Up early, showered, and packed my luggage in preparation for leaving the hotel and the city of Kendujhargarh. Fruit juice, coffee, omelette, toast, and warm corn flakes porridge again. No other breakfast choice in town, but thankfully my guide has volunteered once more for kitchen duty. He’s magic with a frying pan and half a dozen fresh eggs; feeds us all.
The guide will be accompanying us, so some of the luggage will have to go on the vehicle’s roof rack. I argue over the inadequate quantity of rope apportioned for the task. The guide and the driver are more courageous than I as to its perceived ability to secure the suitcases. We will need to buy more rope, and I happen to know just the place, the little lane with the cordage sellers just off the main city street in the centre of town. As we argue over how best to tie down the luggage I notice an old lady at the rear of the hotel. She is washing the very same plates that I and a fast disappearing omelette, barely minutes ago at breakfast, were on intimate terms with. She is fastidious at the task, wiping each plate, bowl and cup meticulously clean. In hindsight I am glad I had already scoured the crockery out with a piece of toast, for I had reduced her workload. My humiliation is bettered only by the woman’s grace and dignity. Her face gleams when she catches my eye. Come to think of it, most people I meet in India smile in greeting.
I direct my guide and driver to my cordage vendor of choice, and a new length of rope in hand we apply ourselves to the fastening of the luggage. I don’t know why I bothered. It was loosely tied here, loosely tied there, and some bits were not tied at all. I tugged, the driver and guide tugged, and not a single knot ended up being worth the effort. The dual concepts of how to firmly secure a suitcase to a car roof, and me as supervisor, not all three, were lost to them. I attempted to rework their efforts but both insisted they assist me again. When you need customer assistance it’s not there, this assistance I did not need. The second attempt was worse than the first. It was a tyranny of crossed purposes, and I could see the opportunity for national disharmony to creep in. I gave up and prayed the luggage would have sense enough not to abandon the journey at the first pothole. I had a vision of all my belongings crushed and bloodied by the roadside, their nakedness and ‘Made in China’ brand names exposed for all to see.
There is dense fog as we leave the city but by 10 am the world is blue and sunny and I am parked outside the Maa Tarini Temple, a Kali temple, but do not enter. The temple is some kilometres past the city in a town I can’t pronounce, and have no chance of spelling correctly. So I do not try. The street is jammed with vendors of votive items and tourist knick knacks. Each vendor seems to be offering the same range of items for sale. I see few customers and wonder how all these small businessmen survive. I buy several coloured bracelets, feeling the burden of the vendor’s dependents upon my shoulders. The obligation to purchase something, anything, just keeps playing on your conscience.
My main destination for the day is the Buddhist temple complex at Ratnagiri and the adjacent archaeological sites of Udayagiri and Lalitagiri, but along the way we detour to a small temple and shrine being financed and built by a local community. From the roadway it looked ancient, but in fact is brand new, me as novice being fooled by the traditional style of its architecture. The temple is constructed of bricks made of sun-hardened blocks of laterite, several serried ranks of which lay about awaiting use. I am barely out of the tour car when two carloads of people arrive. I suddenly realise I am trespassing. However, they are amiable folk, and we spend half an hour discussing the building project, and take turns at posing for the obligatory round of photographs.
The complex of archaeological ruins at Ratnagiri is protected under the ‘Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958’. Ratnagiri was established no later than the reign of the Gupta king Narasimha Baladitya, its construction dating from about the 5th Century CE until the 13th Century. It was an important ‘Tantric’ centre of Buddhism, but from the 13th Century onwards it declined, managing to continue in ever lessening use until the 16th Century. The site was chosen by Buddhist monks because of its isolation and serenity, but just as at Sarnath, here there is this terrible obliteration of that which was once wonderful, that people had gone out of their way to play the role of vandal on a grand scale.
Excavations conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India between 1958 to 1961 yielded a large stupa surrounded by numerous votive stupas of varying smaller dimensions, six temples, two quadrangular monastery foundations, and a single-winged monastery with open courtyard and a curvilinear tower, the only one of its kind in Orissa. The large stupa was built in the 9th Century and was constructed over the site of an earlier one. Large numbers of sculptures, terracotta seals and inscribed slabs were also unearthed at the site. In monastery Complex 2 there is a paved courtyard flanked by a pillared verandah around which are eighteen cells, and a central shrine featuring an image of Buddha, this flanked by images of Brahma, the god of creation, and Sakra, the ruler of the ‘Trayastrimsa’ Heaven, in Buddhist cosmology the highest of the heavens that maintains a physical connection with the rest of the world.
Entry to the site first passes rows of small votive stupas, from where a path progresses uphill to the expansive courtyard, and continues past a large fig tree to the main stupa atop a low hilly outlook. The presence of many surrounding trees gives welcome relief to the otherwise open landscape. But on this day there is little serenity. Ratnagiri is today the site of a photo shoot. A film crew stands ready. I loiter close by in case they are in need of an extra. Two stars of the Indian film industry fulfil the main roles, and as a consequence there are hundreds of young fans, and an ample supply of armed police and security guards on duty at the site. The male star is decked in a fine black and gold embroidered shirt. He smiles in quiet acknowledgement as he passes by. The woman, straight out of a Bollywood movie feature, all wide-eyed, and of ample proportion, is surrounded by adoring teenage girls. She does not notice me. I cannot recall what she wore. It was probably just an advertising commercial anyway.
