As an inquisitive eight grader (who unlike my other classmates happen to like history lessons) I was quiet distraught at the poor quality of pictures in our history books. One such particular black and white picture that remained enigmatic for a long time to come was the Dasavatar temple of Deogarh (Devgarh miswritten as such). This small temple according to the book is the best example of Gupta Age art and architecture. That’s all very impressive but which state of India was this ‘Deogarh’ in the book did not mention. Being from the suburbs of Kolkata I always thought that the ‘Deogarh’ from my history book was the Deogarh near Ranchi but much later in life did I accidentally correct myself….
Four years from the date of writing this article I happened to ride to the Jain ruins of Dudhai of Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh and also to visit a giant that lives on a cliff face in the Lalitpur jungle range. This giant is a thirty four feet tall Gupta age sculpture of Narshima (man lion avatar of Vishnu) that guards the Narshing cliffs of Imlikhera village near Dudhai and it is a sight to behold.
In going there I had lost my way and instead travelled twenty five kms further to the end of the road and reached a little village called Devgarh…that was the ‘Deogarh’ from my eight grade history book. Let me first talk about Devgarh, then I will tell you about Dudhai and the Narshima…
Devgarh is a tiny village of about 200 inhabitants on the bank of the majestic Betwa and surrounded on all sides by the Lalitpur range forest. On the other side of the river is Madhya Pradesh and a vast open tract of land that can be seen from the Devgarh hill fort, which is situated just outside the village. At the base of this cliff is the fabled 1500 years old ruin of the Dasavatar temple. This small structure by itself is unimpressive but upon closer inspection one is amazed by the masterpieces that adorn its walls. As an artist never had I seen such beauty in the craftsmanship of the carvings found there….three wonderful relief panels of Vishnu sculptures adorn three sides of this lonely structure. Surprisingly these sculptures are undamaged unlike the other lesser sculptures that are within the temple premises. After hungrily absorbing the beauty of these masterpieces I decided to head back to Orcha (another ancient place where I was staying) but I could not do so for reasons inexplainable, I think I got an art attack that day. The ASI guard told me to that atop the jungle covered fort adjoining the temple (according to him the fort was originally built by Kanishka and later on added upon by others) was a group of ancient Jain temples that I must visit. I rode up the hill and was unexpectedly greeted by beautiful sculptures some 2000 in numbers standing solitary, silently welcoming me to mingle amongst them...and mingle I did. I cancelled my return to Orcha and decided to explore the vast array of carvings and the finest sculptural specimens of Jain iconography. The Jain dharmsala (pilgrim resthouse) at the base of the hill in the village provided me with accommodation and food.
More surprises lay in store for me..... the fort in which this Jain temple complex is situated is on a 200 feet high cliff that overhangs the majestic Betwa. ‘On the surface of this cliff are more sculptures and rock cut caves…’ to my delight the guard of the Jain temple complex told me. He also mentioned the recent discovery of a Buddhist cave where there is a superb relief carving of the Buddha and other Buddhist iconography. He warned me against venturing for the Buddhist cave as it was nearing sundown, instead he asked me to catch the setting sun from the highest point of the hill on which there is a four story range watch tower. The setting sun in the distance, the thick jungle below me and the orange meandering Betwa vanishing into the horizon was a sight perhaps ones sees when one looks down from heaven….
The almost free overnight accommodation of the dharmshala rejuvenated me for the coming adventure. My first exploration for the day was the caves of Devgarh. Some years back honey gatherers discovered several caves a few kilometers apart near the base of the cliff.
‘If I were a month earlier I couldn’t have visited those caves. October is the best time to explore the jungle.’ The dharmsala manager said and added ‘the monsoon floods the Betwa and the jungle flourishes making it impossible to reach the caves.’
