Friday, March 03, 2006

ellora, khuldabad, daulatabad

trying to journey through a few spaces and many times
in this month's Outlook Traveller

I have become a lover of footnotes, and of footpaths. Of marginal roads that branch off from the rumbling juggernaut highways of national history, and disappear into the uncleared undergrowth of the past: forgotten, ignored, unconsidered.

I am in love, for instance, with this brief aside to a long and involved tale of royal intrigue in Delhi and Gujarat. Sometime in 1307 or so, in the time of Alaudddin Khalji, an army from Delhi camped on the banks of a river, a farsang from Devagiri, now known as Daulatabad. Three or four hundred Turkish soldiers asked, and were granted permission, to see the famous temples of Ellora.

Almost exactly seven centuries later, as one of a few thousand people visiting the stunning rock hewn shrines of Ellora on a single day, I wish that these soldiers were remembered somewhere. There aren’t many places in the world, I would think, with records of their first tourists going back seven hundred years. Why should the ‘history’ of a place not include the breathless presence of all those who have gaped at it over the centuries? Why should the history of Ellora, as told in the signage and the guide books, not tell us that in a letter recording a visit to Khuldabad, Daulatabad and Ellora, Aurangzeb described the Kailash Temple as ‘one of the wonders of the work of the true transcendent Artisan’?


To get a true sense of what Aurangzeb was talking about, you have to climb a steep footpath up the cliffside into which the Ellora caves are excavated. The geode and guidebook sellers will recommend it too, ‘Photo bahut accha aata hai.’ As you walk up the side of the cliff suddenly you are level with the top of the very inaptly labeled ‘Cave 16’, the Kailash Nath Temple. It is breath taking when seen from ground level, with its monumental proportions and exquisite, alive carving. You can feel Ravana’s ten heads screaming with the effort of trying to shake Mount Kailash. But you can also get thrown by the women in burqas posing with him. But from on top, the people and their clamour echoing in the carved spaces a hundred feet below fades away, and there is nothing to distract you from the awesome magnitude of what’s been achieved here – in panoramic wide angle top down view.

The Kailash Nath temple is an almost complete paradigm shift from the fifteen caves that come before it. It is not architecture, really speaking, but sculpture on a gigantic scale. From the top, from where you stand, the basalt rock was carved downwards, many thousands of tons of it removed, and the remains chiseled into the exquisite beauty of this, the largest monolithic structure in the world. What is even more remarkable is that though it is said to have been started in the reign of the Rashtrakuta King, Krishna I (756-774), the vision was carried forward over a hundred and fifty years till its final adjective crunching execution.

The footpath carries on, along the top of the cliff, a shortcut from the village of Ellora/Verul to the walled town of Khuldabad, where Aurangzeb himself lies buried, exhausted by old age and the constant struggle of expanding Empire southwards. As you walk along, through a scenery of rolling hills and no tourists, you come to a group of dark stone tombs gathered on a grassy plain, on the edge of a cliff. The grandest of them all, with the most exquisitely carved jalis, is that of Malik Ambar.

Malik Ambar was a habshi, an Ethiopian slave brought to India via the slave markets of Baghdad to serve the Deccan sultanate of Ahmednagar. In time he rose to become the leader of the resistance to the Mughals trying to expand southwards in the time of Akbar and Jahangir. Eighty years before Shivaji, his soldiers called him Peshwa. He never lost a battle. Today, a ten minute walk from the Ellora caves, he lies completely ignored, his tomb an echo chamber amplifying the cricket game played by its side.

It is only appropriate to pay homage to him before proceeding to the mazaar of Aurangzeb, in the compound of the dargah of Shaikh Zainuddin, in the time stopped town of Khuldabad. He lies buried in a simple earthen grave, with a tulsi plant growing out of it. A blind man recites his litany. This is the only place where Aurangzeb found peace.

Towards the end of his life, he could already foresee the end of Empire, the fighting among his sons - ‘yak anar, sad beemar’ is attributed to him in these last days, still master of the pithy Persianism. Ek anar sau beemar.


