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A monsoon journey

Propelled by the desire to escape Delhi's heat, SHAKTI MAIRA travelled across the Deccan which was awash with rain — into the `womb of Carnatic music, and the architectural and artistic achievement of which he had little understanding'. Experience his rejuvenation.

Picture perfect ... The Bhutanatha temples at Badami.

STONES, water, music and public sculpture emerged as the dominant refrains of my monsoon journey to the Deccan. Propelled by the desire to escape Delhi's heat, I travelled to Hyderabad, Srisailam, Bijapur, Aihole, Pattadakal, Badami and Hampi. This took me into the rugged panorama of the Deccan highland plateau, into the magic of sound in this womb of Carnatic music, and the architectural and artistic achievements of three powerful southern kingdoms of which, as a northerner, I had little understanding.

Only those who have sweltered in Delhi's summer, exacerbated by frequent power cuts, can truly appreciate the joy of landing in the Deccan, awash with rain, and delight in the sounds of leaves whipped by a wet monsoon hawa.

Our starting point, Hyderabad, like all of Andhra Pradesh, is bursting with pieces of public sculpture. There is the huge Gandhi statue, in the sitting posture, in front of the State assembly, a massive Buddha on an island in the city lake, huge bronze statues of prominent Andhraites and countless Ambedkars and Rajiv Gandhis striding forward awkwardly, pointing to a progressive India, alongwith a rash of bizarre Disneyland fibreglass trashcans. Even the sacred courtyard of the ancient Shaivite Srisailam temple, where Shivaji is said to have had a cathartic experience, is dotted with these graceless creations.

A painful contrast to what was to come was just a day's drive away in Hampi and the Chalukya towns.

We set off west on the Hyderabad-Bombay highway. It had been raining for four days. The road that runs through lush orchard country was slick with the brick-red mud of the Deccan. The land is green and dotted with old forts that are nature's gift to medieval kings, who only had to augment eruptions of massive rocks with walls and battlements to construct them. We see Naldurg, the giant, sullen fort that Shivaji captured from the Sultan of Bijapur, which led to the famous encounter where Shivaji used the baghnakh or mechanical claws, to rip open Afzal Khan's back.

This landscape has a curving horizon. I am reminded of another horizon, curved more than 180 that I found in Santa Fe, New Mexico — one of my favourite towns. As we approached Bijapur, the setting sun filled the cloud-laden sky with the red of the earth.

Bijapur, which could well be nicknamed "big-a-pur", has the world's biggest unpillared domed structure — the Gol Gumbaz; the Jumi Masjid, an enormous mosque that accommodates 4,500 worshippers; and the "Malik-e-Maidan" cannon, which has the world's largest diameter: 4.11 feet! What is remarkable is that all these large objects are beautiful. Making things big often makes them look grotesque, just like the new Buddha statue in Hyderabad. But not in Bijapur. Sure, it must have been motivated by feudal grandiosity, but the Adil Shahi sultans who ruled in the 16th and 17th Centuries were aesthetes and lovers of music and Indian philosophy. Under their patronage flowered the Bijapur school of painting.

It rained all morning in Bijapur. Though it didn't help the sightseeing, it brought the smell of wet earth I had longed for all summer. At the Gol Gumbaz, there was a quietness accentuated by the large, moody, looming structure. Entering barefoot, I found the enormous space filled with an incredible silence. I whispered, and the sound streamed in waves and filled over 18,000 square feet of space in a cascading echo. What acoustics! I could not resist sneaking to the back and softly singing the sargam. It sounded so rich, so deep, so perfect.

The Western Ghats are latticed with rivers running west to east. We crossed the Tungabhadra and headed towards the Malaprabha, around which the Aihole, the Pattadakal and the Mahakuta formed. Being in the rain shadow area, it was water harvesting and conservation that enabled the establishment of the Chalukya and Vijayanagar empires. From the Sixth to 10th Centuries, the Chalukyas reigned from Aihole and Badami. Aihole is at the northern end of a hill-encircled valley whose lush vegetation and giant trees reminded me of a rift valley.

Barren, rocky hills taper suddenly into verdant fields: the gulmohars were still in bloom and giant peepals rustled in the wind.

Small relief at the king's audience hall, Hampi.

Aihole is one of those remarkable sites that span time and has evidence of dolmens, Buddhist chaityas and stupas, Jain and Hindu temples. One sees the movement from exquisite cave temples to small freestanding ones. But on the whole, it feels like a mess. History and contemporary life jostle and bump into each other uncomfortably. The decline from a mighty capital to a poor scratchy village leaves me feeling low.

On the short drive to Pattadakal, I wondered: Should we not shift the village and reveal Aihole? Clean and preserve it? Should we allow rock cutting and stripping to continue here? The clash of contemporary ugliness with ancient beauty is a tripwire I often stumble on. Consolation was close by though, at Pattadakal. The temples on the riverbank are clean and well tended. This is a UNESCO world heritage site and the village has been moved out from the tastefully conserved temple ruins.

Pattadakal is like a mini-laboratory of temple buildings, with its fusion of the emergent northern (Nagara) with the older southern (Dravida) styles. The temples are small and each one seems to have its own personality. One shikhara (pinnacle) looks like a smaller version of what I saw in Khajuraho. What adds to the feeling of a temple toyland are the tiny Shree temples. Every Shiva or Vishnu temple has another little temple close by for its consorts. Remarkably, the stones in these temples have not been overly manipulated.

