The last of the wild

A trip through Kaziranga is both exciting and sad. In the short period of two days I was excited by the fact that I could photograph and see so many different species. Sadly, many of these were vulnerable and even endangered in the rest of the world. Among the endangered species was the wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee), whose photos you see above. This is not the same as the domestic species, Bubalus bubalis. During the ice ages, B. arnee roamed over all of Europe and Asia. The dry climate after the ice-ages restricted them India, south and south-east Asia. Now, they are extinct in Bangladesh, Malayasia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The last refuge of these ancient animals are the sanctuaries of north-eastern India. IUCN accepts counts which may put the current population at about 4000 individuals. Kaziranga counted about 1400 in its last wildlife census.

I saw this herd resting in an open meadow in the mid-morning. Luckily, there was a Varuna tree (Crataeva nurvala) in flower just behind them, providing a nice completion to the photo. Like elephants, the herds are led by an older female.

The next day was my last sighting of wild water buffalos. They were busy grazing in a patch of tall grass next to a stream. Flat, well-drained land is their preferred habitat. When I was a child they would still make long journeys across the country. With the urbanization of India, those days are long gone. The photo which you see above captures the sight which remains in my memory: the sun setting finally on herds which evolved in the times of the Mastodon.

A temple like a jewel box

rajarani I had to make a trip to Bhubaneshwar on work. I’ve been there before, but never stopped for tourism in the “Town of Temples”. This time I took two hours to visit two beautiful small temples. One of them was the Rajarani temple. It was built in the 11th century, and is no longer in use. As a result, it is looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India. The name rajarani does not refer to a king (raja) and a queen (rani), but, as I learnt from an ASI info-board, to the local name of the sandstone used.

nagaIn the view above you can see that the temple faces east, and has a gate (torana), leading to an outer chamber (jagamohan) with a pyramidal roof, which in turn leads to an inner chamber with a spire (deul). The entrance door is about 2 meters in height, which would make the spire about 9 meters tall; small as these things go. The remarkable thing about this temple are the outer sculptures. You can see in the general view that the sculpture of nagas, women in the shape of snakes, are wrapped around the pillars of the torana. This theme recurs. On the right is a photo of a different column bearing beautiful naga figures.

nagafaceThe faces are beautiful even by today’s standards. Has our notion of beauty really changed so little in a thousand years? This close up of the face of one of the nagas shows the damage done to it. The hoods of the cobras surrounding the head are all damaged, and the woman’s nose is missing. Going by other figures on the facade, it would have been an aquiline nose, unlike that of most people in this region. Either the face is an idealization which came from some other part of the country, or the model was chosen for being exotic.

varunaOne of the most stunning sculptures is this one of Varuna, the dikpala (guardian) of the west. As you can see in the photo on the right, here he is shown in the medieval iconography holding the noose of judgement (pasa) in his left hand. This is one of the most beautiful depictions of Varuna which I remember seeing. The stone used in this sculpture is not the same as the red rajarani used in most of the temple. I wonder whether the stone was specially chosen to give him the canonical white (sphatika) complexion.

yamaThis badly damaged statue, shown at the left, is that of Kubera, the god of wealth, and the dikpala of the north. He should be holding a pot of wealth, but both hands are damaged, so you don’t know what the figure had in its hand. I base my identification on the fact that the statue faces north. Also, the statue resembles the usual medieval depictions of Kubera with the large belly, somewhat ungainly shape, lots of jewelry, and facial hair. The figure stands above an animal which could be a goat.

I spent almost an hour circumnavigating this temple. It is full of other worldly sculptures: women looking at themselves in mirrors, holding branches of trees, men and women in conversation. The incredibly detailed external sculptures are a contrast with the completely bare interior. The nagas and the other figures over the torana indicate that the temple would have been dedicated to Shiva. Otherwise, it would have been hard to say who was the deity when this jewel box of a temple was in use.