I seek solitude from the crowd at the far edge of the hilltop stupa. There among encroaching weeds and low matted shrubs are hidden many broken votive sculptures and smashed pieces of once-cherished figures. Each is small in size, but each too heavy for me to contemplate salvage. Besides I’d need a shipping agent and would likely face the ire of the Archaeological Survey of India. The way in which the sculptures have been wantonly discarded is saddening but the manner in which they are haphazardly clustered has made potential habitat for reptiles, especially those of the slithering kind. The spaces between and underneath the broken sculptures afford a comfortable home for anything lithesome enough to squeeze in. But you wouldn’t want to try it with a bad back. Ratnagiri is apparently renowned for the occurrence of the highly venomous Saw-scaled viper, Echis carinatus, this being one of the ‘Big Four’ snakes responsible for causing the most snakebite deaths in India. Many are caught hereabouts for the production of snakebite serum. In expectation I look eagerly about the heaps of stupas but find nothing, not a hint of a flickering tongue, not a single scale of a sloughed skin.
The Saw-scaled viper grows to 80 centimetres in length, frequently occurs in highly populated areas, is relatively inconspicuous in nature, and bears live young. The head is covered in keeled scales and the colour pattern is variable, the ground colour sometimes reddish, grey, olive or pale brown. This is overlaid dorsally with whitish – brown spots and blotches. Oh well, maybe one day I will come back in summer.
I placate my disappointment with a visit to the archaeological museum established alongside the ruins, use of camera inside not permitted. The museum was completed in 1990 and has 3,400 listed antiquities of which over 200 are on display. There are many images; Jambhala, Vasudhara, Chunda, Durga, Vaisnavi, Manjusri, Maitreya, Avalokiteshivara, Aparajita, Hariti, and lots of Buddhas, the latter all in different poses. I kept a good count of the different divinities until I came to a voluptuous sculpture of the female Bodhisattva Tara, then another image of Tara, then another one, each as comely and well endowed as the next. I was ‘chest smitten’. I had a healthy reputation as a teenager, but here I was out of my depth. I didn’t have enough hands. It was like being in a lolly shop and being made to suffer only one choice, one wish. No option for walking out with a bag of mixed delights. Bodhisattvas are supposed to be beings who forego ‘nirvana’ so as to aid mere mortals along the path to spiritual liberation. I couldn’t image anyone I knew wanting to leave behind in a hurry the anatomically profound charms of this lady. Tara is the sort of entity that brings young men to a premature and exhausted ruin, casting them to an early end well before their appointed three score and ten years. She represents the sort of temptation that distracts nascent males from more spiritual concerns. I know, I was one once, though admittedly a long time ago. I beheld too many ‘Taras’. My eyes just glassed over, and my breathing came in broken bursts. I feared the sudden onset of blindness. I was too old for this, the museum’s gift shop had no reproductions for sale, and the gallery attendant didn’t look like he was the sort of fellow who could be coerced into parting with a spare broken example out back in the storeroom. I wouldn’t have minded if it was only an arm or two that was missing, she didn’t need to be a D-cup, I’d happily settle for physical attributes of a more earthly dimension. The mediaeval Jain work, the ‘Kuvalayamalakatha’, reminds that “A man whose mind is overcome by the delusion of lust cannot distinguish between a woman he can have and a woman he should never touch”. On this occasion, here in this museum a long way from home, such cautionary and meritorious instruction eluded me.
I needed the steadying influence of fresh air. Fortunately there were extensive green fields of ripening lentils just opposite the museum car park. I walked across the road, ignored several women bent over busy harvesting, helped myself to some long black lentil pods close at hand, and split them open. Interesting as seeing a field of organically grown lentils normally is, they proved a poor diversion for my thoughts.
We drive to Udayagiri, this site a short eight kilometre distance away. It is not to be confused with sites of similar name at Bhubaneswar elsewhere in Orissa, and near Sanchi in central India. The Udayagiri ruins are set amongst spectacular low shrub and woodland covered hills. It was so peaceful, and there were few other people, a bare handful. I could have been left and forgotten here. I could have happily gone trekking. I was ‘home’, away from cities and shopping malls. I spot my first langur, this long-tailed, large-browed monkey preoccupied with a matter of his own interest and uncaring of my proximity. Then my camera battery dies and I eventually depart, utterly miserable from the loss of prospective photographs.
