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ELLORA
THE SACRED HILL

At sunrise we reached Nandgaun, whence I went on towards Ellora in a tonga, the Indian post-chaise, with two wheels and a wide awning so low and so far forward that the traveller must stoop to look out at the landscape. A rosy haze still hung over the country, rent in places and revealing transparent blue hills beyond the fields of crude green barley and rice. The road was hedged with mimosa, cassia, and a flowering thorny shrub, looking like a sort of honeysuckle with yellow blossoms, and smelling strongly of ginger.

We met a strange caravan; a small party of men surrounding more than a hundred women wrapped in dark robes, and bearing on their veiled heads heavy bales sewn up in matting, and large copper pots. A little blind boy led the way, singing a monotonous chant of three high notes. He came up to my tonga, and to thank me for the small coin I gave him he said, "Salaam, Sahib," and then repeated the same words again and again to his[Pg 37] tune, dancing a little step of his own invention till the whole caravan was hidden from me in a cloud of dust.

In a copse, women, surrounded by naked children, were breaking stones, which men carried to the road. The women screamed, hitting the hard pebbles with a too small pick, the children fought, the men squabbled and scolded, and amid all this hubbub three Parsees, sitting at a table under the shade of a tamarind tree, were adding up lines of figures on papers fluttering in the wind. There was not a dwelling in sight, no sign of an encampment, nothing but these labouring folk and the bureaucracy out in the open air, under the beating sun.

Next came a long file of carts, conveying cases of goods "made in Manchester," or loaded, in unstable equilibrium, with dry yellow fodder like couch grass, eaten by the horses here; and they struggled along the road which, crossing the limitless plain, appeared to lead nowhere.

When we stopped to change horses, two or three mud-huts under the shade of a few palm trees would emit an escort of little native boys, who followed the fresh team, staring at the carriage and the "Inglis Sahib" with a gaze of rapturous stupefaction.

[Pg 38]

Flocks of almost tame partridges and wood-pigeons occupying the road did not fly till they were almost under the horses' feet, and all the way as we went, we saw, scampering from tree to tree, the scared little squirrels, grey with black stripes and straight-up bushy tails.

At the frontier of the Nizam's territory, a man-at-arms, draped in white, and mounted on a horse that looked like silver in the sunshine, sat with a lance in rest against his stirrup. He gazed passively at the distance, not appearing to see us, not even bowing.

Towards evening Ellora came in sight, the sacred hill crowned with temples, in a blaze of glory at first from the crimson sunset, and then vaguely blue, wiped out, vanishing in the opalescent mist.

At Roza, the plateau above the Hindoo sanctuaries, above a dozen of Moslem mausoleums are to be seen under the spreading banyans that shelter them beneath their shade, and sometimes hide them completely; the white objects are in a whimsical style of architecture, hewn into strange shapes, which in the doubtful starlight might be taken for ruins.

One of these mausoleums served us for a bungalow. The distance was visible from the window openings, which were fringed with cuscus blinds[Pg 39] that would be pulled down at night: the spreading dark plain, broken by gleaming pools, and dotted with the lamps in the temples to Vishnu, of which the cones were visible in silhouette, cutting the clear horizon.

The almost imperceptible hum of a bagpipe came up from below; in a white mosque of open colonnades enclosing a paved court, and in front of the little lamps that burned above the holy of holies sheltering the Koran, figures in light garments were prostrate in prayer; their murmurs came up to us in sighs, mingling with the slow and tender notes of the music.

Rising from the highest point of the hill the huge tomb of Aurungzeeb the Great—more huge in the darkness—stood out clearly, a black mass, its bulbous dome against the sky. Flocks of goats and sheep came clambering along the ridge to shelter for the night in the recesses of its walls. Then, one by one, the lights died out. Infinite calm brooded over the scene; a very subtle fragrance, as of rose and verbena, seemed to rise from the ground and scent the still air; and over the motionless earth swept enormous black bats in silent flight, with slow, regularly-beating wings.

[Pg 40]

At the first ray of sunrise I went down to the temples, hewn out of the side of the hill and extending for above a mile and a quarter. Gigantic stairs are cut in the rock, and lead to caves enshrining immense altars, on which Buddha or other idols of enormous size are enthroned. Hall after hall is upheld by carved pillars. Bas-reliefs on the walls represent the beatitudes of Krishna surrounded by women, or the vengeance of Vishnu the terrible, or the marriage of Siva and Parvati; while on the flat roof, on the panels and architraves—all part of the solid rock—there is an endless procession of Krishnas and Vishnus, on a rather smaller scale, producing utter weariness of their unvaried attitudes and beatific or infuriated grimacing.

One temple to Buddha only, on an elongated plan, ends in a vault forming a bulb-shaped cupola supported on massive columns, quite Byzantine in character and wholly unexpected. The dim light, coming in only through a low door and two small windows filled in with pierced carving, enhances the impression of being in some ancient European fane, and the Buddha on the high altar has a look of suffering and emaciation that suggests a work of the fourteenth century.

More temples, each more stupendous than the[Pg 41] last, and more halls hewn in the rifts of the hills, and over them monks' cells perched on little columns, which at such a height look no thicker than threads.

