It is a little after 10 am on a November morning in 2016 when we arrive at the base of the hillock that houses the Kolvi Caves, one of the three Buddhist rock-cut cave sites in Rajasthan. A board displaying some rather sketchy information about the caves reassure us that we are in the right place.
It says that the Kolvi Caves was a monastic complex of about 50 rock-cut caves, most of which have collapsed today and details have disappeared due to natural weathering. The presence of a big rock-cut stupa in the shape of a structural stupa, as we know it today, is considered to be an important and notable feature of the Kolvi Caves. It has been suggested that the absence of Bodhisattva figures at the site indicates that this was a site of Buddhist monks of the Hinayana (or Theravada) sect. The board doesn’t mention an important detail — the age of the Caves.
Apart from my friend Niti, our car driver and me, there is no one else around at the site. I take a minute to appreciate the surroundings and the location. The blackish red Kolvi hillock, which is entirely composed of laterite, rises quite suddenly and dramatically from a flat landscape.
A flight of steps, probably built over a pre-existing path, leads to the top of the hill where the Caves are located. A short climb later, Niti and I are opening the gate that leads into the cave complex.
It is about a quarter past 9 on that November morning of 2016, and we (my friend Niti and I) are on our way to visit the Buddhist rock-cut caves at Kolvi from Jhalawar, Rajasthan. A brief halt at Bhawani Mandi for a breakfast of poha, jalebi and tea later, we are more that half way into the 2 hour drive to the caves on Rajasthan State Highway 19A.
The view from the car window is of a largely flat countryside lit up in the wintry sunlight. We pass village settlements, farmlands, a river crossing… all in all very peaceful and idyllic.
Suddenly Niti asks, “What’s that?”
I’m seated behind the driver and have to twist to look at what she is pointing at on her side of the road.
And as soon as see it, I tell the driver, “Stop. The. Car. NOW.”
Manoj, our driver, not only stops the car, but reverses it so that we can get a better look. At any other time, I would have chided him for reversing on a highway, but at that point in time all I could do was to wait impatiently for him to stop and the jump out of the car to get a better look.
“What are we looking at?” asks Niti.
“This, my friend, is what is known as columnar jointing in rocks,” I say. And add with a touch of drama, “There aren’t many sites like this; I know of only two in India.”
The modern history of Jhalrapatan town in the Hadoti region of Rajasthan is about 200 years old. It began in 1838, when the rulers of the newly formed princely state of Jhalawar chose Jhalrapatan as their base till a new capital city (present day Jhalawar) could be built. Before the arrival of the Jhalawar royals, Jhalrapatan was known as Patan; the word ‘Jhala’ was prefixed to it in recognition and in honour of its new rulers, who belonged to the community of Jhala Rajputs as in “Jhala ra Patan” or the Patan of the Jhalas. But even today, almost two centuries later, locals still refer to the town as Patan; it is the tourists who refer to the town as Jhalrapatan!
Jhalrapatan’s history extends back to centuries before the creation of Jhalawar state, when it was known as a temple town as well as a major trading centre. In its former avatar, the walled town was supposed to have been home to 108 temples. Imagine the sound of the bells of all 108 temples ringing at the same time — one legend says that this is how ‘Jhalrapatan got its name. As a trading centre, Jhalrapatan used was known for its opium and spices.
I spent one evening in Jhalrapatan exploring its various sights beginning with Madan Vilas, the erstwhile holiday home for the royal family, now owned by the Rajasthan state government, and then moved on to the temples of the town.
Stories in Stone is all about sculptures — either standalone or entire narrative panels. Each post in this series showcase one such sculpture, look beyond its iconography and deconstruct the details in an attempt to understand the idea and/or the story it conveys.
The Government Museum at Jhalawar has a stunning collection of sculptures on display. With a few exceptions, most sculptures are in good condition and easily recognisable for what/who they represent.
One large room/gallery is crammed with sculptures found from the nearby areas of Chandrabhaga, Jhalrapatan, Kakuni, etc.; more sculptures are exhibited in the corridor outside. Knowing how museums function, I’m pretty sure that only a fraction of the Museum’s collection is actually exhibited; there would be many more sculptures in storage.
There are dikpalas (or guardians of the directions), various forms of Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi, and some very interesting composite sculptures. But the sculpture which stood out for me, and is the topic of today’s post, was a poorly preserved, but recognisable sculpture of Chamunda (see photo on the left) placed in the corridor.
Before we get into the details of this sculpture, let us place Chamunda in context through her creation myth, associated stories and standard iconography.
When I stepped into the paintings gallery of the Government Museum at the Gadh Mahal in Jhalawar, a depressing sight greeted me — flickering fluorescent lights, dusty glass-fronted cabinets, and a general air of neglect. All this combined to ensure that the visibility of the exhibits was poor. The saving grace was the pops of colour on the walls from where the paintings were mounted.
I must admit that I was tempted to turn back without seeing the paintings, but then decided to do a quick round of the gallery — there was always the chance that there would something interesting lurking in the room somewhere. The first set of paintings I saw was a Baramasa, or a set of 12 paintings that depicted a mood and emotion for each month of the year. They were nice, but not particularly exceptional, and I moved on to the next display, a set of four paintings.
And realised immediately that I was seeing something extraordinary and unusual. So much so that I read and re-read the labels accompanying the paintings to reassure myself that the paintings were indeed a pictorial representation of the Vedas — Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva — in (zoo) anthropomorphic forms.
One of the two things that repeatedly came up during background research on Jhalawar, before my Hadoti trip in November 2016, was the nearly 100-year old Bhawani Natyashala (the other was the Government Museum at the Gadh Mahal or Palace). The brief descriptions of the Natyashala was varied — it was a theatre, dance hall, performance hall, royal audience hall, etc. Even though the descriptions didn’t agree on what the Natyashala was, they all agreed upon one thing — that it was beautiful, one of its kind, and worth a visit.
But once in Jhalawar, I found out that the Bhawani Natyashala was closed and out-of-bounds to the public — something that none of the websites that touted it as a must-see bothered to mention ! Mahijit ji, my host in Jhalawar, told me that I could still see it from the outside and that’s what I decided to do. But luck had other plans for me.
The Bhawani Natyashala is located in the premises of the Gadh Mahal, and after my friend and I finished the tour of the museum and the painted rooms, we asked the museum attendant who was taking us around, for directions to the theatre. He offered to not only take us there, but also open it up and show it to us since he had the keys with him. A short walk later, we were in front of the Bhawani Natyashala.