Post 37 – Day 20 ‘The Place of Distant Cousins’ (Pt 1)

Post 37a Post 37b Post 37c

No sleepless hours last night so I will dispense with the temptation of any preambles to this chapter of an ethnographic or historical nature. Instead, straight into the day, starting with a brief overview of breakfast. Breakfast, supposedly, as some nutritional enthusiasts keep reminding us, is the main meal of the day. So at 7.30 am, and the day being a Friday, I find myself hungry and willing; the significance of my hunger having nothing at all to day with this particular day of the week, merely an artefact of several hours without food. Cereal and mixed diced fresh fruit with yoghurt, warm and freshly cooked poori cakes, something anonymous but delicious made from creamy mushroom, parsley, potatoes and peas, and a sweet lassi. It sounds a lot but I approached the hotel’s breakfast banquet with a conservative and restrained air, and only procured small portions, not like those guys you see at the buffet counters in Chinese Restaurants back at Hometown on ‘$14 a head nights’ double dipping into the king prawns, filling their food bowls to overflowing, then shamelessly returning for ‘thirds’. Besides I was aware that too many of the world’s population went hungry, and that some religions considered gluttony a sin, so I was honour-bound to forage and graze amongst the food on offer with restraint. I never forgot the parental directive of my childhood, that when your plate is loaded with food you can’t stomach ‘remember the world’s starving millions’, so waste nothing, eat everything in front of you. I could never work out how me being forced to eat generous servings of over-boiled cabbage and animal offal was going to alleviate the suffering of the destitute, the teaming multitude that they are.

But this is an aside from my opening theme, so back to the subject of breakfast for a moment, and particularly the last menu item referred to as a lassi. Not to be confused with the breed of dog resembling an over-sized border collie, lassis are the hidden eat-as-you-run culinary secret of India, the one stop meal for the nutritionally-attentive, budget conscious non-carnivores who travel to this subcontinent. They are a traditional savoury drink, great during hot weather. A lassi will set you back about Rs100 in the food concourse at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, and much less anywhere else. Even at the top end price they’re a bargain. Basically the main ingredients are yoghurt with variations of cream, water, spices and blended fruit added in. Vegans can concoct them with soy curd. But the secret ingredient is cardamom. Sweet lassis can contain sugar, rosewater and or lemon, strawberry and other fruit juices. Throw in a generous spoonful of turmeric powder and the drink reputedly serves as a folk remedy for gastroenteritis. Salted lassis are made by blending yoghurt and water, and adding salt and spices to taste; an acquired taste for some, a taste never to be acquired by others. Chaas is like lassi, but is a salted drink containing more water, and with the butterfat removed. Bhang lassis contain ‘bhang’, a liquid derivative of cannabis. These are legal in some parts of India, and are mainly sold during ‘Holi’, a religious spring festival celebrated by Hindus. Rajasthan is known to have licensed bhang shops, and in many places there one can buy bhang products and drink bhang lassis. During this road trip I, myself, never encountered such commercial enterprises, so my advice rests on hearsay alone. Honest.

So much for breakfast.

I drive via the city centre of Bhubaneswar to the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, these located within the city’s precincts. Bhubaneswar is well laid out with wide tree-lined boulevards and gardens, sort of reminiscent of Canberra, Australia’s capital city, but unlike the bitter winter air of Canberra’s winters and the dry heat of its brown summers, Bhubaneswar is lush, green, and humid in a subtropical manner. Just like home. At a major intersection a traffic warden bedecked in starched white shirt, gloves and helmet directs traffic from the safe portal of a pillar-box, his hands precise in their direction and containment of on-coming cars. Advertising billboards proclaiming the reputable merchandise of ‘Lalchand Jewellers’, purveyors of pure gold jewellery for the stylishly affluent, adorn the intersection, the arabesque hand movements of the traffic warden unintentionally emphasising the billboards message. The sales of gold bracelets in particular must be booming, and I bet the warden, innocent of his marketing efficacy, doesn’t even get a commission. There is no chaos here, no ‘Mr Toads’, no Saturday night road rage, the movement of cars, buses and taxis smooth, fluid and civil, the traffic warden a guardian beacon of certainty in a road trip where everything else is anything but certain, my tour schedule and the guidance of my tour company chaperones notwithstanding.

