History in Ruins

Ruins fascinate me. This is not a new thing that has come with age; I have been fascinated by ruins ever since I can remember. And this fascination is not only for the historical sites, but for all old dilapidated buildings, for all remnants of a past full of dreams. Perhaps it is ultimately my fascination with mortality. But I would like to think that this is more about remembrance of those things past that are eventually forgotten – an imagined recollection of those who are now faded. Of course, all memories evaporate. Everyone in the history of mankind ultimately finds either oblivion or a tragic existence on utilitarian memorials which are dismantled the moment that utility ends. No one remembers Alexander; we only remember what history books theorize about him.

Alexander

In fact, how many of us even have inherited memories of our great-grandparents or such. Legends maybe, but nothing real. People die, and they are forgotten – that is the truth. We quote Einstein, we speak of Rabindranath, we sing praise of freedom fighters, we remember the people we want to preserve – but we actually end up constructing our often romanticized notions of these people having no idea what they were.

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In our present celebrity-oriented culture we also have only an image of people. There are no memories. What we have at most are one hundred years, followed only by solitude of non-existence. There is no immortality. Only ruins bear some witness to a time gone eternally. And history does not help.

Speaking of history, we live in a country which is supposedly full of history. Then again, all inhabited lands are. What ultimately matters is how we package that history through remaining historical artefacts. There is this estimation that the average Indian does not care about history – no argument there – but let me assure you, very few average humans care about history. It is either civic sense that keeps them from defacing relics, or exquisite commercialization or politicization that turns history into a thriving industry. In India, that commercialization is done in a half-hearted way. The priority goes to religious spaces. We, after all, are a religiously religious people.

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But pure history is differently enabled. I have serious theories as to why that is so; but this is not quite the place. Let me just say that history is feared in most patches of the globe. History books and most history classes are designed to be boring so that you do not fall in love with history – those who still do are exceptional. (I did not fall in love with those history books thereby proving my profoundly unexceptional nature.)

History

Our streets are frequently renamed. Our museums are denied extension. Our ruins are preserved with political motivation. In general people are taught to look at the now, without knowing the then. Knowing the past is dangerous. It opens your eyes to possibilities that are non-viable to present interests.

I did not mean to get political. This post is about ruins. Some ruins – not all ruins. So do not get apprehensive. I know my posts tend to get longish; let’s see how I fare this time.

Konark has always attracted me. I don’t even remember how many times I have visited Konark.

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But what I remember is the disappointment that has increased with each visit. In the name of renovation priceless statues have been removed and incredible art-work defaced. And the classical, to the point of religious, sublimation of erotica that only India was capable of is slowly and systematically erased.

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Some speak of trafficking of relics, some speak of the apathy we have been trained to associate with anything ‘governmental’. (Sarkari automatically signifies inefficiency and we have been conditioned to accept it.) But Konark is losing its glory. You can get in paying a trivial amount for a ticket, and wreck havoc. Of course, if you don’t write your name on a century old artefact, how can you claim to be Indian? There are security people, but they are far too few, and many of them keep themselves busy drooling at obviously depraved women who dare to appreciate the explicit display of sexuality.

I will beg you not to go to Udaygiri and Khandagiri in Bhubaneshwar. Even when we visited these amazing ruins quarter of a century back, they were calm, serene remains of Buddhist and Jain monasteries. But now the city has surrounded it and people treat these ruins more like a theme park where you can do a bit of climbing, a bit of adventure brazenly violating all the signposts telling you not to enter ‘protected’ rock-cut caves.

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Of course, the boy/girl-friend will remain unimpressed if you do not prove yourself to be an outlaw! And these are the easiest laws to get out of because there is nothing stopping you. You can luxuriate in all kinds of monkey business. You can sit on a bench made of ancient stone, probably seven or eight centuries old, and have fun. I have nothing against fun. But fun can be had in a number of other places. Unfortunately I am old enough to know that respect for such things, for anything, is something you no longer expect from the average person. It is not their fault. They have been trained to disregard everything but themselves. There are honourable exceptions who make life worth living, but in general it is only about the self and the selfie.

My apologies. My intentions were to be scenical, not cynical. This post is supposed to be about the New Udayagiri ruins. I call them New Udayagiri just to avoid confusion. Actually these are three adjacent sites – Udayagiri, Ratnagiri and Lalitagiri. They are closer to Cuttack and are situated in a place which is unpopulated and, quite thankfully, without much logistical support. The drive from Bhubaneshwar is quite long.

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In short, the invading army of tourists are still not desecrating these spots with their weapons of mass defacement. These places are absolutely amazing and if you are into such things my request would be to go as soon as possible. Some call it the ‘diamond’ triangle – not really sure why. But generally these are known as the Buddhist triangle. Some say this entire area is also known as Pushpagiri. These recent excavations are seriously ancient and there is a museum which claims to have (some?) bones of Buddha.

The oldest edifice in Lalitgiri was constructed in 1st century A.D. The Ratnagiri complex began around 7-8th century A.D. and flourished until 12th century as did the shrines of New Udayagiri.

We were given a tour of the exquisite New Udayagiri site by an employee of the Archaeological Survey of India. Without his guidance we would have missed much. The brick stupa was fascinating as were the stone structures with fantastic statues.

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There was one statue in particular, of Buddha with his eyes closed, that created much unease in me. I cannot tell you why. But there was something about the statue.

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Soon another large family came into the scene. And all serenity was gone.

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This was the typical Indian family with multiple numbers of uncles and aunts, cousins and brothers and sisters and parents and grandchildren and probably the family spirits. They started examining the relics with extra close attention. I am sure the sculptures were touched.

Ratnagiri was equally impressive.

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It seemed more organized. The excavations were mostly complete.

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It was teeming with children. Contrary to the impression generated by an earlier post, I love children. But when they decide to run amok I believe in sounding a hasty retreat. Surprisingly, these children, on a school trip, were extremely well-behaved. The problem was with their teachers and other visitors.

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These young men and women were incredibly callous in their handling of the heritage that they had come to visit.

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Lalitgiri was the quietest. It was the end of the day and there were no tourists except us.

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By this time we were thoroughly tired. Don’t expect Decembers in Odisha to be kind. And there was a long drive ahead of us.

The first thing that I had noticed in England was how they package even the slightest bit of history and put a hefty price on it. A bit of old wall in the middle of London would be secured, there would be tablets with descriptions, and if possible there would be a ₤18 ticket. If history is truly to be preserved then tickets should be costly, security should be high. Expensive tickets bring revenue and enough to spend on actual preservation and maintenance, and they discourage casual visitors. Forgive me for having this elitist view, but not everything is for everyone. Such irreplaceable ruins as these are to be open only to those who can appreciate them, and are willing to invest more than time on them. Entertaining the masses should not come at the cost of history.

2 thoughts on “History in Ruins

  1. I agree with you that the GoI should do a better job at maintaining the history, but am unsure if charging a high price would solve the problem. how about instructions that help people understand and respect the space a lot better.
    Oh yes, also nobody should be allowed to touch the sculptures.

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