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.
Weve 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
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 doesnt even go over a mans
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
We agree with him. Faith and belief can often work greater miracles
Heliodorus Pillar had vitalised a ritual as old as tribal lore.
We are still enchanted travellers in time.