SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Where it all began

Carpets, ancient temple and prehistoric cave paintings are rather an odd combination. But they come together in the road-and-riverine town of Mirzapur.

ROUNDABOUT

HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER

The finishing touches ... a Mirzapur carpet, crafted like inlaid jewels.

The finishing touches ... a Mirzapur carpet, crafted like inlaid jewels.  

WE'RE at the northern edge of the oldest part of India. When the world was very young, the Indian plate had ploughed under the Eurasian plate, Like a great bulldozer blade, it had pushed up the Himalayas, created the trough of the Gangetic plain, and sutured the triangular wedge of the Deccan plateau into Eurasia. The escarpment where the plateau met the plain became the Vindhya mountains. The Mughals cut a road through these mountains to connect their northern capital with the rich lands of the Deccan. It became known as the Great Deccan Road and had spurred the development of the road-and-riverine town of Mirzapur. We came here this evening and have just returned from a drive around this town in Uttar Pradesh to get a feel of it. It seems to flaunt a certain tatty extravagance, like worn plush furnishings in a cobwebby drawing room. We wonder if this impression will be reinforced when we have more time to probe tomorrow.

* * *

It was. We're back in our room in the Tourist Bungalow, sipping coffee and mulling over the notes we've scribbled in our books. In this single day we've been swept back into history, pre-history and to an age before this land became a part of India. It's been a heady trip.

We stepped into the immediate past through the curious Pucca Ghat: an elaborate landing stage on the river, built like an ostentatious mansion, a haveli. It had been commissioned during the British era by a rich businessman named Navlakh Shah. Its pillars bore decorative medallions of crowned heads, friezes of vines with grapes, and corbels of women in flowing garments playing musical instruments. All very Western. The Gao Ghat, built by the same millionaire, featured scalloped arches in the Jain torana manner and was decorated with Islamic flower vases. The good seth, very wisely, did not want to appear too much of an Anglophile. We moved on.

Away from the ghats, the river and the town, the scrub-lands spread with a faint, dry, incense-like aroma. At the end of a rather dusty road, we stopped at a village of carpet weavers. Here, wool from Bikaner was being crafted, by whole families, into delicate works of art. A man sat behind a large frame on which a net-like backing had been stretched tight. He punched wool through the net in a process that resembled embroidery but was called "tufting". Almost magically, the tufted carpet grew in reverse. He told us that when a carpet is ready it is stuck on a backing of cloth with its edges tucked in. We walked through the village to another craftsman's house, a Pied Piper tail of children trailing us. Looms click-clacked and we breathed the fat, warm, smell of wool. Woven carpets are made on two types of looms, weaver Abdul Khalik explained in a gracious, old-world, manner. The smaller, strip, carpets are woven on horizontal pit looms by one person; the larger ones are created on vertical pit looms by a number of weavers. Mirzapur carpets capture the more sensitive expressions of Mughal art and resemble the tasteful floral patterns of pietra dura: an inlay of semi-precious stones in marble. Then we learnt that, back in 1790, a caravan of Persian carpet weavers, on their way to the Mughal court, was waylaid and injured by dacoits on the Great Deccan Road. When they were rescued and succoured by local villages their master weaver, Sheikh Madarullah, decided to settle here and teach his skills to his benefactors. That is how the famed carpet industry of Mirzapur began.

Driving back into town we took another step deeper into the past. In the teeming temples of the mother goddesses Vindya Vashini, Kali Koh and Ashtapuja we again saw corbels carved like human women with wings. Worship of the Mother Goddess dates back to at least the end of the last Ice Age, and many anthropologists believe that the Aryans, with their strongly paternal gods did not, initially, venture into the harsh lands of the Vindhyas. We did notice that all three goddesses seemed to have been made of black stone and have eyes of silvered metal with black pupils. To us they radiated a primordial, and rather compelling, power.

We left the ancient temples in quest of more primitive experiences out in the rock-strewn countryside. We scrambled up bare hillocks near Panchmukh Pahar and crawled under overhanging boulders. Here, in their rock shelters, our ancestors had painted their hopes, fears and joys on the hard walls of their homes. Red ochre figures, out of the Stone Age, danced and hunted animals in what were, probably, magical rites. In those hard days they needed all the help they could muster: humans were decrepit and awaited death by the age of 18! We were gazing through a window into the life and times of a people who had lived here many millennia ago.

Now we left Mankind behind and raced back to a time when the earth cracked open and molten lava welled out, at the end of the distant Mesozoic Age. Over centuries, the lava cooled and solidified in great slabs and terraces which geologists call Traps. We stood looking down at the cascades of Wyndham Falls. The enormous steps, over which the Upper Khajori river tumbles, were laid down, by a wounded earth, 65 million years ago. We had reached very far back into time, but we still had one more step to take in our quest for the almost-forgotten past.

In a place called Salkhan, we left the car, trudged along a village road, and then climbed up to an outcrop of odd-looking black rocks. On closer inspection they resembled masses of fossilised wood. They had the texture, the grain and the whorls of trees turned to stone. We believe that we were standing in the midst of what had once been a mist-wreathed swamp of giant ferns and horse-tail mosses in the Carboniferous Age. All over the world, such swamp-forests had fallen and created the coal beds of our earth, about 300 million years ago.

The stars are out and somewhere in the tourist bungalow is playing a very old song: "Long Ago and Far Away". That's odd. We wonder if he knows just how long ago, and far away, it all really began ....

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