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Art and Exorcism - Udayagiri & Besnagar

We wandered around and discovered a few stone images at the base of a tamarind tree. Curiously, a number of nails were driven into the tree. We asked a hazel-eyed man if the pillar and the tree were sacred. He told us about the rituals connected with khamb Baba.

We’ve become time travellers. This morning, after breakfast, we drove out of Sanchi, through scrub and fields where farmers plodded behind yoked oxen, down an incline and across a bridge which spanned a river.

Ahead, a low escarpment rose, a cliff of black rock pocked with caves. We parked our car and looked up. There were 32 rock-cut and masonry structures on the cliff. We walked up to them and saw that they were covered in sculptures: the Tirthankar mentors of the Jains, Seshnag, Varaka and a rich profusion of images drawn from the complex scriptures, myths and legends of our land.

According to the board inscribed by the Archaeological Survey of India, the caves were created by Brahminical and Jaina artists between the 4th and 6th centuries. Architect-historian, Satish Grover, however, contends that these are the oldest Brahminical shrines in India. He believes that Aryan religious rituals originally revolved around the worship of natural forces on a simple, generally unroofed altar. Later, as these forces were humanised, their idols came to be housed in cells. Grover had described the Udayagiri cave shrines, with their attached porticoes, as being “true to Indian tradition” and “the earliest place of Hindu worship.” We were thus standing at that watershed in time when the faith of the nomadic Indo-Iranian tribes was becoming urbanised.

We moved on, searching for Besnagar and a strange pillar. The road wound between slopes covered in flowering lantana and turned right. We stopped. To the right, a pillar rose atop a pedestal surrounded by a fence. We wandered around and discovered a few stone images at the base of the tamarind tree. Curiously, a number of iron nails were driven into the tree.

We were still speculating on the tree and its nails when a hazel-eyed man walked up to us carrying a tiffin carrier. He sat on a platform. We asked him if the pillar and the tree were sacred. He said: “Yes, Khamb Baba is sacred to our community. We are fishermen. On every new moon night, a festival is held here. One of us, sitting at the base of the pillar, becomes possessed by the spirit of the pillar. When he is possessed, he can slip the ring of this chain over his wrist, as far as his elbow. Otherwise, it doesn’t even go over a man’s wrist. And with this chain, he then dusts evil spirits out of the others.” The man then held up the chain which looked like flails linked to rings.

“But have the nails got anything to do with this ritual?” we asked. “Oh yes, when the person has been rid of the evil spirit, the cleansed one takes one of the bystanders by the hand, leads him to the tamarind tree and does not let go till he has driven a nail with a piece of lime, a piece of coconut or a holy red thread into the tree. The evil spirit is thus nailed to the tree,” said the man. “Khamb Baba is very powerful,” he continued softly.

We agree with him. Faith and belief can often work greater miracles than medicines.

Heliodorus’ Pillar had vitalised a ritual as old as tribal lore. We are still enchanted travellers in time.

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