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Letter VI[1]

At five o'clock in the morning we had already arrived at the limit, not only of driveable, but, even, of rideable roads. Our bullock-cart could go no further. The last half mile was nothing but a rough sea of stones. And now we had to climb on all-fours up an almost perpendicular slope 900 feet [274.32 m] high. We were utterly at our wits' end, and meekly gazed at the historical mass before us, not knowing what to do next. Almost at the summit of the mountain, under the overhanging rocks, were about dozen black openings. Hundreds of pilgrims were crawling upwards, looking, in their holiday dresses, like variegated ants. Here, however, our faithful Hindu friends came to our rescue. One of them, putting the palm of his hand to his mouth, produced a strident sound something between a shriek and a whistle. There was a reply signal from above right away, and the next moment several half naked Brahmins, hereditary watchmen of the temple, began to descend the rocks as swiftly and skillfully as wild cats. Five minutes later they were with us, fastening round our bodies strong leathern straps, and rather dragging than leading us upwards. Half an hour later, exhausted but perfectly safe, we stood before the porch of the chief temple, which until then had been hidden from us by giant lindens and cactuses.

This majestic entrance, resting on four massive pillars which form a quadrangle, is 52 feet [15.85 m] wide and is covered with ancient moss. Before it stands the “lion column,” so-called from the four lions carved as large as nature, and seated back to back, at its base. Over the principal entrance, its sides covered with colossal male and female figures, is a huge arch, in front of which three gigantic elephants are sculptured en relief[2], with heads and trunks that project from the wall. The shape of the temple is oval with 128 feet [39.01 m] long and 46 feet [14.02 m] wide. The central space is separated from the right and left wings by 42 pillars, which sustain the cupola-shaped ceiling. Further on is an altar, which divides the first dome from a second one which rises over a small chamber, formerly used by the ancient Aryan priests for an inner, secret altar. Two side passages leading towards it come to a sudden end, which suggests that, once upon a time, either doors or wall were there which exist no longer. Each of the 42 pillars has a pedestal, an octagonal shaft, and a capital, described by Fergusson as “of the most exquisite workmanship,”[3] representing two kneeling elephants surmounted by a god and a goddess. On his opinion this temple, or chaitya[4], is older and better preserved than any other. It may be assigned to a period about 200 years B.C., because Prinsep, who has read the inscription on the Silastamba pillar, asserts that the lion pillar was the gift of Ajmitra Ukasa, son of Saha Ravisobhoti, and another inscription shows that the temple was visited by Dathama Hara (or Dathahamini), King of Ceylon, in the 20th year of his reign, that is to say, 163 years before our era. For some reason or other, Dr. Stevenson points to 70 years B.C. as the date, asserting that Karlen (or Karli) was built by the Emperor Devobhuti, under the supervision of Dhanu-Kakata. But how can this be maintained in view of the above-mentioned perfectly authentic inscriptions? Even Fergusson, the celebrated defender of the Egyptian antiquities and hostile critic of those of India, insists that Karli belongs to the erections of the III century B.C., adding that “the disposition of the various parts of its architecture is identical with the architecture of the choirs of the Gothic period, and the polygonal apsides of cathedrals.”

