Advertisement

Destination: India : Written in Stone : Near Bombay, Exploring Monuments to Prayer and Power on the Stark Deccan Plateau

Share via
</i>

Deep in the stony bowels of one of the most astonishing monuments to religious faith and civil engineering prowess ever fashioned, the barefoot guide motioned with his flashlight.

“Come,” the man in the loose white robe said mysteriously. I followed, picking my way dimly and with difficulty through columns richly worked into gingerbread showing members of the Hindu pantheon.

“Here,” my guide said. I stopped in the penumbra. He swung his flashlight up at the second-story ceiling to reveal images of Siva and his consorts, flaking away but still very recognizable. “All the sexual positions,” he said, though no explanation was needed.

Advertisement

Here, on a rocky ridge about 180 miles up-country from Bombay, thousands of masons, stone carvers and sculptors set out 12 centuries ago to do something that has not been equaled since.

The end product, the Kailasanatha temple hewn out of volcanic basalt at Ellora, is one of the great treasures of Indian art and culture. Art historian Percy Brown called it “the most stupendous single work of art ever executed in India.”

That covers a lot of ground, but there is no disagreeing that it is a wonderful weekend destination if (like me) you’re visiting Bombay and you’ve had an overdose of that city’s frenetic pace, its moist, fetid Arabian Sea air and hustling business folk and beggars--and long for a few days of open space and quiet.

I combined Ellora with another historical curiosity on the Deccan plateau: Daulatabad, a now-dead capital founded by a man who must have been the Pol Pot of his day, since he chose a site about as hospitable and well-watered as the badlands of southern New Mexico on which to plant thousands of his unfortunate subjects.

In retrospect, it was a mini-vacation in the form of a lesson in morals: From a hymn hewn in stone to the power of religious belief it was but a brief drive to the mighty, brooding ruins left by Sultan Muhammad Tughluq’s megalomania.

*

Both destinations are an easy day’s outing from Aurangabad, a historic city of old gates and thick, crenelated walls, where at any of a number of excellent hotels, the India explorer can gulp a cool sundowner, wash the dust off with a dip in the pool and get a good Western dinner or Indian thali.

Advertisement

In Aurangabad one can also glimpse what is sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s Taj Mahal.” Or woman’s, to be precise. The honoree was Rabia Daurani, the deceased wife of the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb. By some estimates, only 1/300th of the funds were expended on this Taj knockoff, called Bibika Maqbara, as were lavished on the original. The end result, built in the late 17th Century, about a quarter century after the Taj, is only about half the size of the more famous garden tomb in the north Indian city of Agra.

In the Western Ghats mountain range, inland from Bombay and the sun-burned, sere Deccan plain, what art historians call “monumental sculpture”--the wholesale carving, rather than construction, of structures for human habitation or use--was first begun in the last two centuries before the birth of Christ.

The genre reached its acme at Ellora, 20 miles northwest of Aurangabad. For three centuries, people of three faiths--Buddhist, Hindu and Jain--sliced their way into a rocky ridge and gouged out vast chapels and monasteries of incredible complexity, artistry and delicacy.

As I ambled from cave to cave, I was followed by a silent man who humbly held up a great piece of polished silvery metal to catch rays of the morning sun and beam them into the caves so I could see the lovingly carved faces of the Buddha, impossibly round-breasted maidens and other figures. In gratitude, I gave him 10 rupees, about 30 cents, and he smiled.

Paths lead to most of the Ellora’s 34 caves,but it must be pointed out that there are some rough patches and that this is not a trip for the disabled or anyone who has trouble negotiating steps.

The jewel in Ellora’s necklace of stonework is opposite the parking area, and marked No. 16 in guidebooks and at the site. In the middle of the 8th Century, it is believed, this vision of an innovative, stupefying tribute to the Hindu gods took shape.

