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Caerdroia - the Journal of Mazes & Labyrinths
Reprinted from Caerdroia 26 - 1993 - pp.11-12
Prakash drove back towards Vijayawada across country on a rutted mud road often running
alongside irrigation channels. It was an intensely fertile, conscientiously worked
landscape. Women waved from the fields. Scarecrows gaped. A flock of tan-and-white
sheep hurried as if on high heels. A red tractor drove in small circles, perilously
packing down layers of rice straw round the central pole of a growing rick.
I repeated the name ‘Ondavalli’ like a mantra, but sensed from their animated and
apparently inconclusive discussions that Prakash and the boy had no idea what I wanted
to see. We herded a flock of blue-and-white schoolgirls with oiled plaits and arms
full of books. They giggled and pointed. In the village ahead we stopped at a garish
temple. I didn't know where I was going but I knew I wasn't there. We pressed on.
A mournful pye dog stood in the road with pups hanging in clusters from her teats.
The Ondavalli Labyrinth
“That's it, there it is” I shouted, pointing at shadowy apertures in a rocky hillside.
It had to be the place. “OK,” said Prakash tentatively. He and his boy were seeing
the cave temple of Ondavalli for the first time. It stood, four storeys cut into
the hill -stepped plinths, stairways and deep pillared halls -supported by massive
masonry. A path flanked by trimmed shrubs led up to it. The sun was low. The road
was orange. The rock was warm. The darkness inside was profound, perfumed with sandal
paste and spices. This monument of the sixth or seventh century was empty, but not
I climbed to the second floor and with my finger traced the lotus blossom cut into
a capital. I stood by a huge pillar carved as an elephant's head and trunk, and felt
the weight of the place. A man in a white banian and dhoti, with staring eyes and
buck teeth, appeared from nowhere. He lit a lamp and rang a bell. Devotees soon approached
up path and steps. On the third level gods or sages sat in the lotus posture, and
stylised lions with bulbous eyes gazed across the rich alluvial valley and the Krishna
River to Vijayawada and the hills.
In the dimness I began to distinguish carvings on the inner pillars: yakshas and
yakshis in relief, dancing as they might on a medieval church. The man with teeth
beckoned me. I slipped off my sandals and followed him through a gate he'd unlocked
into still deeper darkness. The inner sanctum was close and aromatic. The floor was
sticky with libations. He lit a candle. Fitfully a mighty figure manifested itself.
So near, my eye could not encompass what seemed larger than the blackness it displaced,
and yet lay cramped as if in a procrustean cave. Lord Vishnu it was, vast, dark faced
and vivid eyed, asleep upon the coiled serpent Sesha, head and feet pressed at the
walls; head sheltered by Sesha's five-hooded head, feet massaged by the goddess Lakshmi;
and growing from his navel a lotus on which sat four-headed Brahma, god of creation.
The cave was full of him.
The pillared facade of the Ondavalli Temple, Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, S.
Mr Ananth of Samrat Tours and Travelsin Vijayawada, at the head of the Krishna delta,
summoned Krishna Satyam of Shiva Durga Taxi Travelsto arrange my visit to the ‘heavenly
city’ of Amaravati and the cave temple at Ondavalli. With driver Prakash and his
boy in the front of an old Ambassador, getting to the Buddhist relics at Amaravati
was hair-raising but straightforward... Finding Ondavalli was not so easy.
I edged out with the devotees. The sky was deep blue, Vishnu's colour, the colour
of infinity. I found myself standing on a carved graffito that, with a start, I recognized;
one which felt cruder and older than these gods and lions and lotuses. It was a labyrinth,
mirror image of ones I’d recently seen near Tintagel in Cornwall. Precisely the same
maze appears on coins from Knossos, on a tablet from Pylos, circa 1200 BC, and scored
on a crimson-painted pillar in the House of Lucretius, Pompeii, with the words Labyrinthus
Hic Habitat Minotaurus.
I rose from my knees, a millennium or two adrift. I’d come here today, exactly where
I wanted to come, thanks to Mr Ananth, Mr Satyam, Prakash and his boy. Now, rising
and staring out over the valley, I didn’t know where I was.
Paul Hyland, Devon, England; 1993
Adapted, with kind permission, from Indian Balmby Paul Hyland, published in the
UK by HarperCollins in 1994.
(This graffito could have been cut at any time during the long history of the site
- the temple itself dates to the 6th or 7th century -but the construction method
is clearly of the familiar ‘seed pattern’)