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Fortress of the gods


Impressive ... Manastambha votive pillar.

WE'RE in the heart of rural Bundelkhand in quest of some little-known treasures. This morning we drove out from Jhansi, along the old trade route to the Deccan. Occasionally, when we hit some particularly challenging stretches of road, it felt as if it had remained untouched since the Age of the Guptas! The countryside, however, was truly rural: villages and fields spread between scrublands and forested hills overlooking the broad, sinuous, sweep of the Betwa river. Now, at the end of our spine-jarring journey, we are relieved to find that the tourist bungalow here, in Deogarh, is comfortable. Moreover, it's just across the road from one of those little-known treasures: the Sixth Century Dashavatara temple. Built by the Guptas, this ruined, but well-conserved, temple was reputedly the first northern Indian temple with a shikhara or spire. Sadly, most of the shikhara has fallen but, in spite of it being truncated, the Dashavatara has a compelling presence of its own, standing proudly on a high plinth and a terraced basement.

We waited till after tea, when the fierce sun of the afternoon had gentled into a golden glow. Families of busy mynahs chirruped, foraged for grasshoppers, and then trilled when they took wing as we approached. It was very still, very peaceful: Just the sort of setting we want when we're intent on pottering down the by-lanes of history. After the Guptas had built this temple, wave after wave of rulers had tramped past: Gurjara-Pratiharas, Gonds, the scented nawabs of Delhi, the be-whiskered Marathas, even the red-coated British marching in disciplined cadence to fife, bugle and drum. There is no reason to believe that any of them had touched this temple: only time and the weather had taken its toll. But, considering that a millennium and a half had passed since it was built, the toll hadn't really been very heavy. We climbed the steps ascending the temple plinth. The Guptas, that superbly artistic dynasty, had worked their wonders here. In the Jhansi museum we had learnt that the earliest sculptures depicting the legends of Rama's life have been found in Deogarh but, perhaps, they had been unearthed during archaeological excavations and not taken from the Dashavatara temple. We spent a great deal of time walking slowly around the temple, examining its carvings and panels very carefully. They had been so exquisitely executed, with such minute attention to detail, that they looked as if they had been moulded, not sculpted with hammers and chisels. We paused before a panel showing Lord Vishnu reclining on his left side. The stone "cushions" below him had been indented to take the varying pressures of his hips, back and shoulders. In another panel, an elephant, on the marshy edge of a lake, struggled with an enormous serpent. The sculptor had captured his frantic movements, the stirred up sludge from the bottom of the lake, the bent and crushed water-lily pads. We would have stayed much longer, but sunset was approaching and we wanted to glimpse the famed Varaha temple and a cave shrine called the Sidh Gufa. Sadly, both were disappointing or, perhaps, we should have visited them first and left the richness of the Dashavatara to the last.

Varaha, the boar incarnation of the Preserver, was very popular with the dynasties of Bundelkhand. There are superb Varaha sculptures in Khajuraho and this one, here, had also attracted attention. But in place of this greatly-reputed idol there was a notice erected by the Archaeological Survey of India saying that most of the sculptures had been moved to a "shed" for safe keeping! And though we had to walk rather gingerly down sloping steps cut into a cliff, to reach the Sidh Gufa, the much vaunted panel of Maheshmardini, the buffalo-headed goddess, was a small and rather insignificant one, hardly worth the effort to see it. Not far from the Sidh Gufa, however, was the towering Hathi Pol or Hathi Dwar: The Elephant Gate. Through this portal, apparently the rulers of Deogarh entered their kingdom, riding on elephants. As this is on the right bank of the broad, green, flow of the Betwa, the kings must have been ferried across the river and then mounted their lumbering steeds on a river landing.


Intricate ... an elephant struggling with an enormous serpent at the edge of a lake.

The oil lamps had been lit when we returned to the Tourist Bungalow: its power supply is erratic. Tomorrow we're driving up to Deogarh Fort to see what is, reputedly, the largest collection of Jaina sculptures in the world.

The soothing insect-strumming night helped. Or perhaps it was the fact that our road-wrung muscles demanded relaxation. Whatever the reason, we went out like lights the moment our heads touched our pillows and woke only when we heard the clatter of coffee cups outside our room. Over breakfast we did a little homework. One of the principal spiritual leaders of the Jains, Lord Mahavira, was a contemporary of Lord Buddha and according to an issue of the Jain Journal which we have brought with us: "In olden days there was little distinction between the Jain and Buddhist sects, as the term Palli was applied to all non-Hindu temples." But whereas there is a superficial resemblance between statues of the Buddha and those of the Jain Tirthankars, the Buddha is depicted clothed and in various states of health, even emaciated. Tirthankas, however, are always shown nude, young, beautiful and with the Srivatsa mark on the chest. The complete image of each of the 24 Tirthankas also shows his emblem, generally, but not always, a bird, flower or animal; also an accompanying Yaksha and Yakshini. Armed with this superficial knowledge, and perhaps a little more, we drove up the hill to Deogarh Fort.

Nothing that we had been told had quite prepared us for what we now saw. Sculptures lay everywhere: in the grass and bushes on both sides of the path leading to the gate in the wall of the fort; in the 31 Jain temples inside the fort, the enshrined Tirthankas glowing as if they had just been finished by their master artists; an impressive Manastambha votive pillar.

Splendid ... the Sixth Century Dashavatara temple.

And also, quite literally, thousands of sculptures imbedded in the walls surrounding the complex like exhibits in an incredibly rich outdoor gallery. Temple bells rang, devotees chanted, there was the gently mingled fragrance of incense and flowers in the air. And men, women and children walked around, awed by the unbelievable profusion of sculptures. The manager of the Jain Trust said: "We have cemented them into the walls to present them from being stolen. And every week we find more sculptures in the ground." We had terrible visions of savage marauders destroying sacred idols, throwing them around with vicious glee. We wondered if we should ask the manager if such evil events had occurred here. But he saved us the trouble. He nodded to himself and explained: "In ancient times, you see, this was a centre for sculptors. And what they couldn't sell, they just left lying around... ."

We looked at the incredible wealth of sculptures and a new realisation began to dawn. The discards of one age often become the treasures of another!

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