Photo essay – Barabar Caves

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Day 9 of ‘A Passenger through India’ found me at 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.” (from Post 18 – Day 9 ‘A Passage to India’).

The simplicity of the caves stands at odds with the supposed expansive natural cave system portrayed in the film. In size they give an impression more like that of a tomb, but comforting rather than confronting. So maybe ‘womb-like’ is a more apt description. However, their outstanding feature is the almost glass-like smoothness of their inner walls, this in stark contrast to the coarse landscape in which they are set. It is impossible to comprehend how those who laboured to construct these dim places of worship and spiritual reflection were able to achieve such highly polished surfaces. I recall a story about a Zen-Buddhism master who sat beside a young novice. The Zen master commenced rubbing two bricks together, and after some time had passed, and from curiosity, the young novice finally asked the master what he was doing. The master replied that he was making a mirror. The exercise of rubbing the bricks to make a mirror, a seemingly impossible task, meant to demonstrate to the novice the futility of some of our actions. But those who had laboured so assiduously to construct the inner sanctums of the Barabar Cave complex had obviously not heard the tale of the Zen master and the impossibility of rubbing bricks so smooth so as to make a mirror. Here were walls as fine as could be made, and as the flash of my camera fired the reflected faces of those within were caught for a moment on the mirror-like surface of the polished stone.

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