Udayagiri, aptly meaning ‘The Hill of Sun Rise’, is a Buddhist complex excavated first in 1958, however, the archaeological investigations continue to this day. It dates from the early centuries of the current era to the 13th Century and boasts a huge east-facing monastic complex enshrining a colossal image of Gautama Buddha. Excavations exposed the Maha-Stupa which contains the inscribed images of ‘Dhyani’ Buddhas, in Vajrayana Buddhism the representations of the five qualities of Buddha, set at each cardinal direction: ‘Akshobhya’, east; ‘Ambitabha’, west; ‘Amoghasiddhi’, north; ‘Ratnasambhava’, south; and the fifth, ‘Vairocana’, being centrally placed. The ruins also include a masonry pathway and courtyard, a residential compound, and a well faced with stone and accessible by a series of stone steps. At the well is a holy man of sorts. He offers blessings and a dab of bright pigment in exchange for money. There are also, what appear to be, many unexcavated hillocks that suggest ruins hidden beneath. Each hints at an outline of something distinctly man-made. I toy with the idea that they are ‘barrows’, burial mounds, and hold the ghostly wraiths of epic heroes. At least the thought will make the basis of a nice bedtime story to amuse the grandchildren with, and will give them something to think about late at night, especially around midnight.
In failing light we arrive at Lalitagiri. Here vandals have been equally successful at dismembering the complex of buildings and shrines. A small party of government officials and uniformed guards are at the entrance gate of the complex to greet us. One of the guards salutes as we arrive. I think I, we, have been mistaken for visitors of far greater importance.
A sign at the entrance gate prominently proclaims:
“Government of India
Archaeological Survey of India, Bhubaneswar
Buddhist Site at Lalitagiri, District: Cuttack, Orissa
Tourist Information Board
1) Rs 5/- (Five) Per Head for Indian Citizen.
2) US $2 or Rs100 in Indian Currency Per Head for Other than Indian Citizen.
3) Free Entry for Children below 15 years of age.
4) Licence fee for Handy Video filming camera Rs 25/- Valid for that day only.
5) Check cash balance with tickets before leaving the Counter.
6) Please keep the counter full of ticket till come out of the site and produce on demand by Archaeological Staff.
7) Tourists are requested to produce the entry tickets from the Sales counter only not through any agent.
8) Photography climbing upon structures and architectural part is prohibited.
9) The use of still photographic camera with stand is prohibited.
10) The monument remains open for visitors from sunrise to sunset.
11) Whoever destroys, removes, injures, alters, defaces, imperils or misuses a protected monument or removes from a protected monument any sculpture shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to five thousand rupees or with both.
Super Intending Archaeologist”.
If we ever survive long enough on Planet Earth to invent a time travel device, the guy that did all the damage at Lalitagiri is in serious trouble. And I’m suspecting he was the same person responsible for the rubble at Ratnagiri and Udayagiri as well. It all had the same tell-tale hand of thoroughness about it. Going by that notice from the Super Intending Archaeologist that ferret of a little vandal is up for a fine the equivalent of around $100 Australian, and the prospect of three months’ worth of free meals and lodging thrown in. I’d be seriously worried if I was him. Alternatively we could probably set the dial on the time machine just sufficient to catch him a lift on a passing lice-ridden penal fleet heading out to Botany Bay. If he behaves himself, on remittance he might qualify for a bit of land out near Parramatta. Apparently a surgeon named John Harris picked up some there for a steal back in 1795 and might have a few spare acres of parkland going cheap. My emancipated vandal could open a little roadside Indian diner there for travellers heading further west across the Blue Mountains, and stock it with sitars, home made ‘paan’, and a nice range of metal pots sent over by an obliging agent from the East India Company. He could even do vegetarian thali’s and hot spiced chai with rum on the side, and have Ravi Shankar music playing in the background. Irish freemen from Sydney Town could even drive out on Saturday nights and perform Celtic rock music.
My guide’s camera battery is compatible with mine, and assuming a pose of supplication, pathetically contrived out of dire need, I ask for its loan. Without hesitation he obliges. I take the opportunity to inform him that not only is his self-sacrificing act meritorious but in doing so he has added several large grains of sand to the beach of understanding between our two cultures. I do not jest.
Excavations at Lalitagiri were begun by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1985. The ruins are set in open woodland and consist of a large restored stone stupa at the summit of a hill and several low brick complexes, once monastic buildings, along the path leading to the summit. There are extensive building foundations and the bases of small stupas, all in cut stone. Smashed carvings ornament the base of a tree, and there is a small museum open to the public. Though not yet sunset, nevertheless, the museum is closed. The view from the hill looks out on to a haze-covered plain, with mirage-like mountains barely discernable in the distance. The plain is largely dominated by dry fields but occasional remnants of forests and clusters of trees are scattered about. It is restive, the panorama lending itself to the purpose of contemplation.
As I walk down the path leading back to the car an electrical wiring box attached to a tree explodes, sending white burning sparks flying all about in the half-light. I arrived at Lalitagiri with a salute and am sent off with a bang; seems very auspicious to me, or portentous. Regardless of its interpretation I arrive safely at Bhubaneswar at 7.20 pm, check in my passport at the hotel, shower, and in my room eat a hearty meal of mandarins and biscuits purchased earlier that day. A corner of my stomach remains unsatisfied, so I order in some fried cashew nuts, these costing Rs125, plus a Rs25 tip.