Post 18 – Day 9 ‘A Passage to India’

Post 18 a Post 18 b

My main goal for Day 9 is the Barabar Caves, a series of man-made rock cut chambers located 24 kilometres north of the city of Gaya in the Jehanabad District of Bihar.

The caves were used as a backdrop in E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel, ‘A Passage to India’, in which he masks their true name with that of the ‘Malabar Caves’, a useful enough deception. The novel is based on Forster’s experiences in India and is set within the context of the growing Indian Independence movement of the 1920’s, still a time in which India was firmly within the control of the British Raj. Though I have never read ‘A Passage to India’, I had seen the 1984 movie adaptation of the book in which the Australian actress Judy Davis starred. However, when organising my tour itinerary, I had not realised the association of the Barabar Caves with Forster’s novel. My interests were solely driven by the caves early history and unique method of construction, for I found them quoted in several textbooks dealing with the origin and developmental stages of Indian temple design.

The storyline of ‘A Passage to India’ involves the characters of Dr Aziz, a young Muslim physician, his British friend My Cyril Fielding, the elderly Mrs Moore, and Miss Adela Quested. In the movie, it was the character of Adela that Judy Davis played. Dr Aziz arranges, at great expense to himself, a visit by Adela and Mrs Moore to the Malabar Caves. Aziz and Adela are left alone with an Indian guide to explore the caves, they become separated and Aziz believes Adela to have become lost. Meanwhile Adela, unsettled by the aura she experiences in the caves, runs back to her carriage parked below, arriving unsettled and scratched. Through a chain of misinterpreted events Adela accuses Dr Aziz of attempting to assault her, and he is arrested and charged. Though finally acquitted, Aziz’s trial, the run-up to it, and its aftermath, exposes the extent of the racial tensions and prejudices between indigenous Indians and the British colonists who rule India.


The driver had slept overnight in the car. He does not mind. We leave early though there is already much traffic, first in Bodh Gaya, then in Gaya city itself, the narrow streets impeding our ability to pass the carts and bicycles piled with goods and produce. It is just another dry and dusty city, my scarf offering some relief from the grit that I am forced to breathe. Once beyond Gaya we must find our way along lengths of back roads, the countryside generally flat though with several rocky hills in the distance. I presume these are our destination but the haze blocks any clear view of the distant skyline. The distance to the caves seems much greater than the often quoted 24 kilometres. The driver has not driven this route before and stops regularly to check for directions. He is also concerned about reports of bandits. I’m from a place where any talk of bandits and highwaymen is a century out of date, and so I fail to appreciate the gravity of his worry and the tenuous thread upon which my fate might rest. Our bandits are heroic cult figures, famously one ‘Ned Kelly’, but I’m now in a country where the really bad stuff that can happen is not restricted to that of cyclones and crocodile attacks, and being a foreigner does not guarantee immortality. That didn’t even work in the days of the British Raj. They got sliced and diced as easily as the locals. And they had to work hard to abolish ‘thagi’, the ritual strangling of travellers.

Nevertheless we arrive safely. Along the way I observed my first ‘Roller’, a bird about the size of a magpie, maybe smaller, but coloured brilliant bluish-green. My life potentially at risk and I’m bird-watching. Not as odd as some might paint it, for European naturalists spent the 19th Century wandering the perilous landscapes of the planet, braving poison darts, thugs, endoparasites, snakebite, rebel insurgencies, overly large carnivores, and bad tasting water; their hope of fair compensation balanced only by the prospects of finding new plants and animals. Most early biologists had to pursue their chosen craft during their annual leave, and out of their own pockets, for government research grants were few and hard to come by. If you were lucky someone like Sir Joseph Banks found you free passage on an old and cramped ship of the British Admiralty in which you spent several years sailing around in misery, bemoaning absent family and loved ones, suffering recurring bouts of seasickness, poor diet, and risking shipwreck and cannibalism. There was no ducking out half way round the globe and catching the next budget air flight back home.

After arriving we parked the car on the outskirts of a tiny village, this location giving the best walking access to the Barabar Caves complex in the low rocky hills above. I had barely alighted from the car when a man appeared from out of nowhere with a receipt book. We had to pay to park. Talk about efficiency. Who said public servants sit around all day half asleep? Then a local guide appeared, and we had to pay him as well. He was affable and well informed.

Situated in the twin hills of Barabar and Nagarjuni, the Barabar Caves, and the nearby Nagarjuni Caves, are thought to represent the oldest rock cut caves in India, mostly dating from the period of the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE). Some have Asokan inscriptions. They are not natural caves but are entirely man made be cutting into massive hard granite rocks. The caves were used for meditation purposes and the offering of prayers by ascetics from the Ajvika sect. The Ajvika sect was founded by the seer-monk Gopala, a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, and of Mahavira, last and 24th Tirthankara of Jainism. The sect was atheistic and pessimistic in nature, and though its monks were favourites of Asokan queens, it was totally opposed to Jainism and Buddhism. However, Buddhist and Hindu sculptures have also been found at the caves.