Above the chief entrance is found a gallery, which reminds one of the choirs, where, in Catholic churches, the organ is placed. Besides the chief entrance there are two lateral entrances, leading to the aisles of the temple, and over the gallery there is a single spacious window in the shape of a horseshoe, so that the light falls on the daghopa (altar) entirely from above, leaving the aisles, sheltered by the pillars, in obscurity, which increases as you approach the further end of the building. To the eyes of a spectator standing at the entrance, the whole daghopa seems to shine with light, and behind it is nothing but impenetrable darkness, where no profane footsteps were permitted to tread. A figure on the daghopa, from the summit of which “Raja-priests” used to pronounce verdicts to the people, is called Dharma-Raja, the Hindu Minos. Above the main temple are two stories of caves, in each of which are wide open galleries formed by huge carved pillars, and from these galleries an opening leads to roomy cells and corridors, which come to an abrupt termination at solid walls, those corridors are very long sometimes, but quite useless now. The guardians of the temple have either lost the secret of further caves, or conceal them jealously from Europeans. The old Brahmin and his two sons bitterly complained that now the government gives them only 600 rupees of subsidies for the expenses of the two temple holidays of Shiva, while the East India Company gave them 2,000 rupees. Sympathizing with them in their sorrow, we could not help but be surprised at such generosity: Christian rulers subsidize pagan festivals and idol worship! A rare trait! Only, then, why spend millions on missionaries instead of converting to Christianity their own many unchristians at home?..

Besides the main vihara, there are many others, scattered over the slope of the mountain. These temple-monasteries are all smaller than the first, but, according to the opinion of some archeologists, they are much older. To what century or epoch they belong is not known except to a few Brahmins, who keep silence. Generally speaking, the position of archaeologist in India is very sad. The masses, drowned in superstition, are utterly unable to be of any use to him, and the learned Brahmins, initiated into the mysteries of secret libraries in pagodas, do all they can to prevent archeological research. However, after all that has happened, it would be unjust to blame the conduct of the Brahmins in these matters. The bitter experience of many centuries has taught them that their only rescue is distrust and circumspection, without these their national history and the most sacred of their treasures would be irrevocably lost. Political overturns and Mussulman invasions which have tortured India for so many centuries and which have shaken this country to its foundation, the all-destructive fanaticism of Mussulman vandals and of Catholic padres, who are ready for anything in order to secure manuscripts and destroy them – all these form a good excuse for the action of the Brahmins. However in spite of these manifold destructive tendencies, there exist in many places in India vast libraries capable of pouring a bright and new light, not only on the history of India itself, but also on the darkest problems of universal history. Some of these libraries, filled with the most precious manuscripts, are in the possession of native princes and of pagodas attached to their territories, but the greater part is in the hands of the Jainas (the oldest of the sects) and of the Rajputana Thakurs[5], whose ancient hereditary castles are scattered all over Rajasthan, like so many eagles' nests on high rocks. The existence of the celebrated collections in Jaisalmer and Patana is not unknown to the Government, but unreachable. The manuscripts are written in an ancient and now completely forgotten language, intelligible only to the high priest and his initiated librarians. One thick folio is so sacred and inviolable that it rests on a heavy golden chain in the centre of the temple of Chintamani in Jaisalmer, and taken down only to be dusted and rebound at the advent of each new pontiff. This is the work of Somaditya Suru Acharya, a great priest of the pre-Mussulman time, well-known in history. His mantle is still preserved in the temple, and forms the robe of initiation of every new high priest. Tod[6], who spent so many years in India and gained the love of the people and Brahmins, that love, which no Englishman has or will obtain, the man, who has attached all powers of his soul to these people and has written the only true history of India,[7] but even he was never allowed to touch this folio. Natives commonly believe that he was offered initiation into the mysteries at the price of the adoption of their religion. Being a devoted archaeologist he almost resolved to do so, but, having to return to England on account of his health, he left this world before he could return to his second fatherland, and thus the enigma of this new volume of the sibyl[8] remains unsolved.

A similar story is told concerning the libraries and subterranean passages of Karli. As for the archaeologists, they are unable even to determine whether this temple was built by Buddhists or Brahmins. The huge daghopa (altar) that hides the holy of holies from the eyes of the worshippers is sheltered by a mushroom-shaped roof, and resembles a low minaret with a cupola. Roofs of this description are called “umbrellas,” and usually shelter the statues of Buddha and of the Chinese sages. But, on the other hand, the worshipers of Shiva, who possess the temple nowadays, assert that this low building is nothing but a lingam of Shiva. Besides, the carvings of gods and goddesses cut out of the rock forbid one to think that the temple is the production of the Buddhists.

