Post 38 – Day 20 ‘The Place of Distant Cousins’ (Pt 2)

Post 38a Post 38b Post 38c

To return to the line of my Day 20 narrative.

Above the Elephant Cave is a second artificial cave, its gaping maw shaped to resemble the menacing head of a snake or that of a tortoise, but its frightening gaze has not served to deter the writers of banal graffiti, the poor-persons iconography of future anthropologists. A little beyond this, and several more stairways of easy incline, there is an open flat expanse of rock. It is home to a troop of langurs, which I am assuming is the species known as the Hanuman or Common Langur, named in honour of the monkey hero of the Ramayana, and going by the scientific name Presbytis entellus. Langurs, or ‘leaf monkeys’, are found throughout India from sea level to near 5000 metres high up in the Himalayas. The name ‘langur’ derives from the Sanskrit word ‘langulin’, meaning ‘having a long tail’. Their large specialized stomachs permit the bacterial fermentation by anaerobic bacteria of large quantities of mature leaves. Their stomachs function in much the same manner as the rumen of sheep and cattle. Langurs also consume fruit, flowers, berries, buds, and seeds, and the troop that lived among the Udayagiri cave complex also ate slices of bread. They were specialised connoisseurs of it. I sat on a large rock. Several well-sized adults sat quietly by me. We were a simian collective, grouped by happenstance. A young Indian man approached and obligingly handed me several slices of bread from out of a yellow shoulder bag. Barely had I held them when a langur gently retrieved a piece from my temporary possession of it. Then a second langur, from some distance away, ran towards me and deprived me of another. Another followed suit, such that I was swiftly bereft of any bread at all. The young man gave me one further piece, and sure enough I was befriended by another langur, but the friendship lasted only as long as I held the bread, it and the langur departing to an adjacent rock where the bread, in the absence of speech or a mouth from which words could be uttered, suffered its terrible consummation in silence. Yet the taking of each slice of bread was done without a hint of threat; the grasping of each slice almost without the slightest perception or sensation of the langurs touch. If you have ever had a large spider of the huntsman kind walk across your hand or arm in the dark of night, you will have some indication of the sensation of my experience. Spiders walk on tip-toes, eight legs worth of them. In the dark they no more than suggest a presence upon your skin. The fingers of langurs are more robust, but for all their size, relative to that of a spider, their touch is other-worldly, as if it is not happening at all. Or at best a hint of something being there, like the merest whisper, like ghosts.

Of course I’m talking about the human-acclimatized langurs here. The unaccustomed ones with a strong sense of danger, or just a bad attitude, will probably take your face off.

But if you are of the distinctly hirsute kind, and sit quietly enough on a rock, you may find yourself an unintended accompaniment to the social structure of a langur troop, as I did, as I was. For five minutes or so, newly dispossessed of bread or other identifiably edible offerings, I sat in quiet contemplation of the grace of these long-tailed monkeys, and the generous panorama the hill gave of the city, its green treed surrounds, and the sheer marvel of the encompassing blue sky; for there is not a hint of smog or haze. Then, without prior warning of intent, an infant langur ran towards me, suddenly stopped centimetres away, looked quizzically up at me as if I was its parent or relative, then realizing its mistake, ran away. Minutes later a second juvenile made the same error of judgement, again realising its error only at the last moment. At least for an instant they gave due recognition to what I considered was my air of familial gravitas, cousin after all, that I was.

Next I cross to the Khandagiri Caves, and join a small throng of teenagers and family groups walking to the temple at the summit of the hill. The walk is moderately steep but well shaded by spreading evergreen trees. Khandagiri has fifteen caves, though the actual number is open to argument. It all depends on which reference source you choose as the authority. Unfortunately, a number of Jaina caves on Khandagiri are suffering encroachment, this owing to local Brahmins turning them into Hindu shrines and desecrating some of the Jaina iconography. I do not enter the summit temple, choosing instead to enjoy the shaded outlook provided by a secluded spot off to one side of the main stairway. Alas my solitude does not last. I am ambushed by a ‘holy man’. I seek fleet-footed escape but he is practised in his art and counters each artful stratagem of movement I deploy. I weave to my left, he dances to his right. I am clumsy, my feet uncertain, he is sure-footed, his approach finely choreographed. It is an unequal contest. Escape proves futile, and finally I find myself pinned between an unyielding tree trunk and a perilously close precipice. The first permits no further retreat, the second a fall to certain death. Against all my protestations he insists on imparting blessings and honouring me with a dab of bright coloured pigment and the gift of a flower of the dandelion family, the Asteraceae. He asks for a donation for the upkeep of his shrine. “What, the one you appropriated from the Jainas!” I am tempted to retort, but I keep my cynicism in silent check and part with an appropriate number of coins. The holy man smiles, I smile, and then he walks off to seek out another unwitting beneficiary of his spiritual benevolence. But this is India, and except for the 300 million plus members of India’s aspirational middle and upper classes, life is not all that easy. “Good luck to the holy man”.

