After visiting Ajanta and Ellora, it would be fair to assume that nothing could come close to interest me by way of rock-cut cave architecture. But near Patna are the Barabar and Nagarjuni Hills that have a special interest. They contain rock-cut caves from the 3rd century BC, the earliest caves in India. Ajanta and Ellora caves start about a 100 years later.
Someone has told me yesterday that taking a bus to this place would be easy. The bus would drop me close to the caves. Either he was wrong or I did not take the right bus. I am dropped of on the highway to Patna. From here it is 9 km to the caves. There are frequent shared tempos that reach the foothills. One such tempo drops me there for only Rs. 8. I am informed that the caves are actually on the other side of the hills. The tempo drives off with the return load of a couple of sadhus. There is not a soul to be seen. I start up along a dirt path and head uphill.
Soon I am off the roads and surrounded by hills. The sun is up and strong. Birds are singing. The landscape is wonderfully remote just the way I like it. The vegetation is thick but there are lots of paths on these hills. It is a beautiful morning. I am looking at silhouettes of hilly ridges and rounded peaks. At that exact moment I realize that I have forgotten my torch in the hotel. How am I going to admire the caves?
I pick a ridge across the valley and start walking towards it. I pass an abandoned dharamshala. I pass two reliefs of Ganesha sculpted on solid rock. There presence here is quite thrilling. There is no temple nearby nor any sign of worship of these images. There is another obliterated image of a deity nearby. There is a cave on the other side of the valley and its entrance is marked by a flagpole. It doesn’t look like one of the main caves I am after. It looks more like a natural cave, not a rock-cut one. I give it a miss.
I cross the ridge and this leads me to fine views all around. A small shrine is nearby. Further is a temple. I climb up the steps to the temple passing many reliefs of lingas on rock. A man who has been lying down gets up and walks to a row of baskets of flowers.
‘Take some flowers,’ he says. What really annoys me about these people is their presumptious attitude towards potential customers. It is like saying, ‘Buy the flowers for God or you will be doomed.’
I ignore him but he is not to be shaken off so lightly. ‘Are you not going to have darshan?’ he asks.
‘Take the prasad. Have you had your bath?’
‘No,’ I tell him. Hopefully this excuse will put him off.
‘You can bathe behind,’ he points to a building at the landing of the stairs I had just climbed.
‘No thanks. I have come to see the caves. Can you tell me where they are?’
‘What about darshan?’
‘There are so many temples in India. I cannot be having darshan in each one.’
Finally he tells me the way to the caves but I am joined by a couple of other pilgrims from Patna. They walk down to the caves with me. This place is a popular place of pilgrimage. There is a regular weekly mela here, every Monday I am informed.
‘See these broken railings?’ points one of them. ‘They collapsed during the recent Maha Shivaratri. The crowds were just too much this year. A couple of people died because of that.’
When I reach the caves, I find them locked. You may be wondering how can a cave be locked. Truth is that modern iron gates have been installed at the cave entrances. Meanwhile, word has reached the village that someone has come to look at the caves. Some minutes later, a guy comes up to me with the keys to the caves.
The Sudama Cave ranks as the oldest followed by the Lomas Rishi Cave. These were built during the time of Ashoka for people of the Ajivika Sect. Ajivikas were an order in themselves and comtemporaries of Jains and Buddhists. Lomas Rishi Cave has a chaitya arch above the doorway. It is beautiful arch reminiscent of Bedsa and Pandavleni. Both these caves have a single entrance but they lead to an inner cave. The inner caves are semi-circular. A beautiful facade at the entrance of each inner cave makes it look like a hut. Roofs curve smoothly. Walls and roofs bear the typical polish of the Mauryan period except in the case of Lomas Rishi cave in which the roof still bears sharp chisel marks. It has been completed like the others. Karna cave nearby is rectangular with a curving roof. These caves look like proper rooms, particularly the polish gives them a sophistication not present even in Ajanta or Ellora.
With a small inadequate candle my guide has shown me these caves. We walk to visit two more caves but they are not that interesting. Finally I pay him something. He is pleased and doesn’t ask for more. Apparently he is employed by the government on a salary of Rs. 1200 per month. These tips help him as well.
‘Nagarjuni Hills are 2 kms away and the place is also not good,’ tells me this man before I take leave. When he says not good, he means that the caves are nothing special and secondly that it is probably not safe. But it is not even noon. I start walking across open fields to the hills.
In fact, the approach to the main cave is quite spectacular. Across these open fields, punctuated with tall palm trees, the rocky caves curve in the distance with their mighty boulders. A clearly visible flight of stone steps lead up the slopes, disappear and re-emerge at the entrance of a cave. The cave is clearly visible with its rectangular outside on the curving surface of warm rock. Its darkness and the secrets of its interiors beckon from the distance.
Like the other caves, decoration is minimal but the cave is finished beautifully. Even modern apartments cannot beat this – they are elaborate and expensive but finishing is poor. The cave is a single one and defines a rectangular with semi-circular curves at its shorter ends. The roof curves smoothly and joins the walls in well-defined lines. The polish is present here too and gives it that Mauryan magic. At the doorway is an inscription. The view of the landscape from here is spectacular.
Through this landscape I return back to the Barabar foothills. From here I walk 3 kms to the main road (Dahi Mode), the nearest point where I get a bus back to Gaya. The road is bumpy. It can hardly be called a road. On the whole, its been a great day of hiking in the hills, across fields in view of rocky hills and ancient hills.