“We’re there,” my host said, stopping the car by the side of the road and opening his door. “Let’s go.”
“Here?” I asked, looking around. There was nothing to see except dust brown scrub forest in all directions. “Where is it?”
“In the forest,” my host said, pointing away to the right. “Did you expect something huge? I did say it was a small place.”
I shrugged, getting out of the car and reaching in for the bag with my water and camera. The day was hot and the sweat began trickling down my neck immediately. “Yes, well, let’s get along and see it.”
My host grinned. Though he was fat and ten years older than me, he didn’t seem at all affected. “Sure you want to come?” he asked. “We’ll have to walk through the forest a bit.”
“Let’s go,” I repeated. The heat was already irritating me, and a cloud of tiny insects had decided to start accumulating around my head. I swatted at them, and they scattered only to gather again.
“Come along then,” said my host, and started down the embankment. I followed him down to where a narrow, almost invisible trail wended its way into the wood. “Mind your step,” he called over his shoulder. “It’s rough. Not too many people come this way anymore.”
We walked into the scrub forest. The trees were short, hardly above head height, and spiny. “All this was farmland once,” my host said, pushing aside a branch that had thrust itself across the path. “It’s only gone back to scrub over the last hundred years or so.”
There were ruins among the trees, the remnants of walls and tumbled stones. It was almost impossible to identify what they had once been, but it was probably a large village at one time. The stump of a broken pillar thrust up towards the sky like a shattered tooth.
My host pointed it out. “That was still standing when I was a boy,” he said. “There was a parasol on top, maybe to give shade to travellers on hot days. A lot of this has deteriorated over the last few years.”
I took a swallow of water. “How old are these ruins?”
My host shrugged. “Nobody knows. Actually, nobody’s interested in finding out. Two hundred years, perhaps.” He stopped and pointed a finger. “There’s the temple.”
I looked. It was a hump of black stone, barely visible above the trees. “That’s all?” I asked, disappointed.
“Yes, it’s small. Want to turn back?”
I hesitated, and checked the time. My train wasn’t for two hours yet. “No,” I said. “Since we’ve come this far, let’s just go and have a look.”
My host grinned again. “You won’t be disappointed,” he said. “The architecture is quite unusual, and that’s what you want to see, isn’t it?”
A moment later, we ducked under a spiny expanse of branch and arrived in an open space. Before us was the temple.
It was, I realised, rather larger than I’d imagined at first, being low and spread out. The sides and back merged into the rock from which it was carved, and there were carved pillars supporting a porch at the front. The carvings were partly effaced, but enough was left to show that they had been fairly elaborate once.
“The rock caves are inside,” my host said, leading the way up the shallow steps to the porch. “The temple’s much older than the village back there. Again, nobody knows how old it is, but perhaps four or five hundred years.”
I’d expected the inside of the temple to be dark, but it was surprisingly well-lit, sunlight entering through narrow windows set high up in the rock walls. The floor was of roughly finished stone, the walls smoother and covered in paintings which had faded over the years until they were scarcely visible.
“The idols have all been removed,” my host said. “I think they’re in a museum somewhere. They should really restore this place, but nobody’s interested. I once sent a letter to the Archaeological Survey about it.”
“And what did they say?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he told me. “They never replied.” He waited while I took pictures of some of the better-preserved paintings. “Now come this way.”
I hadn’t noticed that the back of the chamber had a narrow passage, leading deeper into the rock, and low enough that I had to bend my head in order not to bump it. Only a few steps, though, brought us into another chamber, round, airy, and filled with light.
“Wow,” I said. It was all I could find to say. “Wow.”
My host laughed. “I thought you would like it,” he said. “Nice, isn’t it?”
“It’s lovely.” I looked up at the ceiling, where a circle of apertures set like a rosette let in golden afternoon sunshine, which reflected off the highly polished pillars. “I wish I could have seen it when it was in use.”
“You mightn’t have liked it much,” my host said dryly. “This temple was dedicated to the god Sarvagunasampanna, and according to what I know he wasn’t one of the nicer ones. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him? There are tales of human sacrifice and so on.” He preceded me down a set of stairs into another large chamber, to one side of which was a stone dais. The wall above the dais was scored and cut about.