At the base of the hill, and away from the trees, the pervading sense of humidity increases. I had hoped to avoid changing my shirt today but perspiration is conspiring against my plan. It is time for a drink. I recommend the little marsala chai dispensary at the bottom of Khandagiri Hill. The seats are well used, yet solid and comfortable. The man brewing the beverage is hospitable, and the view of the people and the world outside is commendable. Five small cups of chai all for the price of Rs40, and there’s a passable toilet just down the road past the car park. You must stop here, ‘the chai shop at the base of Khandagiri Hill’. And bring a friend. I contemplate telling the owner that the man in the chai cafe at Khiching gets away with 15 rupees a cup and maybe he should consider raising his price. I think better of it. They might be related.


I am next to the location of the Asoka edicts at Dhauli. A little stone elephant, worn down by the elements but otherwise undamaged, stands near the inscriptions. In contrast to Kheravela’s aggrandisement I am struck by Asoka’s sense of selflessness, of humility and consideration. I especially like the edict inscriptions that direct the prohibition of the killing of animals in the kingdom, and in his royal kitchen. Maybe I’m misinterpreting his intent but I’d never thought of a kitchen as a safe haven before. He then continues to inform that arrangements for human and animal beings for medicinal treatments and plantation of medicinal herbs both in his and bordering kingdoms have been made, and that he has directed that trees be planted and road side wells have been dug. Further, that he has ordered his officials to set out on tour every five years to promote the practice of morality and compassion, and to promote the practice of reverence to elders and gentleness to animals. It all sounded good to me.

Feeling suitably uplifted I stroll through the grounds of the adjacent park. Tree saplings have been newly planted, small depressions carefully dug about their bases so as to facilitate the containment of precious water. Elsewhere there are neat rows of flowering shrubs and expanses of close trimmed lawn. A cluster of five brown and white puppies lay asleep in the shade of a False Asoka tree. Their mother is not in evidence. It’s all peace and harmony, only the music of Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead was missing.

Returning to the car, in memento I purloin a pebble lying on the ground near the motionless stone elephant. It looks old enough to have been around when Asoka was last here. Hopefully it will not be impounded by the ever vigilant officers of Australian Customs.

My last itinerary stop for the day is the Museum of Tribal Art and Artefacts, part of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute, SCSTRTI for short. Throw in the odd vowel and I could probably pronounce it. It’s located just off CRPF Square, National Highway 5, Bhubaneswar. The grounds are leafy, treed, with lots of flowers and resident birdlife, but I couldn’t use my camera, such appliances here being banned. And on this particular day there were no dance or musical performances in the attached cultural auditorium. No matter, the memory of my visit proved to be firmly fixed.

The museum serves as a ‘first stop’ itinerary for eco-tourists visiting Orissa, before they fan out to tribal areas. In typical fashion, I came here last, almost, such back-to-front methods of exploration and adventure being my normal mode of experience. I have seen my share of regional and state museums. I have seen worthy and otherwise timeless exhibits gutted solely on the basis of passing fashion. And I have seen local museums of the ‘pay for entry by donation kind’, the occasional unsuspecting patron madly shaking the honesty box at the conclusion of their visit in an attempt to retrieve their 50 cents, obviously unhappy with the quality of what was on offer. The Museum of Tribal Art and Artefacts was not one of those. I wandered about, entranced by the quality of the exhibits, of the standard of interpretation material and its presentation. The exhibits projected the continuum of past to the present. It did this on a modest budget, and with a minimum use of smart technology gadgetry. Two interpretation officers, a young woman and a young man, took turns at guiding me through the displays, of conveying the wealth of Orissa’s living tribal heritage. There were dance costumes, utensils, agricultural implements, textiles, musical instruments, weapons and ornaments. The Santhal, Kutia Kondh, Lanjia Saora, Holva, Kisan, Oraon; all had representation, all were showcased. Intricately crafted jewellery spoke for itself but items of everyday household and agricultural utility were equally engaging; the gourd flasks of the Dongria Kondh, wine containers of the Paroja and Lanjia Saora, and the fishing traps of the Gondi.

I walked the expansive grounds outside. Here there were representations of tribal housing styles and religious shrines. But my guide indicated on his wrist watch the time of the day, so I walked back to the waiting car and assumed my place of comfort amongst the day packs on the rear seat.


Back in the city centre I find a post office, and there outside are four letterboxes to choose from. Two are cylindrical and red in colour, one is broadly cylindrical and completely rusty, and the fourth is square and devoid of any paint worth mentioning. They sit quite sad and forsaken just inside the precinct grounds of the post office, and at first I mistake them for waste disposal bins. Nevertheless, humble conveyers of mail that they may appear, I am elated, and consign my postcards, too long carried upon my person, into one of the red ones, on this occasion the mail box of my choice. To date, those postcards have never been heard from again.

I conclude the day buying honey at a tribal ‘fair trade’ boutique in the city, find a shop that sells tribal antique jewellery and artefacts, and search in vain for a scarf for my daughter. At the hotel I dine in my room on a simple meal of biscuits and a cup of plain tea, wash my hair and await the return of my laundry. Tomorrow we drive to the town of Puri. It is indicated on my tour map by letters of the smallest font size. I do not know what to expect there.

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