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On Leave

The Buddhist temple carved into a cliff at Karli

The Buddhist temple carved into a cliff at Karli. 1st c. A.D. These temples evolved from Mauryan prayer halls carved into cliffs, for the use of travelling monks. 120 feet in length.

My leave was for three weeks and all around me was so greatly different from service life. Sneh was incredibly sweet and the old intimacy was deep and there was the same complete feeling that we were as one person, understanding was symbiotic. It was all there but there was a suppressed scream. She was scared to death that this was to be the last time. It seemed illogical that she did not share my instinct of survival. On the other hand my desire to combat the Japs seemed to her to be a death wish. Try as I might I could not get her to see that it was an unfinished business: something that had to be done. My shoulder was constantly damp from the tears of her inability to comprehend.

There was to be a small dinner before we left 'for the hills'. I cast my mind back to the first celebration at 'Shantaram's Bungalow'. That had been downstairs in the entrance hall. The table had been put together with one and a half table tennis tables disguised by a table cloth but seemed likely to collapse under the weight of great 'talis' (trays) of food. I had known few of the guests which made life just that little more difficult as I had been the guest of honour but fortunately English was spoken by all.

At the end of the meal there was a silence that hung in expectation but Sneh's mother Baiji gave a polite little burp (on my behalf) and smiles went round together with a ripple of eructation that I should have started. Baiji suddenly smiled at the guests and said "Goodnight". I was totally unprepared for what followed. She nodded to a servant who went to her, lifted her bodily and bore her out of the room as though she was a weightless doll. It seemed that I was the only person surprised but by then I was getting quite good at hiding it. That was the first time that I had realised that she was so completely crippled with arthritis.

After that everyone sat down to enjoy their 'pan'. (Pahn) At the end of an Indian meal a contraption looking like a candelabra is passed round. It is a sort of 'Lazy Suzan' with spokes, at the end of each is a container, the contents of each being a different spice. First of all a leaf of 'pan' is taken, spread with the digestives of choice, then rolled up, secured with a clove and chewed or tucked into the cheek to join in the conversation. Pan leaf itself has a pleasant astringent taste but the contents of the leaf are many and varied, cardamom being among my favourites after an Indian meal. Slivers of Betel (areca) nut can be added with a little of a white paste that gives the vivid red that, at first, convinced me that the entire continent must be suffering from T.B.

In the days the courts of the great Maharajas a favoured courtesan could expect a small fortune for selecting, making up, chewing and passing to her master a wad of 'pan' without it being touched by hand, so to speak. I hasten to add that I have had no personal experience of this particular practice. It would be difficult for me to imagine a more romantic setting for our dinner that night. Sneh had asked a couple of musicians to play an evening raga. The sitar with it's long sustained notes and the double drums of the tabla weaving a dream like web of incredible virtuosity gave hints of immortality.

We squatted as though at table in a double row with a dozen or so friends on the terrace roof of the bungalow with a cool starlit sky silhouetting the palm trees. Before each the usual Tali with it's pile of rice and ringed with little bowls of the various curries, to be replenished without question by silent barefooted servants. The silver drinking cups for water or 'lussie' ( a delicious Yoghurt based drink) had a slightly out-turned rim so that the head could be tilted back and the drink poured straight into the mouth, thus avoiding any 'pollution'. As usual for a such a meal the food had been prepared by professional Brahmin cooks. They completely take over the kitchen, first 'purifying' it with a little ceremony.

These Brahmins were by their caste superior to the people who employed them and kept aloof with expressions that would be worthy of virgin spinsters forced to walk through a brothel. Irrational, as it seemed to me I had long learned to accept what I could not change.

Old lady being carried up to Karli on a litter
Old lady being carried up to Karli on a litter

The following morning we set off for our rented bungalow in the Western Ghats, stopping on the way to look at the Buddhist temple at Karli. It is quite humbling in it's scale, having been carved out of the solid rock. What would be 'the nave' in a Christian church is flanked by columns, the tops of which are decorated deeply carved sculpture. The 'Apse' is occupied by a large stupa shaped structure.

"This 'Lingam/Yoni?' fertility symbol
is in a small cave to the side of the main entrance to the temple.
 It may have been put there by Hindus after the decline of Buddhism."

Outside there is a large platform that could have been a natural ledge but was too regular not to have been modified by man, alongside which have been carved small chapels or anchorites' cells. We were quite overwhelmed by the feeling of sanctity that pervaded the complex. It is one thing to build a cathedral from bricks or man hewn materials but quite another to chisel into a mountain and 'find' a place of worship. One slip of a chisel or other clumsiness and the entire creation is ruined. Far too awesome to contemplate!

Carvings at Karli
Carvings at Karli

We had spent too much time admiring 'Karli' and were soon in territory where the signpost did not exist. Roads became tracks and the few people we passed looked at the car with suspicion and showed us the way with some reluctance. Of course, Sneh spoke Marathi, the language of the area but we could have come from another planet. Just as we were beginning to worry that the light would fail us completely we arrived. The village was almost in darkness as we coasted up to a substantially built bungalow. The food that was prepared for our arrival had vanished but more was prepared, after which we were thankful for the luxury of retiring without mosquito nets.

The following morning we were introduced to the headman of the village and various people whose trades, professions, castes, etc: left me bewildered so I excused myself and went back to the bungalow and onto the terrace which was in a magnificent position, overlooking the gorge between the Ghats. It was north facing and as I was looking to the east I was puzzled by a spot just above the huge ridge. I soon saw that it had wings and realised that it was an eagle headed in my direction. Utterly fascinated, I watched as it passed our promontory by about forty feet. It ignored me completely and continued it's glide and finally disappeared over a ridge about a mile to the west. There was complete silence, broken only by a whirr of feathers as, perfect in it's beauty, it passed, with the odd feather lifting in response to some invisible variation in flight. There was not the slightest doubt that it was just having fun. A glorious and unforgettable experience.

I ran to the front to tell Sneh about it and we met in undignified excitement. I to tell her of the eagle and she to tell me that there was a snake in the middle of the village. She dashed into the bungalow and I went forward to see a cobra in an evil mood with the villagers standing at a discreet distance as I joined them. There was a flurry behind me, I turned and to my horror, there was Sneh, with my service revolver. I always kept it securely locked in my 'impregnable' tin trunk, she, of course, had the key. I hated the damned thing. It was quite hopeless for anything other than intimidation. She pressed it into my hand and pointed to the snake. I had never even hit a baked bean tin at ten paces with the damned thing.

The onlookers gathered behind me. I could not even have the excuse that I was afraid of hitting them with a ricochet. I did what was probably the most cowardly thing in my life. I fired at the bloody thing's head as it slithered away. Six totally useless shots.

They killed it with a stick!

Back in the bungalow, I cleaned, reloaded, wrapped and locked up my revolver. Sneh looked at me and said "I would have been so proud of you if you had shot it!" My halo had developed a distinct wobble.

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Edward Sparkes ©1999