The caves resonate with clear echoes, whispers carrying from wall to wall. But the air is stale. A number of the caves are believed to have originally contained small wooden structures but none are now in evidence. Only gecko lizards and huntsmen spiders now inhabit the chambers, where they cling to walls and ceilings, their mottled greyish colouring blending to that of the stark granite surface. I photograph several in the darkness. They do not move.

The caves are things of awe, womb-like. I can understand how the characters in Forster’s book were so taken aback here. They are not places for the claustrophobic. Yet it is impossible to imagine how they were built, impossible to imagine how these chambers were made, how people achieved their excavation. I find myself repeating my thoughts, and committing them to my diary in a way that may appear clumsy or convoluted. No machine drills, no diamond edged cutting saws, and no explosives. The cave walls are perfectly smooth and highly polished, their surfaces readily reflecting images of the photographer in photographs taken within. The meeting edges of each wall are precise, perfectly made as if by a metal edge, to the fineness of a razor blade. An understanding of the process beggars belief. You run your hands over the surface of the stone and it is warm and glassy to the touch, not cold as one might expect. Somebody did this. Someone somehow laboured away at this stone. Granite is hard. I know from personal experience. I have hit blocks of it with a massive sledgehammer, the real heavy beasts that the New South Wales railways department once used to drive in metal rail spikes. The sledgehammer just bounced off, doing nothing more than slightly chipping the surface. I do not have knowledge of the technology available to the builders of the Barabar Caves. They certainly had patience.

The Barabar Hills possess four caves: Lomas Rishi, its arched doorway decorated with floral, faunal and geometric motifs, most conspicuously with converging lines of parading elephants; Sudama Cave, this dedicated by the Emperor Asoka in 261 BCE and possessing a circular vaulted chamber with a rectangular hall (mandapa); Karan Chaupar, a single rectangular room with polished surfaces and containing an inscription possibly dated to 245 BCE; and Visva Zopri comprised of two rooms, and reached by steps hewn into a cliff. I visit the first three. Heavy steel grates deny entry to all unless unlocked by guards, and though the cave interiors are free from modern acts of vandalism, recent graffiti of the ‘read my initials’ kind adorns several external rock surfaces. The boulder-strewn landscape in which the caves are situated imparts a sense of isolation and reminds me of scenes of the New England Tablelands of northern New South Wales. The soil between the rocks is dry and light brown in colour, and low evergreen shrubs are growing scattered about, many of these being armed with long cruel thorns. I can see how Miss Quested arrived back to her companions, cut and bleeding, for this vegetation did not readily yield to exploration, let alone flight driven by fear. It was unforgiving, as my English-Australian mother would have said. The crafting of ‘A Passage to India’ obviously rested on the author’s personal experience of this location.

My guide informed me the light orange-red coloured ripe fruit of one kind of low shrub is edible. I tried several. They were sweet and succulent to the taste. Several fawn coloured cattle, with long, upwardly pointing horns, stand or sit around outside. They give no heed to us. Small bright orange-tipped pierid butterflies, maybe the species known by scientists as Ixias pyrene, sit with wings outstretched on the sandy soil. They are easily disturbed and constantly elude my attempts to photograph them. I search diligently about the smaller boulders for snakes and other reptiles in the hope of finding the odd krait or viper. Maybe an Indian star tortoise, Geochelone elegans, if I’m lucky, for this terrestrial species is widespread in India inhabiting dry areas and scrub forest. They’re real cute little guys, their carapace distinctly convex, coloured almost black with attractive yellow, and looking around the habitat seems just right. Nothing, no snake and no tortoise, in fact no reptile of any description, not even the smallest of grass skinks, just a few little birds of a non-descript brown kind. They fly so fast, or hide deep in dense matted shrubbery, that I am unable to even guess at their kind.

Snakes, you can never find them when you want them, just like in Australia. I’ve spent my share of time wandering the Northern Territory and Queensland, and never found a deadly taipan or king brown snake once, not ever, try and poke about the bush as I did. It’s not as if they are small and easy to hide. Yet a boy comes up to me near Darwin all ‘matter of fact’ about just finding a young taipan under a rotting log, and a friend who lives near Cairns, just to pour stinging vinegar upon my disappointment, regularly sends me photos of the three metre specimen that lives happily amongst piles of rocks by his farm dam. You always find them when you don’t need them though. Stumbling barefoot through my house one night in the dark, I turn on the electric light to find a highly venomous Stephen’s Banded snake, an adult, centimetres from my feet. Poor thing, I could have accidentally trod on it.