Bhubaneswar, or parts thereabouts, has a history dating back some 3,000 years, starting with the Mahamegha-bahana Chedi dynasty of the 2nd Century BCE. They had their capital near by, at Sisupalgarh. The Kalinga War was held near Dhauli, on the banks of the Daya River, just down the road in South Bhubaneswar. They’ve cleaned away the blood.

Bhubaneswar literally means ‘Lord of the Universe’ and boasts more than 600 Hindu temples. However, the city I am in was designed by the German architect Otto Königsberger only as recent as 1946, being one of the first planned cities in India, but unfortunately the rapid growth of the city has made the planning process unwieldy. Königsberger was one of those far sighted people who were wise enough to get out of Germany while the gates were still open. He mainly worked in urban development in Africa, Asia and Latin America and taught that town planners in the developing world should be prepared to dynamically adapt their plans and ideas, and involve local communities and incorporate local techniques rather than rigidly impose a static master plan. In 1939 he was appointed Chief Architect and Planner to the India state of Mysore, designing the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore. After Indian Independence he became Director of Housing for the Indian Ministry of Health from 1948-1951, working on the needs of those displaced by the partition of India and Pakistan. In 1989 Königsberger was one of the first recipients of the United Nations ‘Habitat Scroll of Honour’, the most prestigious award given by the United Nations in recognition of work carried out in the field of human settlements development.

On the north-western fringe of Bhubaneswar is the imposing Chandaka Forest Reserve. This reserve is about 175 km2, a size more than sufficient to ram home the thought, that for all its teeming millions, India is not short of natural reserves, impacted by human encroachment as some might be. Amongst its varied vegetation types Chandaka is comprised of semi-evergreen forest, Sal forest, and thorny bamboo breaks. It is home to leopards, chital deer, mouse deer, barking deer, pangolins, three species of mongoose, Indian wolf, langur and Rhesus monkeys, and Indian civets. There are peafowls, Jungle fowl, Great horned owls, Paradise flycatchers, Black-headed orioles and Crested serpent eagles. Reptiles include rock pythons, Bengal monitor lizard, chameleons, Russel’s viper, Bamboo pit viper, Common krait and the Kukri snake. The Zoological Survey of India has reported that 37 species of mammals, 167 species of birds, 33 reptile species, 13 amphibian species, and 28 species of fishes are to be found there. It’s a veritable ‘zoo without cages’, right on the city’s doorstep, but my itinerary did not allow time for a visit, and no later opportunity presented itself.

We park adjacent the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, the sites occupying two low hills now separated by a paved road. The caves are partly natural and partly artificial, but both sites are well patronized. All are of archaeological, historical, and religious importance. The caves were dedicated to Jaina monks, under the patronage of Chedi kings, especially that of Kheravela. In the background, via the modern marvel of a loudspeaker, are recited readings from the Vedas. The readings emanate from a white-walled temple atop Khandagiri hill. Using my ‘I’m not breaking for anyone’ outstretched hand ‘mudra’, I make known to on-coming autobicycles and min-buses my intention to cross the road to the Udayagiri Caves, the caves of the ‘Hill of Sunrise’, of which there are eighteen. Increasingly accustomed to Indian traffic, and thus having acquired a certain sense of invincibility, I cross, the horns of several passing mini-buses being sounded in applause. By the green metal gates that allow entry to the site, I encounter a single vendor, his stall covered in bright blue plastic, his counter offering only a meagre selection of apples, these placed in a single pile. Alongside the stall of the lone apple vendor are stacked two empty red boxes, and rectangular blocks of brown laterite curing in the sun. They alone keep the vendor company, mute as they are.