Another short drive brought us to Mahakuta, which has perhaps continuously been worshipped in since the Seventh Century. The temples are in a walled structure and the ancient spring-fed pool is not dirty but has a tired feeling of too many pilgrims having been in it. There is a lovely Ardhanarishwara with the gentlest expression that stopped me as I tried to hurry out to the giant peepal tree that has seen Chalukya kings and queens come to pray.

The drive to Badami took us out of the southern hills. What is truly spectacular about the Deccan are the rock outcrops. Enormous stones just sit on the land and hills. Giant forms that seem to watch the petty journeys of humans. Shadows cast by the setting sun make these rocks strangely alive.

Badami is a little jewel. An emerald coloured lake, four magnificent cave temples on a high bluff just below the fort walls, old palace grounds and the ancient Shaivite Bhutanatha temples shadowed by giant boulders. If you go, please see all the caves. The first three are Shaivite with some truly magnificent large sculptures — a powerful dancing Nataraj and a gentle Shiva-Parvati are amongst the best I have seen on this scale, and are as good and perhaps better than anything in Ellora. Cave four is a stunning Jain cave which is sometimes missed as it is the last and asks you to climb some more steps.

Walking along the ghats to the Bhutanatha temples brought one to two priceless images. One is of a reclining Vishnu in a tiny cave temple, where I heard the gentle chanting of a resident mendicant. The other is in a grotto that you crawl into. To me, it was a seated Buddha, though the guide claimed it wasn't because the leaves of the tree were not banyan but peepal. Nevertheless, it is a magnificent single rock carving, dimly lit by a small skylight hole, placed in a womb-like place to sit and meditate.

Badami could easily be made into a world-class tourist destination. This is where children will feel inspired by their heritage. The place needs relocation of village encroachments and better roads: those around Badami and Hampi are a disgrace.

Vijayanagar was the genesis of modern Karnataka. Three powerful dynasties, from the 14th to the 17th Centuries, revived Hindu control of southern Deccan and effected a revival: economic activity, trade with the Far East, Africa and Europe, the arts, literature and music. Accounts of the two Portuguese travellers, Domingo Paes and Fernao Nuniz, reveal a grandeur that matches everything we northerners associate with the Mughals. Their capital at Hampi is an extraordinary township built over 10 kilometres on the banks of the Tungabhadra.

The towering Virupaksha temple dominates Hampi's sacred section; an active temple and the management is not photography-friendly, which seems ridiculous. As we left the complex at sunset, we heard music. There was something so hauntingly beautiful about the plaintive sound of the Nadaswaram in a temple.

We walked through some old Jain temples to another temple cluster where there is a large Ganesha, a Lakshmi-Narasimha (she is missing) and a huge linga-yoni in a pool of water that was unusual for their size and power. The missing Lakshmi seemed to echo this culture's practice of Sati, evidenced in the many Sati stones found here that depict a woman standing with right arm raised and left hand holding a mirror. This is a troubling reminder of a feudal male-dominated culture, just as the hewing of stone into pillars, doors and even a wheeled chariot reeks of dominance of man over nature, in sharp contrast to the softer, more natural lines of the carvers of Pattadakal and Badami.

The eastern end of Hampi was the temporal centre, with palaces, court, zenanakhana and a victory platform that had my favourite carving on its walls. A small bas-relief of a dancing drummer lost in sound and movement.

The tilt of his ecstatic head seemed to point to a sound eternal.

I felt an immediate connection with Hampi's Vithala temple for its affiliation with music. It is thought that Purandaradasa would sing and dance in ecstasy here. There is a whole building devoted to music next to the main temple. Some of the stone columns of the temple produce an accurate sargam when struck, others replicate the sound of the mridangam. The innumerable carvings of musicians and dancers filled the place with a ghostly presence of music and rhythm. What we now call Carnatic music was seeded here by the compositions and musical style of Purandaradasa, the leading light of the Haridasa bhakti movement. Sitting on the temple's steps, I thought the boulders littering the landscape probably left their influence on the characteristic strong, rounded and rhythmic structure of Carnatic music.

This would be a great place for an annual Carnatic music festival, perhaps one that focuses on taalkacheri.

As we left Hampi, I took photographs of two comparatively new temples — the Murugan and Palaniappan temples — whose gaudiness is a testimony to the decline in our aesthetics of temple building. And what does one make of the statues of two Western girls doing the dandia on the latter temple's balustrade? Driving back to Hyderabad, I thought that culture is really a form of memory.

Perhaps our minds have neural paths that remember where we have been, individually and collectively. It seems that parts of us are asleep, too remote for our consciousness to grasp, which awaken when we travel to places such as these. It is good to travel so we can remember and become alive to more of who we are. I felt some definite connections with this land and its history. I have always been partial to South Indian food and Carnatic music.

I also felt rejuvenated by the presence of all the synthesis I had seen — between north and south, between Jainism, Buddhism, Shaivism and Vaishnavism, and between Islamic and Hindu traditions.

The sun was back and the drive through Rayalaseema, the dust bowl of India, was made bearable by the beauty of the rocks. Approaching Hyderabad, I had an idea for Chandrababu Naidu: the building of a rock sculpture park with giant portraits of the sages of modern India? Something like the National Park of Presidential rock-portraits in the United States. This would surely lock-in Andhra Pradesh's position as the number one State for public sculpture!

As we entered Hyderabad, it began to drizzle. This had been a wonderful monsoon journey of amazing stones and sculpture and a lingering trail of sound.

Shakti Maira is a contemporary artist. E-mail:

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