He designated the dharmsala guard to be my guide to the numerous caves and sculptures and cave paintings that are in the caves. We started with the cave of the Buddha. After an hour long trek into the jungle we reached the Buddhist cave. Here there are three sets of numerous impeccably done carvings that take ones breath away. To reach this spot one has to actually climb down a naturally water-carved surface of bald rock and then climb up again to the cave (A road has now been made and steps have been carved on the rockface…making it much easier to reach.).
From the Cave of the Buddha we climbed down to the riverbed and explored all the other caves dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva worship (Vishnu and Shiva statues are carved in the niches of these rock shelters). In one particular Shiva cave I came across three rock paintings that are done in the style one finds in Bhimbetka and Likhichaz of Morena. Climb up from the riverbed and climb down the caves with occasional views of basking crocodiles as gleefully pointed out by my guide we visited all the significant rock shelters. My guide then took me to two man made caves (with Mahiasura Mardini sculptures beside them) situated on the cliff beside two different ghats of the Betwa. By then my legs were feeling like butter…
My visit to Devgarh done, I rode out towards my original destination of the Jain ruins of Dudhai and the giant Gupta age sculpture of Narshima of Imlikhera. The Jain temple complex has been totally destroyed but surprisingly the colossus Narshima has been spared the hammers of iconoclasts due to its inaccessible location being on the other side of the dreaded Narshing Ghat. Till date there is no road that leads to the statue. The nearest asphalt track is about 5 kms away and one has to trek through the jungles of Narshing Ghat (here the Lalitpur range is called Narshing Ghat after the statue) to get there. Riding alone to such lonely destinations sometimes does have its drawback, anyway since I was there so I had to complete the reason for my ride.
At the Imlikhera village I was lucky to find a teenager who guided me to the statue. While off-roading on my bike to the feet of the giant, craftily negotiating the thorny acacia bushes and little streams, my young guide told me a fantastic story about how this statue came to be. He said that long ago the Narshing Ghat was full of demons and one day a demon had eaten the only son of a Brahmin. The Brahmin cursed the demon and prayed to Narshima to do something about the demon menace. Narshima heard the Brahmin’s plea, he came down from heaven and killed all the demons and transformed himself as the colossus in order to guard the Narshing ghat from other demons.
After a little climb we reached the statue. I felt so insignificantly tiny before the snarling giant that as an artist I was humbled by the enormous task accomplished by the sculptures of yore. The immobile giant behind and the vast forest before me briefly took me back in time where civilization as we know it was still a distant nightmare. And just like my exploration of Devgarh not a soul was to be found amidst those wonders…it was only me and my guide and the harmonious chirping of invisible birds that told several tales to one who listened to them.
After my meeting with the third avatar of Vishnu I reached Dudhai on the other side of the jungle. Dudhai has the remains of several destroyed Jain temples all dating back to post Gupta era. The ruins of the temples are hauntingly attractive…only the skeletal remains of the structures remains sans its sculptural decoration. The location of it is like the other two places, in the middle of nowhere….but here in Dudhai one will come across cow herders grazing their cattle and that is the only solace from total loneliness. Post afternoon, all my explorations done I set out for Orcha (170 kms from Dudhai). Riding alone is a solemn affair as one cannot share the joy one experiences upon visiting such beautiful places then and there with another kindred soul; so after my first visit I have visited that area every year with my rider friends from Agra and Gwalior. The locals of Devgarh have begun to recognize me as the ‘slightly odd’ Bangali Babu from Bengal…
As an afterthought I would like to mention that Devgarh and its surrounding is relatively unknown to the tourist trade, which I feel has helped maintain the pristine beauty of its environment. I don’t know for how much longer this wonderful seclusion will remain…deep down I want the people of Devgarh and Dudhai to prosper through tourism and yet I don’t want these places to become another Agra. Devgarh and its Betwa and its sculptures and its caves and the colossus of Imlikhera and the skeletal remains of Dudhai Jain Temple beacons me to visit them, again and again. I have done so five times since then and for sure know that this tract of earth is my private piece of heaven.