its all very old and we open the locks only for people who have an interest.” The only other hall consisted of fantastic sculptures from local archeological dig sites. Poorly curated with no plates identifying period or context but seemingly everything from the Mauryan period  to the 15th century.  Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu artefacts; all intermingled in a show of harmony that would have done  Gandhi proud. In neglect, it seems we have no religious discord.

S kept up with his commentary.  He seemed informed in the untutored way of a soul trapped in dimension beyond his comprehension. Light was fading and he led us to the staff room of SORI with instructions to demand a viewing of the book collection. “ not as old as the stuff I have but you people might like it”

“Wait here”,  instructed the gentleman , “It is a very precious collection we have it under security”. They gravely opened the 4 paddock locks and led us  to the other end of building. There in a small room, behind smallish rectangular glass showcase, were kept texts that could do an international archive proud. We were informed that  SORI is a pioneer manuscript library and research institute of India. It is one of only fifteen such premier institutions. The story of its establishment goes back to 1930 when many manuscripts available around Ujjain reached Baroda Oriental Institute. The King of Baroda SayajiRao Gaekwad wrote to the Regency Council of Gwalior,about scattered manuscripts in Ujjain and nearby areas for their collection and preservation and recommended establishment of a manuscript institute in Ujjain itself. Acting on it, the Council established Oriental Manuscripts Collection  with only 11 manuscripts in it .In 1941 it was named Scindia Oriental Research Institute and transferred to the Department of Education of the Gwalior State. In 1961 it was handed over to the newly established Vikram University, Ujjain. It was then transferred to the central library of the university in 1966.  In 2003, it was finally  recognized as Manuscript Resource Center under National Mission for Manuscripts. The collection of manuscripts grew year by yearthrough various sources. Today, it has 20,417  ancient manuscripts  in its collection, in various writing materials, on various subjects and many languages and scripts.

It really was a kid in candy store experience . Here we were with what was a close encounter of the historical kind and we had just half an hour before closing time. The staff was knowledgeable with the same lament that is heard all over the sub continent. Political apathy, lack of understanding, poor funding-  it’s the same tune drummed in different dialect in museums all over India. What did they have on immediate display: A 1000 year old Bauddhagam on palm leaf in Gupta Bahami script , a part of the Bhragu Samhita, a Yagur Shakha Shukla Paksh, innumerable Mughal Period painted  texts including a beautiful  hand painted Ramayan in Persian and so much more. Photography was strictly prohibited for the fear of damaging the precious scripts but they are all there,within a foot,  separated merely by  a glass casing.

“Come back when you have time ….” I didn’t see anything of dusty Ujjain beyond that. Oh yes…visited the Kaliadeh Palace, a medieval water pleasure garden. I suppose, if the Shipra was not the kind of sludge that rivers in India are, it would have been charming. However it was not worth the fuel wasted to reach there. I am sure Ujjain has more to it but if I return it will only be for SORI.

I have a date to keep with all thats hidden in the dusty desiccated building.

Practical Information

Ujjain is 55 kms from Indore and it takes about an hour to get there with the new Expressway. Cabs are easy available from Indore. MP State Transport buses ply regularly. Finding the way around town is tricky,  keep a GPS in handy since the locals seem clued only for religious tourism .

Indore is well connected from all major airports though be warned that Jet Connect flies an ATR from Delhi and should be avoided at all costs.

Indore has fantastic places to stay including all  the well known chains .


1 Comment on Lost in Translation: Secret Histories in Ujjain

  1. Even better narration this time. Thanks for going beyond the religious viewpoint and looking through a historical and cultural perspective

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