Excavation of the caves began about the 2nd Century BCE and continued to the 10th and 11th centuries CE when the region was conquered by the Somavamsis. Most of the caves consist of a row of cells open either directly to the verandah or to open spaces in front. They are essentially dormitories, the floor of the rear of the caves sloping upwards so as to serve as a pillow. Personally, I just could not see myself getting comfortable there. I’m a 3-pillow person and sure, if your back’s bad a firm mattress, all be it one made of stone, is probably good for the spine. But not everyone sleeps alone, and you never know when an obliging liberally-minded acolyte is going to drop in for a deep and meaningful discussion. Believe me, all those erotic carvings back at the Maa Kichakeswari in Khiching are my witness.

In later times some of the cells were enlarged, their ceilings heightened and the floors excavated to a greater depth. Several cave doorways have pilasters on either side with animal figures, and arches with plant and animal motifs. Two free-standing elephant sculptures, untouched by the eroding hand of time, stand in patient vigil at the entrance of a major single-storeyed cave, but elsewhere many carvings are weather-worn, their detail lost and only a nondescript outline of their figures surviving. Some graphically portray the march of elephants and armies, and the forced taking of women, the collateral victims of war. I guess the carved embellishments depict passages from the Mahabharata epic, but this is only a supposition as on this occasion I was inattentive to my guide, my attention being preoccupied with a resplendent green-blue and black coloured swallowtail butterfly haphazardly fluttering at the red flowers of a bougainvillea, the butterfly akin to Papilio crino a species distributed from southern West Bengal to Sri Lanka.

The most important of the Udayagiri caves is the Ranigumpha, which is a double-storeyed monastery. Two men are hard at work washing its floors and walls, taking care that their long length of green garden hose does not entangle the trimmed flowering shrubs ornamenting the entrance to the monastery’s portals. They are scrupulous in their efforts, and not sparing of water. A cleverly contrived drainage conduit, incorporated into the cave’s bedrock, directs water away to the outside. Many of the people who pass me by are tribal women in distinctively-patterned saris. Their gowns compete in colour and elegance with the coiffured gardens in which the caves are set. The women have a restrained yet commanding presence. In no sense do they play or portray the part of an under-class. I climb a set of hewn stone stairs that pass by inscriptions consisting of seventeen lines of text cut into the overhanging brow of a natural cavern, the Hathigumpha or ‘Elephant Cave’, on the southern side of the hill; the inscriptions face the direction of the rock edicts of Asoka at Dhauli. The Hathigumpha texts were inscribed about 157 BCE, and are in the script called Brahmi, a modern name for the oldest known script used in India. The Hathigumpha inscriptions are an almost year by year biographical sketch, and the main source of information, about the Mahamegha-bahana king Kharavela. In a Jaina version of the Ramayana, the Paumachariyam, the demon lord Ravana is assigned to the same lineage as Kheravela; curious that.

Sadly the original inscriptions are damaged and are open to interpretation, but there is a reproduction of the texts in English for the edification of visitors. I am taken by the opening lines of the inscriptions, the translation being a contemporary adaptation:

“Salutation to the Arhats (Jinas)….by illustration Kheravela, the Aira, the great king, the descendent of Mahameghavahana, increasing the glory of the Chedi dynasty, endowed with excellent and auspicious marks and features, possessed of virtues that have reached the four quarters, overlord of Kalinga. Fifteen years were spent in youthful sports with a body ruddy and handsome.”

Amongst other achievements Kharavela goes on to proclaim his accomplishments in all branches of learning, his repair and construction of public buildings and facilities, the wielding of powerful armies and the subjugation of enemies, the patronage and endowment of city institutions, the fathering of children, the bestowing of gifts of elephants, golden trees, chariots, rest-houses, the wavering of taxes by Brahmins, the retrieval of royal images captured by past enemies, the settling of builders, and the compilation of religious texts.

He finishes off by modestly noting that “He is the king of peace, of prosperity, of monks and of the teaching [presumably of Jainism]” and that “He is accomplished in extraordinary virtues, respects every sect and repairs all shrines. His armies cannot be vanquished and he protects the realm. … the Great Conqueror, the king, the illustrious Kheravala.” Not a hint of self-deprecation. I live in an age of universal self-promotion. Kheravela was ahead of his time.


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