“There he is,” he said.
I peered at the wall. The carving had almost vanished with time, but I could make out lines and the shreds of old paint. The figure was hulking, vaguely simian, and faintly suggestive of brooding menace.
“There’s one statue still here,” my host said. “It’s out this way.”
We walked out of the temple and down another flight of stairs. “You mean the idol is outside the temple?” I asked. “That’s a little unusual isn’t it?”
“It used to be inside, on the dais,” he replied, glancing at me over his shoulder. “At least so the story goes. But it’s been outside for centuries at the least.”
We walked down another path. This one had clearly been much wider and better kept once, and paved with flat stones which were now cracked and pushed apart by gnarled roots and by grass which had itself grown old and wiry.
“There was a battle here once, long, long ago” my host said. “If we went a little further and dug around a little, we’d probably still find some of the old weapons, swords and spears, maybe a helmet or so.”
“Oh?” I asked, not particularly interested. Battles aren’t my kind of thing. “Who fought whom?”
“I’ll tell you later.” We turned a bend and my host pointed to the left of the path. “There,” he said. “That’s the god Sarvagunasampanna himself, on his flying chariot.”
I looked. For a moment I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and then the statue jumped into view. It was a mass of polished black stone, much higher than a tall man. The chariot hadn’t any wheels that I could see, or horses, but black wings spread out on either side of a hulking central figure, one hand raised, finger pointing. A smaller figure knelt in front, probably in the role of charioteer.
My host said something, but I hardly heard him. The statue pulled at me, drawing me to it. The feathers of the wings, heavy and stylised though they were, looked as though they’d start flapping at any moment, raising a storm of dust and dried leaves. The charioteer was exquisite in detail, his muscled arms flexing as he pulled on invisible reins, his face sharp-featured beneath a conical cap. But the entire shape of the statue drew one’s eyes upward to the god himself.
The god Sarvagunasampanna was a giant. His immense pot belly thrust out proudly from under an immense chest. His arms were like trees, one movement of which might overturn mountains, and ended with hands like clubs. His shoulders were humped with muscle, ridges of it flanking his thick neck. And his face...
I blinked. Somehow, I couldn’t see the god’s face. I could see his head and the coils of his hair, but his features blurred and shimmied in the sunlight. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again. It was still the same.
Stepping over the broken stones, I went closer to the statue and stood looking up at it. Even from here, I couldn’t see the face. It was as though one of those maddening specks which float in one’s eyes had decided to take up residence in front of the statue’s features.
“If you’re going to take pictures,” my host called, “you’d better take them. We’d better start back if you’re going to make your train.”
I glanced at him. He was watching me with a strange expression, as though filled with inner amusement which he didn’t want to let out. Suddenly impatient, I turned back to the statue and took some photographs, and put the camera back in the bag without checking the images. “Let’s go,” I said.
“Of course,” he said, with a tiny bow. We went back the way we’d come, but skirted the side of the temple and made our way back to the car in silence. I was sweating and irritable, and glad that we weren’t talking.
It was only when we were back on the road, and the air-conditioning had dried the sweat on my body, that my host spoke. “Got good pictures, I hope?”
“I think I have,” I said, “but I’d better check.” Taking out my camera from the bag, I went through the images. The temple had photographed much better than I’d expected, the sunlight through the narrow windows filling the chambers with a soft glow. I went through all of them with approval, and then came at last to the pictures I’d taken of the god on the chariot. And then I hesitated and shook my head.
Even in the pictures, the statue’s face was blurred and obscured. In every single photo I’d taken of the god, though I could see everything else perfectly clearly, the statue’s face was invisible.
“Well?” my host asked. I glanced at him. He was watching me out of the corner of his eye as he drove. The same amused expression was on his face. “How did the pictures come out?”
“Um, excellent, really. Except there seems to be a problem with the camera with a few of them. Maybe a spot of dirt on the lens...”
“Oh, your camera’s fine,” he said. “There’s no problem with your camera, though it didn’t take photos of the face of the statue.”
I frowned. “How do you know that?”