“My remark that the caves of Chaitya, as it were, instantly reached the highest perfection in the architectural and sculptural sense, applies especially to this cave temple (Karlé)[9],” says Fergusson, “whether we have as our guide the Mahavamsa[10] or Ashoka Rock Inscriptions the result will be the same. Obviously, this land (Dekhan) under the name of Maharashtra[11] (in the manuscripts of the Mahavamsa, and in the inscriptions – Piteniki) is the same unconverted land where Ashoka sent Buddha's missionaries in the tenth year of his reign; therefore, if we admit this calculation, then no more than one century passed between the conversion of the land and the construction of this magnificent monument. In Karlé viharas, as well as in other similar ones belonging to the same age, there is nothing that could not be sculptured from a natural cave of the same time; but in the temple of Karlé we see such a mixture of styles and such perfection of work that we are more than ever at a loss – what is this monument of antiquity? Is it a Brahman or Buddhist temple? Was it built according to the plan drawn after the death of Shakya Sinha[12], or did it belong to an even more ancient religion? Finally, if we are right, believing that the cutting of caves began only after the reign of Ashoka (in the 3rd century BC),[13] then why, while other viharas (with the exception, however, dozens of others, like Elephanta, Ajanta, Kanhery, etc., which Fergusson is trying to bring as close as possible to our times) are so small and insignificant, was such a huge work undertaken to cut the rock and build this particular temple?”

“That is the question.”[14] If Fergusson, being bound by facts existing in inscriptions to acknowledge the antiquity of Karli, will still persist in asserting that Elephanta is of much later date, he will scarcely be able to solve this dilemma, because the two styles are exactly the same, and the carvings of the latter are still more magnificent. To ascribe the temples of Elephanta and Kanari to the Buddhists, and to say that their respective periods correspond to the IV and V centuries in the first case, and the X in the second, is to introduce into history a very strange and unfounded anachronism. After the first century A.D. there was not left a single influential Buddhist in India. Conquered and persecuted by the Brahmins, they emigrated by thousands to Ceylon and the trans-Himalayan districts. After the death of King Ashoka, Buddhism speedily broke down, and in a short time was entirely displaced by the theocratic Brahmanism. Fergusson's hypothesis that the followers of Sakya Sing, driven out by intolerance from the continent, probably sought shelter on the islands that surround Bombay, would hardly sustain critical analysis. Elephanta and Salsetta are quite near to Bombay (two and five miles distant respectively) and they are full of ancient Hindu temples. Is it credible, then, that the Brahmins, at the culminating point of their power, just before the Mussulman invasions, fanatical as they were, and mortal enemies of the Buddhists, would allow these hated heretics to build temples within their possessions in general and on Gharipuri in particular, this latter being an island consecrated to their Hindu pagodas? It is not necessary to be either a specialist, an architect, or an eminent archaeologist, in order to be convinced at the first glance that such temples as Elephanta are the work of Cyclopes, requiring centuries and not years for their construction. Whereas in Karli everything is built and carved after a perfect plan, in Elephanta it seems as if thousands of different hands had wrought at different times, each following its own ideas and fashioning after its own device. All three caves are dug out of a hard porphyry rock, as the big one in the middle, so two lateral temples. The first temple is practically a square, 130 feet 6 inches long and 130 feet wide [39.78 × 39.62 m]. It contains 26 thick pillars and 16 pilasters. Between some of them there is a distance of 12 or 16 feet [3.66 and 4,88 m], between others 15 feet and three vershoks [4.7 m, 5.25 in], 13 feet and two vershoks [4.05 m], and so on. The same lack of uniformity is found in the pedestals of the columns, the finish and style of which is constantly varying. Why, then, should we not pay some attention to the explanations of the Brahmins? They say that this temple was begun by the sons of Pandu, after “the great war,” Mahabharata, and that after their death every true believer was bidden to continue the work according to his own notions. Thus the temple was gradually built during three centuries. Every one who wished to redeem his sins would bring his chisel and set to work. Many were the members of royal families, and even kings, who personally took part in these labors.[15] If the temple was gradually abandoned, it is because the people of the previous and current generations became too unworthy to visit such a shrine.

