Poetry From the Parapets

A traveler to a medieval fortress in India partakes of a cultural treasure

AULATABAD rose out of the haze of India's Western Maharashtra like a dusty mirage of tower, cliff, and battlement. The bus in which I was riding was full of Maratha farmers, turbaned and sturdy, most returning to their villages after visits to the provincial capital. As we rattled down the highway, sari-clad women from the road crews leaned on their picks and watched from the shade. On that particular day I had another destination, but many things are to be seen along the roads of an old country while on the way to somewhere else.

After a few passengers had disembarked and we had driven on, I found myself looking over my shoulder at the hill and its fortress, veiled again in dust.

It was two more days before I returned to find myself standing in the whirl of tea stalls and postcard vendors in front of Daulatabad Fort. I had decided to begin the day by climbing straight to the top for a view. A formidable series of moats and bastions lay between me and my destination, but as it was still early, only a few tourists and the occasional monkey were my companions.

Daulatabad had been a medieval capital called Deogiri, or "hill of the gods." In that distant time, the slopes of the hill had been entirely quarried away, leaving a fortress girdled by a hundred feet of sheer, chisel-scarred cliff, with the still, green waters of a moat below. (Guides with torches and little pots of kerosene now lead the way through tunnels that span these obstacles.)

Despite such precautions, Deogiri had fallen to the armies of the sultan of Delhi, who added his own ramparts and called the place Daulatabad, or "city of fortune." Daulatabad was noted for the beauty of its women and the size of the rats in the dungeons. The famous medieval Arab traveler Ibn Batutta was shown an example of the latter, writing that he "was very much astonished thereby."

No rats were to be seen on this particular morning, although where the tunnel emerged into daylight two chipmunks were having breakfast on a palace windowsill. I climbed upward through the grass and trees, and shortly reached the crown of the hill. At the summit, a flight of steps led to a stone platform, on which stood a flagstaff and a cannon. In that sunny spot a large family was seated on the paving, sharing a mid-morning snack. They motioned for me to join them, and we spent a few moments enjoying the breeze and the view. At our feet stretched the walls of the old city, largely overgrown by jungle, with the modern village nestling untidily into one corner. Buses glinted from the road, and in the distance the plain was dotted with villages and the domes of crumbling tombs.

The family patriarch introduced himself as Mr. Patil, a retired schoolteacher and poet. He wore a spotless white kurta and Gandhi cap, and drew his eyebrows together when speaking, as if carefully inspecting each word. We ate raisins and a spicy rice snack while Mr. Patil asked me what I'd seen of his country. I mentioned that I had recently visited the temple at Ramtek, right at the center of India, and his eyes gleamed.

"Do you know Kalidasa?" he asked, speaking of the revered ancient poet, who is thought to have written one of the masterworks of Indian literature at Ramtek in the first few centuries AD. "Do you know 'The Meghaduta'?"

I said no, not really, and his smile broadened.

"Then you shall hear it." Mr. Patil stood, faced outward over the ruins, and raised his voice in a sonorous, ringing chant. The rich cadences of Sanskrit were lifted by the breeze, and though the language was unknown to me, the sound of the words pulled, as if at some hidden memory. We sat and listened, in the grip of an antique ode, moved by the joy visible in the poet's face as he gave it voice. After a few minutes, he sat back down and offered a translation.

"He is sitting on a mountaintop; the monsoon is coming, and he sees an immense cloud, heavy with rain, almost like an elephant! And as he looks at the cloud it appears more like the form of a man, and he calls to this man to carry a message, words of love to his wife, then waiting in a place far away."

WE sat there a while longer, talking about Mr. Patil's own poetry. Others had, however, come to our parapet, and it was clear that the family was ready to move on.

"We are going to a mountain," he said. "Are you joining us?"

I looked into the faces of four generations of Patils, smiled, and said that I would stay. There were photographs - Mr. Patil standing behind the family with a firm grasp on the cannon - and then I was given the gift of a piece of fruit from their basket.

A few minutes later they were gone, and I sat back down on the pinnacle of the city of fortune. The fortifications around me - strife and conflict manifested in stone - faded in the sun and slowly vanished beneath the dust and scrub. But above them the voice of Kalidasa sailed on the wind. "The Meghaduta" had been written when the hill of Deogiri, or Daulatabad, had been just another green summit above the plain. Its poetry of love and longing built a bridge of words between me and that ancient, rain-swept afternoon that was stronger than any tower, and the wars and tragedies of intervening centuries were diminished through its sound.

The orange that the Patils had given me was sweet, and, as I watched, the tiny figure of a boy emerged from a gateway in the ruins, far below, rolling a hoop with a stick.

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