SRI MAHAL GHAT IS ALMOST mathematically sandwiched between Vidisha and the evocative Heliodorus Pillar, one of the great architectural tributes to the assimilative power of the Sanatana cultural ethos. Given its premier status as one of the most ancient centres—and in fact, one of the cradles of the Sanatana spiritual and cultural complex, the current amnesia-induced apathy towards Vidisha is a fount of perpetual melancholy. The story of its fatal eclipse at the alien Turushka hands has been narrated in a separate essay.
A little-known detail about Vidisha was its preeminence as a Tirtha-Kshetra situated on the Vetravati River (today, Betwa) and its Ghats easily rivalled in sanctity and spiritual renown with those in Varanasi and Prayaga.
The Sri Mahal Ghat attracts our attention for several profound reasons. The most important is the picture it gives us of an innately noble and magnanimous Hindu society, which at its core was pulsating with piety.
Our story is located in the period when ancient Vidisha’s glory had been overtaken by its new rival city, Bhilsa, about two and half miles across the Vetravati River. As our aforementioned essay describes, Bhilsa got its name from its guardian deity, Bhayillasvamin, another name for Surya. Bhilsa was a renowned Surya-Kshetra on par with say Moolasthana or Martanda. The grand Bhayillasvamin Temple was both the cynosure and the soul of Bhilsa. For centuries, both locals and pilgrims took a sacred bath in Vetravati and had their Darshana of the deity. In purely monetary terms, the Bhayillasvamin Temple can easily be compared to Tirumala today. It boasted of substantial land grants, endowments, precious stones and metals, cash, cattle and produce.
A stone inscription dated in 878, which was incorporated into the Gwalior Museum in the twentieth century, is the source of our profound story. Originally embedded on the steps of the Sri Mahal Ghat, it tells us an ennobling tale of a wealthy merchant named Hatia.
Hatia, the son of Cacchia, belonged to the Pāravāḍa community. Other variations of this community’s name include Pōravāḍa, Porwar or Porwal. To this date, both the Hindu and Jain business community bearing this surname are in a thriving condition spread across Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in the descending order of population. Alarmingly, the vile Joshua Project has identified the community as a prime target for Christian soul-scavenging.
Hatia’s inscription is technically known as Akṣaya-nīvikā, literally meaning, “a permanent endowment providing a periodical income to be regularly and perpetually enjoyed by the donee.” The donees in this case were three deities located in the precincts of the Bhayillasvamin Temple Complex. The first was Nārāyaṇa-Viṣṇu and the other were two Devis (generally speaking, Mother-Goddesses).
The terms of the endowment make the story illuminating. As a true Hindu businessman, Hatia was deeply wedded to the core values of living a Sanatana life. Dāna (it is quite limiting to translate this word as “charity” and “philanthropy”) was one such core value. Accordingly, Hatia purchased three Vīthis in Bhilsa and endowed the rental income derived therefrom to the aforementioned deities in perpetuity. The endowment was for a specific purpose: to meet the expenses involved in performing the niyata-bhoga (regular Pujas, etc.) of these deities. As a devout Hindu, Hatia believed that this endowment would bring Punya to his deceased parents, a profound conviction, Śraddhā that is as old as Sanatana Dharma itself. Needless, to the defiled and vulgarised “modern” Hindu psyche, such notions sound funny or ridiculous or both.
The Sanskrit word Vīthi has a range of meanings including “road,” “street,” “marketplace,” “shop,” and “stall.” The Kannada term Bīdi is a corruption of this original. Administratively, Vīthi also meant a territorial unit smaller than a district. Elsewhere, Hindu inscriptions and official records in the pre-medieval and early medieval period describe Vīthis as stalls and shops located within Haṭṭās or marketplaces— a contemporary evidence for this unbroken dimension of our commercial history is the famous Delhi Haat. Vīthis also had another fascinating aspect: some were explicitly designated as the property of specific deities or temples.
Which is where Hatia reemerges.
AS A WEALTHY MERCHANT, HATIA first purchased three Vīthis or marketplaces. One Vīthi was sold by a businessman curiously named Vuvāka. It fetched an annual rent of 130 Pān̄ciyaka-drammas. One Pān̄ciyaka-dramma was a copper coin typically weighing about 12 grams. Hatia converted this Vīthi into a Deva-agrahāra: it now became the property of the Nārāyaṇa-Viṣṇu deity.
The second Vīthi too, belonged to an unnamed merchant and was situated in a place named Khahanasiti, fetching an annual rent of 50 Pān̄ciyaka-drammas.
Hatia purchased the third Vīthi from a person named Govinda and it fetched 40 Pān̄ciyaka-drammas annually.
The income from these two Vīthis was endowed to the aforementioned Mother Goddesses.
Hatia didn’t stop at that. His grant inscription mentions that the income from the three Vīthis could also be used to meet sandhi-pāta or exigencies; or if that was not enough, the Vīthis could be mortgaged or sold.
The actual process of making the grant is also quite elevating. In the presence of the prominent citizens and officials of Bhilsa, Hatia visited various ghats along Vetravati and standing on their steps, solemnised the endowment by offering a sacred libation of curds and water into the cavity formed by the donee’s folded hands. This practice is still prevalent and will be familiar to those who have offered Dāna in the traditional method. However, in a majority of cases, only water is used during the ritual of making a Dāna and the use of curd in this case is pretty intriguing.
THE STORY OF HATIA’S GRANT is also interesting from a historical perspective. By 878, more than a hundred and fifty years had elapsed after Muhammad bin Qasim had raided Sindh and had given Hindus a savage sample of Islam’s compassion. Bhilsa was safe and heavily protected by the Rashtrakuta rulers then at the peak of their power.
Another grant recorded more than four centuries later offers a contrast with this one. This is the Hebbale Inscription of 1279 occurring in the Hoysala Era, which provided an endowment for Hindu pilgrims visiting Kashi, facilitating the payment of the extortionist Jaziya to the Turushka ruler of Delhi who had the most sacred Hindu city firmly under his control.
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