As to Kanari (or Kanhari), and many other cave temples, there is not the slightest doubt that they were all erected by Buddhists. In some of them were found inscriptions in a perfect state of preservation, and their style does not remind one in the least of the symbolical buildings of the Brahmins. Bishop Heber thinks the Kanari caves were built in the I or II centuries B.C. But Elephanta is much older and must be classed among prehistoric monuments, that is to say, its date must be assigned to the epoch that immediately followed the “great war,” Mahabharata, the date of which the celebrated and learned Dr. Martin Haug moves almost to Deluge, while the no less celebrated and learned Professor Max Muller places it almost in the first century of our era.



  1. Moscow News, № 321, 17.12.1879, p. 4; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 163, pp. 62-70. In V. Jonston edition here starts the chapter “In The Karli Caves”.
  2. In relief (Fr.). – Ed.
  3. Fergusson J., Illustrations of the Rock-cut Temples of India. London, 1845, p. 30. – Ed.
  4. Chaitya or chaitya hall (derived from the Sanscrit root chita signifying a funeral pile, a heap) – a shrine, sanctuary, temple or prayer hall in Indian religions. – Ed.
  5. The Thakur plays in India the same role that the medieval baron of feudal times played in Europe. They are nominally subject either to their sovereign princes or to the British government; but de facto they are subject to no-one. Their castles built on impregnable rocks, in addition to the obvious difficulty of getting to them otherwise than one person at a time, in single file, also have the advantage that each of them communicates with underground passages, the secret of which is passed only hereditarily, from father to son. We have visited two of these underground chambers; one of them is capable of accommodating an entire village in its vast halls. Yogis alone (except for the owners) and initiated adepts have free access to them. It is well known that no cruel torture, especially since they themselves daily resort to torture, is not able to force them to betray the secret.
  6. James Tod (1782-1835) – a Lieutenant-Colonel of the British East India Company and an Oriental scholar, author of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan in three volums, highly valued and many times referenced by H. P. Blavatsky in her letters, particularly the above description of the sacred “thick folio” she took almost verbatim from Author’s Introduction to the First Volume (vol.1, footnote 28) . – Ed.
  7. Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, by Colonel James Tod.
  8. The Sibylline Books (Latin: Libri Sibyllini) – a collection of oracular utterances, set out in Greek hexameter, ascribed to the Sibyls, prophetesses. – Ed.
  9. Fergusson’s spelling. – Ed.
  10. The Mahāvaṃsa ("Great Chronicle", 5th century CE) is the meticulously kept historical chronicle of Sri Lanka written in Pali language in the style of an epic poem by Mahaname, monk from Anuradhapur. – Ed.
  11. Maharashtra is a state in the western and central peninsular region of India occupying a substantial portion of the Deccan Plateau. – Ed.
  12. Shakya Sinha (lit. “Lion of the Shakyas”) – the title of Gautama Buddha. – Ed.
  13. Died in 222 B.C.
  14. This phrase from Hamlet’s monologue HPB gave in English. – Ed.
  15. On the right hand side of the temple there is a corner stone, a ling or lingam (the emblem of Shiva in his character of fructifying force), which is sheltered by a small square chapel with four doors. Round this chapel are many colossal human figures. According to the Brahmins, these are statues representing the royal sculptors themselves, they being doorkeepers of the holy of holies, Hindus of the highest caste. Each of the larger figures leans upon a dwarf representative of the lower castes, which have been promoted by the popular fancy to the rank of “demons” (Pisachas). The temple is full of sculptures made by unskillful hands.