Fiction / December 2013 (Issue 22)

Ellora Caves

by Sharmistha Mohanty

A bull comes down from the sky. He sits at the entrance of a cave, his legs gathered on the right, his body leaning left, facing the darkness inside, at rest and ready to move any moment, as epochs go by. Light from the sky enters the caves on its hands and knees. As a consequence, the stone floor is precarious with wrinkles, craters, swellings. Feet walk on this stone. The feet that stop, that revolve suddenly, slowly, in one place, are the feet that the stone recognises. To begin by carving from a rock standing by itself, then carving on the flank of a mountainside, epochs passing. Perhaps all the time considering how to go further, another age gone by. The originary vision will submit only to elemental laws, the rising of the sun, the coming of the rains, the turning of the hills from brown to green and back again. Otherwise, it is ruthless and single-minded. To penetrate rock and arrive inside, to a singular darkness, using hammer and chisel, and iron rods, and years. To stand in the marrow of the originary. Not only to penetrate a mountain, but to scoop it out, to pull the sky in from above. Attacking these hills formed from the oldest, most resistant rock in the land. Not a submissive moment, except to pause for breath, and lay aside all tools when darkness comes. The new is rigorous and brutal. From one end of a cave corridor, looking at Durga on the far wall—the face has the levity of a smile. The light widens her opened pelvis. Walking towards, the smile begins to change, the face admits thought. Very close, at her feet, looking up, the face turns serious, it takes on the world. On the axis of this movement, from far to near, there is no place on which to position a universal truth. In a corner, where the sun never reaches, in the privacy of shadows, they stand together hand on hand, her head tilted towards him, his bending towards her, her left foot on her right, the left toe pressing down to hold in what is moving inside her. Outside, there are the regal elephants, the vigilant lions, the flying apsaras on the higher walls, the unbridled sunlight, the spreading sky, the world turning. To change the properties of rock, to first make it pneumatic, then to set it in motion with its own breath. There is no place for the individual here. Moving in from light to darkness, the individual is made numerous by the many pillars, scattered among the gods, animals, apsaras and demons, flattened by the massiveness of bare, vertical rock and, emerging again, nullified by the endless sky. The modern, the contemporary, the future, looking forward, looking westward, looking eastward from the westward, the modern, the inventions, the communications now possible, the travel, the airborne, machines emitted into space, cables under seas. There are places in the caves where light never arrives. The insolence of shadows, their defiance of light. The ten-armed, the skeleton, the one-breasted, the ten-headed, the limbs folded in flight, the man-lion, caring nothing for anyone's gaze. They come forth from the deepest recesses of the rock. They twist, spin, kill, dance, kneel, bend over, not a moment in time arrested, but as continuous condition. They come forth in a direction diagonal to the passing of time. These caves, abandoned for centuries, return to the watcher a gaze uninterrupted by ritual, return the human to an elemental tenderness. The couples sit, embedded into small squares on pillars or on large niches in walls, rarely looking at each other, resting their seated bodies, their palms, on the plinth of love. They have gone past the looking at each other, into each other, not past love, but the anxiety of loving. The attention is now turned towards the outside, and so they look far, not as one, but as two resting on the one base of love, they consider the world, together. Their limbs are always awkward, the woman's foot on the man's thigh, or the man holding the wrist of the woman, not the hand. These gestures may be either an artist's mistake that proved correct, or intended by an artist who knew the consequences. The bodies going outside intention, adjusting their positions as they turn, continuously, from loving to contemplation. On the ledge of a cave, blinded by the light. The sky occupies more space here than anywhere else in the known world, circular like the earth. An awning of bare rock hangs over the ledge, careless and curving in places as if it were windblown cloth. To have studied light, to have studied shadows, to have studied the rain, in this way to have understood motion, in this way to have understood change, in this way to have come upon the fact that nothing remains the same, in this way to create something and leave it, leaving it to the light, leaving it to shadows, leaving it, even, to the rains, leaving it to its contradictions. A man is about to say goodbye before he returns to a country far away. When he embraces his friend, he is tall, lean, straight, middle-aged. As he turns around and bends down to pick up his two bags, he becomes an old man, and, as he walks towards the entrance of the airport, he takes small steps, shuffling forward like someone in the last years of his life. Knowing distilled from the elements, made elemental. In the evening, oil lamps may reveal no gestures, only limbs, not a hand but the weapon held. A man holds himself in, always. He is felled by unknown assailants. From his hospital bed, his arms cannot stop extending out, his hands hold the face of a friend and will not let it go. The friend keeps her face there, her neck stretched across his body, like an artist's mistake, or intention. Not a moment of submission. Every figure that comes forth from the rock has the energy and weight of its source, its massiveness. The tender appears like a miracle, marrow in bone. From the carving of a rock standing alone, to breaking open a hillside and carving the darkness, a millennium. The new reconstitutes the land, it is geological, it takes its time.


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