He didn’t reply for about a kilometre. The scrub forest slid by on both sides. Then he shook his head.
“Believe it or not,” he said, “nobody can see the face on that statue. It’s been photographed many times – I’ve done it myself, often, on film back in the old days and now on the digital camera – but it’s impossible to see the face on the pictures either. You can actually climb on the statue and feel it, and the features are there – but you can’t see them. At least not...ordinarily...if the tales are correct.”
“What tales?” I asked.
He glanced down at his watch as he drove. “There’s just enough time to tell you the story,” he said. “Mind you, all this is just something I’ve heard. I can’t answer for its veracity either way.”
His name, (my host said) was Qutb-ud-Din, but he referred to himself as the Destroyer. He was one of the raider chieftains who came down from the hills back in the old days, to storm and loot the cities and temples of the plains, and return home laden with pillage. But Qutb-ud-Din wasn’t quite like that.
Unlike his peers, who raided for loot, Qutb-ud-Din’s one passion in life was the destruction of idols and temples. He was a fanatic in that, and led an army of like-minded fanatics who burned and hacked their way across the plain, reducing even the smallest shrines they found to rubble. Even the Sufi Muslim tombs of the saints weren’t immune from the Destroyer, for he considered Sufism the equivalent of idol-worship.
Back then, there was a small kingdom here, little more than a principality. It had been substantial once, but by the time of this story, war and famine had reduced it to the point where it was only a matter of time till it collapsed completely. Only the fact that it had neither riches nor fertile land to offer had saved it from invasion by the stronger realms to the east and south.
On the throne sat the king Rudrakumar. He was young and callow, and completely under the thumb of his ministers, who ruled what was left of the territory for their own profit – but the treasury was empty, and profit there was almost none.
It was at this time that the Destroyer swooped down from the north on one of his expeditions. If he were anyone else, of course, he would never have bothered with Rudrakumar’s territory – it was too impoverished to be worth the trouble. But the Destroyer wasn’t out for loot, he was out to wreck temples; and Rudrakumar’s kingdom had several.
Now Rudrakumar had a wife called Shashikala, who was young and beautiful and had a fiery temper. The story goes that when Rudrakumar heard that the enemy was coming, he was advised by his ministers to abandon the kingdom and flee. But Shashikala would have none of that.
According to the tale, she stormed into the meeting where Rudrakumar and his ministers were discussing his plans to flee, with a sword in her hand. “If you won’t fight,” she said dramatically, “then I will – with this sword, I will fight on my own and do what I can. Surely, when the men flee like women, the women can fight like men!”
So Rudrakumar was shamed into agreeing to fight, but he had almost nothing to fight with; his poverty-stricken kingdom could only muster an army of couple of thousand, and there was neither time nor equipment to raise further forces. Obviously, an army as small as that could not hope to defend the entire kingdom – it could, at most, fight one battle. After talking it over with his generals and his astrologers, Rudrakumar chose this area to fight the Destroyer, should he invade.
At the time I’m talking about, the temple we just visited wasn’t lying abandoned as it is now. Though it was never as grand as the great temples to the west and south, it was very well-known in this part of the country, and pilgrims came even from neighbouring kingdoms to worship at it and ask for the god’s blessings. So if the Destroyer came, he would most certainly try and destroy it. And it was clear to everybody that he would succeed, because what could Rudrakumar’s tiny army, ill-equipped and badly trained, hope to achieve against his hardened host of warriors?
One day word came that the Destroyer was definitely coming down country and would reach the kingdom’s borders within days. The ministers held meetings among themselves, and muttered darkly about the queen and how she had turned the king’s head and would be the cause of the doom of them all. The generals drilled the soldiers and tried to mould them into fighting shape, but it was a lost cause, and everyone knew that too.
Then it was that one night, when the moon was new and only stars lit the land, the queen Shashikala quietly left the palace on silent feet, with a black cloak thrown over her to hide her from prying eyes. She walked through the darkness, along the path that we had seen, until she came to the temple. And there she threw off her cloak, flung herself down in front of the great idol of the god, and begged for his aid in this moment of calamity. And in return she promised him human sacrifice – blood in such amounts that he had never tasted before, and never would again.