I return via the Vishnupada Mandir temple at Gaya. Its present structure dates back to 1787, though this was built on an earlier temple. Located on the banks of the Falgu River the Vishnupada Mandir is the holy site where Vishnu is believed to have placed his foot. This is marked by a footprint, known as the Dharmasila, incised into a block of basalt in the centre of the temple. In the Hindu belief system the Dharmasila marks the act of Lord Vishnu subduing the demon Gayasura, or if you will the asura Gaya; ‘asura’ in the RgVeda being an honorific term applied to the gods, but in later literature used to designate anti-gods, demons. The descent of demonic asuras to the world threatens to bring disorder, and so it is the task of Vishnu to defeat them.

Outside the temple I encounter a kindly ascetic. I have no money on hand. My wallet is elsewhere so I can only offer him a piece of cherry-flavoured chewing gum, and though it is not a cheap brand I deem it a poor reward. “It has come all the way from Australia”, I confide to him hoping to lend to it some sense of the sacred. “My daughter gave it to me as a special gift”. I direct him in the art of removing the silver wrapper, which I retrieve from him, for he is obviously unclear about what to do with the wrapper once removed. Then I indicate by hand signals what he is to do with the gum. Quizzical as to its purpose, down right perturbed more likely, and not at all reassured as to the wisdom of placing it within his mouth, he finally complies. He is not impressed with the taste, but persists. Maybe it was not the flavour of his preferred choosing. And as I have been sometimes reminded, when it comes to choosing the brand that works for you, amongst the many others upon the supermarket shelves, ‘it’s all about choice’. A vendor close by, in seeing my financial straits, and so enlightened to the futility of seeking any sales, turns and walks away. Undaunted, a pair of teenagers engage me with the standard line that they want to study English so that they can become doctors. Again I motion that I can only offer chewing gum and that I have no money. Temporarily destitute, and leaning finally alone against a wall, I am approached by an Indian in his late 20’s, maybe early 30’s. He is selling maps and votive paintings of Vishnu. He offers a card illustrating a stylised religious scene of the river at which I am gazing, contemplating the cremation pyres scattered about on its dry bed, relatives, out of earshot, tending to the fires. I try to indicate I have no money, but he waves aside my protestations, and places the card in my empty hand, clasping his two hands across mine so that I cannot refuse. The card is offered free of charge, free of obligation. He is mute, unable to speak, but ushers me to the sandy river bed, kneels and digs down into the dry sand. Less than a metre down the sand becomes damp, and water begins to trickle into the hole he has just made. In return, I can only offer him words of thanks.


We drive back to Bodh Gaya. It is late but people are still bustling about the town. More tents are being erected for the growing numbers of Buddhist pilgrims. Stall venders continue at their trade, each stall covered by dark cloth awnings. However, we cannot drive through the town to the hotel. Police are directing all non-essential traffic away from the town centre. Our pleas for exemption avail us not at all. The driver’s words meet with stern rebuff. My attempt at getting a special ‘foreigners pass’ in the name of promoting good relations between our two great democracies is met with a wry smile and the waving of an obstructing police baton. I was of the wrong gender and age to try my luck with a cute smile or a grieving tear. I would have to walk back, a distance of 2 or 3 kilometres. But my real concern was that my driver would have to stay here alone with the car, and would not be allowed to drive through the town back to the hotel until around midnight, if lucky. And while the car was unlikely to turn into a pumpkin, ‘Cinderella’ fashion, the evening was obviously going to be a cold one. He assured me he was ok. I got the feeling this experience, here in this particular town, was not new to him.


I dine for the last time at the ‘Om’. Hot lemon drink with honey, vegetable momos, vegetable thali, and Tibetan vegetable soup, all chosen by the polite pointing of my forefinger to meals in the process of being consumed on tables elsewhere around me. Thali, a word meaning ‘plate’, is an Indian meal made up of a selection of various dishes, these varying from region to region. Usually served in small bowls on a round tray, typical thali dishes include rice, dhal, a kind of unleavened wholemeal bread called roti, pappadums, curd, and small amounts of chutney or pickle. Be warned, the pickles may be hot and spicy. Momos are a kind of dumpling native to Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and the Himalayan districts of India. They come with a variety of fillings.

On the street I pass several young Tibetan monks preoccupied with the operation of their mobile cell phones. “Live long and prosper,” I intone in my best translation of Star Trek ‘Vulcan’, my hand raised and my fingers paired in the appropriate manner. They burst out laughing. ‘Trekkies’, you find them everywhere.

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