Advertisement

The name of its audacious author has been lost over the centuries, it seems. But under his guidance or tutelage, an army of craftsmen set out not to build a temple to the great god Siva, but to carve one out of solid rock. The labor, it is believed, lasted a century.

Just as Michelangelo saw a statue in a block of marble and sought to liberate it, these anonymous Indian masters and artisans envisaged a house of worship in a 3-million-square-foot mass of brownish-black, solidified lava, then set out with hand-held tools and primitive potash-charcoal explosives to create it.

*

The cutters began at the top of Ellora’s ridge, and working downward, cut three great trenches at right angles in the form of an inverted U. (Men did most of the craftsmanship, scholars believe, while women did the coolie work of hauling away the rubble. Some things in India never change, it seems.)

The end result is really a colossal pun, it struck me as I entered the temple with a group of excited tourists from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Over the decades, through the heat of summers and the lashing rains of the monsoon season, thousands of people sculpted a mountain to make a mountain: kailasa, the fabled Himalayan abode of Siva.

The great pyramidlike mount, topped by an octagonal cupola, now sits on the back of huge elephant caryatids. Kailasanatha is 165 feet long by 109 feet wide, while its stylized peak rises almost 95 feet above the man-made floor, more than half again as high as the presidential heads at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. (As a further comparison, the interior of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris measures 427 by 157 feet, with the roof 115 feet high.)

Inside the sanctuary, entered through an ornate doorway flanked by images of river goddesses, one can see lovely carvings of Siva, his consort Parvati and the god’s appearance as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer.

Advertisement

On the second floor (and it was there that it really struck me that I was not inside a building, but in a gigantic piece of sculpture hewn from a monolith), sits the yoni lingam, the stylized male and female reproductive organs that are the symbol of this most complex of Hindu deities, as well as the exacting carvings of “all the positions.”

As the carvers worked, they left enormous stone blocks that were then worked into free-standing pillars, shrines, elephants, the entrance gate and porch and friezes showing inspiring scenes from the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, about heroic kings who fought to regain their rightful thrones.

Around the temple, columned arcades have been cut into the overhanging cliff, and it was there that, along with friendly and inquisitive Indian visitors, I sought shelter from the noonday sun and answers to some questions about Hinduism.

To make Ellora and Ajanta (which boasts exquisite but badly damaged Buddhist cave paintings) better known as travel destinations, the Indian government, armed with Japanese aid of more than $60 million, has launched a development project. The first phase, already underway, includes upgrading Aurangabad’s airport, planting trees, repairing roads, stringing electric lines, improving water and sewage facilities and monument conservation.

Will the cost be passed on to the visitor? I don’t know. For the moment, it costs nothing to visit the caves at Ellora, and a ticket to enter Kailasanatha is but 50 paise--about 1 1/2 cents.

*

Driving back to Aurangabad from Ellora on dusty roads, one crosses thorny scrubland with broad and open vistas. Suddenly, about 20 minutes from Ellora, the ruins of three rings of stout black walls, still imposing in their massiveness, rise from the wasteland.

Advertisement

This is Daulatabad, the remains of Muhammad Tughluq’s southern capital, which the Delhi sultan erected as an exercise in what the geopoliticians call “power projection” about the time that the Black Plague was ravaging Europe.

In his lucid and entertaining “A New History of India” (Oxford, $17.95), a great travel companion for any tourist who wants to keep his Moguls straight from his Marathas, UCLA history professor Stanley Wolpert recounts the story of this remarkable man who catapulted to power over the corpses of his father and brother to reign over much of India from 1325 to 1354.

Muhammad Tughluq appears to have been a hypocrite, compelling his subjects to obey the “ablutions, prayers and the principles of Islam” while doing nothing of the sort himself. His rule was contested by Hindu chieftains in south India, however, so in 1327, he forced many nobles and officials of his court to abandon their homes in Delhi and journey southward to Daulatabad, more than 500 miles distant.