Nobody knows if the god answered. But the next morning, when the priests came, they saw that the great idol – with its winged chariot and charioteer – had somehow moved bodily out of the temple, and was standing by the side of the path, looking out across the fields. And though they tried their utmost, they could not shift it, for it seemed to have become part of the bedrock beneath.
There’s an old inscription on a palm-leaf book that is in the local museum. It’s mostly about things religious, and has nothing directly to do with the story, but when it mentions the god Sarvagunasampanna, it has some curious words:
His face is the sun and burns him who would look upon it –
But life is a shadow unto night
And when done, the sun again
Shines, on him who can see.
Be that as it may, the priests could make nothing of the moving of the idol, or decide if it were a bad omen or good. Nor did they have time to gather and pore over their books to decide, for that night the sky in the north was glowing with the red of burning villages, for the Destroyer had come.
The battle happened right before the temple, just as Rudrakumar’s generals had thought. The sun glittered on the swords of the Destroyer’s men as they swarmed forwards, not imagining that they would face any resistance at first. And when they saw Rudrakumar’s pitiful little army they laughed and kept coming.
But they did not laugh long. Some say that the god himself came to life and showered boulders down on the invaders from his flying chariot. Others claim that his fiery gaze swept over the enemy and charred them to cinders. Even so, there was a time when the defending army swayed backwards, and would have broken in defeat; but of a sudden, a figure appeared in the midst of battle, loose hair flying in the wind, and sword slashing. It was Shashikala, and she slew ten with each blow, if you can believe the tale. Be that as it may, by the time evening came, the Destroyer himself and no less than five thousand of his men lay slain on the ground before the temple. But on Rudrakumar’s side, all lay dead too, with just the king himself kneeling on the ground, cradling the dying Shashikala’s head on his lap; for she had kept her promise to the god, and sacrificed herself too.
And even as the last of her life slipped away, she turned her head and looked up at the idol, and her eyes widened with surprise. Though Rudrakumar turned to look, he could not make out what she saw; and when he turned back to her, she had slipped away from him, but her eyes were still open and fixed on the statue. And then he saw that the eyes of them all – the Destroyer’s soldiers and his own – were turned towards the idol, even though the dust of battle drifted down into them from the darkling sky.
“Here we are,” my host said, braking. “Still in time, too.”
The little railway station was almost deserted in the heat. A couple of small dogs lounged in the shade, tongues lolling. A solitary worker trudged along, pushing a wheelbarrow. Everything seemed to be sleeping.
“Thanks for everything,” I said, getting out of the car and reaching for my bags in the back. “I really appreciate all of it.” I hesitated. “If I can ask you, though – what do you yourself believe, about why we can’t see the statue’s face?”
“I?” He shrugged and looked away. “I don’t know – there has to be some explanation, but I can’t think of any. It’s just one of those things.”
A whistle sounded in the distance. “You’d better go,” he said. “Your train is coming.”
A couple of years later, I met the person who had first introduced me to my host. We got to talking, and the subject of my trip came up. “He showed me around,” I said. “He was very pleasant and filled with local lore. How is he, do you know?”
“Oh, you haven’t heard?” my friend replied. “He’s dead.”
“Is that so? When did that happen?”
“A few months ago. He hadn’t been in good health for a while – not since his heart attack last year. One morning he wasn’t there at home. They found his car parked on the roadside near an old temple cut from the rock –“
“Yes...I know the one you mean. And?”
“They found him lying in front of the statue that’s outside the temple. You’ve probably seen it, it’s huge. He’d been dead for hours already by then. Just one curious thing.” She hesitated.
“Yes?” I already knew what was coming. “What was curious?”
“They say he was found with his eyes wide open, and staring up at the statue’s face.” She glanced up at me from her coffee. “The doctor who examined him said that the way he was lying when he died – he must have wrenched his head around to look up at the statue. Now you tell me why he wanted to go out there in the middle of the night to die, and why he was looking up at the old idol’s face?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just one of those things, I suppose.”
“People,” she replied. “They’re strange, aren’t they?”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014