Monday, 23 September 2013

Paranjothi Yathirai

After Mamallapuram in 2010, our second Site Seminar was in Ajanta & Ellora in January 2011. I wrote the following essay in April 2011, after our visit, explaining why I was inspired to visit these two places. We called this trip Paranjothi yathirai...

Paranjothi Yathirai
About ten years back, in 1999, I read Kalki's epic historical novel, Sivakaamiyin Sabatham. It was one of the most fascinating books that I have ever read, not only because of the gripping story and Kalki's narration, but for its historical sweep, its foundation on reality, the fulsome admiration of and pride in the artistic, sculptural, literary, religious, military, technological, administrative and scientific achievements of our ancestors upto that era.

Add to this, the brilliance of the Mahendra Varma Pallavan and his fictional antagonist, the Buddhist bikshu, Naganandhi; and the depictions and descriptions of four wonders - Kanchi, Vatapi, Mahabalipuram and Ajanta, the last two of which have changed little. Here was the perfect recipe to ignite the imagination, wonder and curiosity of a soul that had dried up.
After my return to India, this inspired visits to Kanchi and Mamallapuram with altered mind and eager eyes, but an undeveloped sense of aesthetics.

I read several books on Indian history after that, all in English. AL Basham, Burton Stein, Abraham Eraly, Charles Allen, John Keay, ibn Batuta, al Beruni, even Jawaharlal Nehru. Among these Charles Allen most changed my perspective, opening my eyes to the contributions of the British to Indian history, art, sculpture, culture and heritage; not merely that they were one-dimensional colonialists as portrayed in our classroom syllabus or media coverage. I later became aware of Nilakanta Sastri and PT Srinivasa Iyengar, whose accounts of Tamil history take things to a whole other level. It was around this period that I also visited Ajanta, was blown away by the monuments of Ellora, and rather underwhelmed by the paintings of Ajanta, which were cryptic and chaotic.

Then came the series of lectures by Chitra Madhavan, the encounter with Prof Swaminathan, both quantum leaps, like my first reading of Kalki. If my artistic soul was ignited by Kalki, it was rasied to an inferno, by these two people. And I discovered that Mahendra Varma Pallavan surpassed even Kalki's portrayal; which was also true of the monuments of Mallai, the temples of Kanchi and paintings of Ajantha. Mahendra Varma's worthy successors had wrought wonders, lost to history and the collective consciousness of the Indian public, but these were revived by an amazing set of English orientalists, passionate, scholarly, systematic and deserving of our gratitude; they had help from some French and Indian compatriots - all these were brought to light by Prof Swaminathan's marvellous manuscript on Mallai. And after that three day trip, I just had to read about Ajantha, which I found out he had also written a manuscript about. My first two attempts at provoking the site visit failed, but fortunately Mr Narayanaswamy was able to succeed. And in honour of Sivakaamiyin Sabatham, whose first section is called Paranjothi Yathirai......well you know the rest.

Cave 1, Mahaa Janaka Jaataka panel, Ajanta
Gopu in Cave 16, Ellora
External view, cave 16, Kailasanatha temple, Ellora

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