Khuldabad. Abode of heaven. Also, known as Karbala, or as the valley of the saints, for the sheer density of fourteenth century sufi shrines here. Including that of Zainunddin, the Aakhri Khwaja, the last disciple. The last in a long line of Sufis, all disciples of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, all spread out on the road between Delhi and Daulatabad, as traveled by Mohammad bin Tughlak when he transferred his capital, and his people. The Sufis came south with him, and though the stories say that he marched all the people back again, the Sufis stayed. Here, in the abode of heaven, this still peaceful place, ten kilometers short of the abandoned city of Daulatabad. Zainuddin, Burhanuddin Gharib, Zar Zari Zar Baksh…

This has to be sacred ground. Khuldabad and its saints are less than two kilometers away from the caves of Ellora, sacred to Buddhists, Jains and Hindus. Where Tibetan refugees still tie white scarves around the hands of seated Buddha idols in long abandoned monasteries. And Daulatabad, before Muhmmad bin Tughlak made it the abode of wealth, was Devgiri, the hill of the gods.


‘…wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant…’

When Daultabad first hoves into view, driving south from Khuldabad, it’s very hard not to think of Tolkien’s description of Sauron’s Dark Tower. Three massive rings of fortification, black basalt rock thrusting teeth into the sky. A slender tower almost as tall as the Qutub Minar. A conical hill two hundred metres tall, with its sides cut sheer to fall away into a massive moat excavated out of the rock, a feat of engineering on the same vertiginous scale as Ellora. Once past the moat, you reach the Andhari, the only way up to the top of the Fort, a dark tunneled labyrinth where the only illumination is torches, and where the defenders could pour everything from pitch to boiling oil on those who had managed to get this far. And then a hard steep climb up up up, long and steep enough to be a pilgrimage. On top finally, where a cannon sits on the very pinnacle of the hill of the gods, with many, many Kims astride it, and cell phones ringing.

The first time I came here the monsoon rains had just begun, and I trudged up alone through the drizzly afternoon, all alone at what seemed to be the end of the world. The walls that once surrounded a whole bustling city stretched all the way to the rain green hills around. But the city itself was gone, reduced to the stalls selling guavas to the tourists at the base of the fort.

How long does it take to build a city? How soon does it take to disappear? Even with the raucous happy chatter of school kids on excursion all around, being atop Daulatabad Fort induces deep melancholy. There is a scene from ‘Tughlak’ where Girish Karnad imagines Muhammad bin talking to a young soldier guarding the battlements of this fort at night, and lamenting that his world had grown old, and bereft of beauty and possibilities. Tughlak’s empire broke apart, with Daulatabad as the centre where the Bahmani dynasty of the Deccan broke away from his Empire. Then Daulatabad became part of the sultanate of Ahmadnagar, defended by Malik Ambar. After his death it was captured by Shah Jehan, then as the Empire crumbled it became part of the Nizam’s dominions, with a brief two year interregnum under the Marathas. Even the most impregnable of forts can’t save you from being laid low by politics, and treachery.

There is a mosque at the base of the fort, built by Qutbuddin Mubarak Khilji in 1318, when he conquered Devagiri and annexed it to the Sultanate of Delhi. The mosque is said to have been built on the remains of a Jain temple. On the 17th of September, 1948, immediately after the accession of the Hyderabad Nizam Shahi to the Indian state, an idol was installed in the central mihrab of the mosque, a year before the idol of Ram Lalla was placed inside the mosque at Ayodhya. This was an idol of Bharat Mata, Mother India. To this day, the mosque is known as the Bharat Mata Mandir, and a pujari blesses those who visit the eight armed idol, remarkably like an idol of Durga, bearing a sword and a snake and a bowl of fire.

It feels like a desecration of this sacred ground. My country doesn’t need to be worshipped through revenge for historical wrongs, whether real or imagined. I bow my head to “Mother India”, sadness welling in my heart. I ring the bell, rubbing the tika from my forehead. I walk out into the courtyard, the broken stunted pillars are rows of sundials, casting long shadows in the sun, marking the passing of time. I yearn with what cannot be nostalgia – for I have never known what I know I have lost. I yearn to know the innocence of being an incidental tourist at Ellora, circa 1307.


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