And there, under the open sky, stands the crowning marvel of Ellora, the temple or Kailas, enclosed within a wall thirty metres high, pierced with panels, balconies, and covered arcades, and resting on lions and elephants of titanic proportions. This temple is hewn out of a single rock, isolated from the hill, and is divided into halls ornamented in high relief. Covered verandahs run all round the irregular mass in two storeys, reminding us, in their elaborate design, of the Chinese balls of carved ivory with other balls inside them. Nothing has been added or built on. The complicated architecture—all in one piece, without cement or the smallest applied ornament—makes one dizzy at the thought of such a miracle of perseverance and patience.

The external decoration is broken by broad flat panels, incised in places so delicately that the patterns look like faded fresco, scarcely showing against the gold-coloured ground of yellow stone. In front of the Kailas stand two tall obelisks, carved from top to bottom with an extraordinary feeling for proportion which makes them seem taller still, and two gigantic elephants, guardians of the sanctuary,[Pg 42] heavy, massive images of stone, worm-eaten by time into tiny holes and a myriad wrinkles, producing a perfect appearance of the coarse skin of the living beast.

In the twilight of the great galleries the gods are assembled in groups, standing or sitting, rigid or contorted into epileptic attitudes, and thin bodies of human aspect end in legs or arms resembling serpents or huge fins, rather than natural limbs: Kali, the eight-armed goddess, leaping in the midst of daggers, performing a straddling dance while she holds up a tiny corpse on the point of the short sword she brandishes; impassible Sivas wearing a tall mitre; Krishna playing the flute to the thousand virgins who are in love with him, and who fade into perspective on the panel. And every divinity has eyes of jade, or of white plaster, hideously visible against the pale grey stone softly polished by time.

Amid hanging swathes of creepers, in a fold of the hill stands another temple, of red stone, very gloomy; and, in its depths, a rigid white Buddha, with purple shadows over his eyes of glittering crystal. And so on to temples innumerable, so much alike that, seeing each for the first time, I fancied that I was retracing my steps; and endless little shrine-like recesses, sheltering each its Buddha, make blots[Pg 43] of shadow on the bright ochre-coloured stone of the cliffs. For centuries, in the rainy season, thousands of pilgrims have come, year after year, to take up their abode in these cells, spending the cold weather in prayer and then going off to beg their living and coming back for the next wet season.

The Viharas, monasteries of cells hollowed out in the hillside, extend for more than half a mile; briars and creepers screen the entrances leading to these little retreats, a tangle of flowers and carvings.

As the sun sank, a magical light of lilac fading into pink fell on the mountain temples, on the rock partly blackened by ages or scorched to pale yellow, almost white; it shed an amethystine glow, transfiguring the carved stone to lacework with light showing through. A wheeling flock of noisy parrakeets filled the air with short, unmeaning cries, intolerable in this rose and lavender stillness, where no sound could be endurable but the notes of an organ. A ray of fiery gold shot straight into the red temple, falling on the marble Buddha. For a moment the idol seemed to be on fire, surrounded by a halo of burning copper.

Under the cool shade of evening, the softening[Pg 44] touch of twilight, all this sculptured magnificence assumes an air of supreme grandeur, and calls up a world of legends and beliefs till the temples seem to recede, fading into the vapour of the blue night.

While I spent the hot hours of the day in the bungalow, a flock of birds came in through the open doors, and quietly picked up the crumbs on the floor. They were followed by grey squirrels, which at first crouched in the corners, but presently, growing bolder, ended by climbing on to the table, with peering eyes, in hope of nuts or bread-crusts.

We were off by break of day. Among hanging creepers, shrubs, and trees, temples, gilded by the rising sun, gleamed dimly through the rosy mist, and faded gradually behind a veil of white dust raised by the flocks coming down from Roza, or melted into the dazzling blaze of light over the distance.

At Jané the pagodas are of red stone. The largest, conical in shape, covers with its ponderous roof, overloaded with sculptured figures of gods and animals, a very small passage, at the end of which two lights burning hardly reveal a white idol standing amid a perfect carpet of flowers. Round the sacred tank that lies at the base of the[Pg 45] temple, full of stagnant greenish-white water, are flights of steps in purple-hued stone; at the angles, twelve little conical kiosks, also of red stone and highly decorated, shelter twelve similar idols, but black. And between the temples, among the few huts that compose the village of Jané, stand Moslem mausoleums and tombs. Verses from the Koran are carved on the stones, now scarcelyl visible amid the spreading briars and garlands of creepers hanging from the tall trees that are pushing their roots between the flagstones that cover the dead.

Before us the road lay pink in colour, with purple lines where the pebbles were as yet un-crushed; it was hedged with blossoming thorn-bushes, and among the yellow and violet flowers parrots were flitting, and screaming minahs, large black birds with russet-brown wings, gleaming in the sun like burnished metal.

The post-chaise was a tonga, escorted by a mounted sowar, armed with a naked sword. He rode ahead at a rattling trot, but the clatter was drowned by the shouts of the driver and of the sais, who scrambled up on the steps and urged the steeds on with excited flogging.
 
At a stopping-place a flock of sheep huddled together in terror, hens scuttered about clucking anxiously, the stable dogs crouched and slunk; high overhead a large eagle was slowly wheeling in the air.

Round a village well, enclosed by walls with heavy doors that are always shut at night, a perfect flower-bed of young women had gathered, slender figures wrapped in robes of bright, light colours, drawing water in copper jars. The sunbeams, dropping between the leaves of a baobab tree that spread its immense expanse of boughs over the well, sparkled on their trinkets and the copper pots, dappling the gaudy hues of their raiment with flickering gold.


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