Many died on the incredibly arduous journey. Surveying the parched, wind-swept landscape today, it is hard to understand why this hardhearted emperor (who did little to alleviate the severe drought and famine that gripped India in 1335-42) chose this site, which is subject to the dry, furnacelike heat of the Deccan plateau and lacks a year-round supply of water, for a capital site.

How the lords and ladies of the court must have pined for Delhi! Little wonder, then, that in 1345 rebellion against Muhammad Tughluq broke out in Daulatabad and other Deccan cities, led by discontented Muslim nobles.

Lording it over the ruins, perched on a volcanic rock that rises more than 800 feet above the sun-scoured plain, sits the real reason I had wanted to see Daulatabad: the fort of Deogiri. It was more than 100 degrees by the time I arrived one afternoon last April, but I meant to climb to the top to experience what was, for medieval India, a state-of-the-art fortification.

Advertisement

Inside the ring formed by Daulatabad’s walls, many segments of which are still standing in excellent shape, a man in his 20s materialized holding a stubby piece of wood and a can of kerosene. “Want guide?” he asked. “Ji ha, “ I assented in Hindi.

For the next half-hour, guided by his sputtering yellow flame, we took the path that any soldier unfortunate enough to have been ordered to attack Deogiri would have had to follow. If Ellora is a prayer in stone, at Daulatabad one sees a no less artful monument to man’s ability to be efficiently and deviously inhumane.

First, the assailant (or today’s tourist) trudges up a slope that was made steeper on purpose, then crosses a moat that used to be filled with eagerly waiting crocodiles.

The path plunges underground and into blackness. From surface level, large slots have been cut for the defenders to dump hot coals or caldrons of boiling water onto the hapless infiltrators, or to fill the tunnel with poisonous fumes.

The tunnel splits, then meets, an unspoken invitation to the confused attackers to kill each other in the dark. As in the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” heavy stones were positioned so the defenders could bring them crashing down onto the enemy.

At its end, the tunnel becomes so narrow that one by one, the attackers would have had to crawl forward, no doubt to meet a reception committee armed with a beheading ax.

“Seven walls, 52 gates, 306 cannons, 15 km. perimeter of wall,” I jotted down in my notebook as my guide rattled off Daulatabad’s formidable defenses. Yet at the summit, where cannons (including one named “Creator of Storms”) were positioned to rake the Deccan for miles around, there was little sign of life except the repetitive, single-note song of a coppersmith bird. What had been a capital is today, like so many sights in India, a melancholy reminder of the magnificence, glory and power of the past.

Advertisement

GUIDEBOOK

Finding Prayers in Stone

*

Getting there: From LAX fly to New Delhi with connections in Asia on Delta, United, Singapore; lowest round-trip fares start at $1,550. From New Delhi, Indian Airlines flies to Aurangabad on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursday, Saturdays and Sundays via Jaipur and Jodhpur. Round-trip: $198.

From LAX fly to Bombay on Cathay Pacific; lowest round-trip fares start at about $2,000. From Bombay, Indian Airlines flies direct to Aurangabad on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Round trip: $68. Or fly East-West Airlines daily, for the same price.

Train service is available from Bombay, Secunderabad (Hyderabad) and other cities. Tours or cars with drivers may be booked through hotels.

*

Where to stay: Bookings for hotels belonging to major Indian chains can easily be done in New Delhi, Bombay or other Indian cities. Some offer discounts between April and September.

Top-rated hotels include:

Taj Residency, 8N, CIDCO, Aurangabad; from the U.S. telephone (800) ILUV-TAJ; $50 per person, double occupancy. (Brand new hotel, inaugurated May 2.)

Welcomgroup Rama International, R-3 Chikalthana, Aurangabad; tel. 011-91-2432-84441 and fax 011-91-2432-84768; $64 per person, double occupancy.

Advertisement

Ajanta Ambassador, Jalna Road, Chikalthana, Aurangabad; tel. 011-91-243-82211, fax 011-91-2432-84367; $50 per person double occupancy.

Advertisement