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Hen-speckled haunt, those royal chhatris, hallowed stone hollowed, visages gaunt as bronzed old sages, knuckling the azure with domes, turrets crowned with cupolas like military helmets spiked for war; yet commanding still, for the Betwa’s boulders break and branch the rapids’ rush. Sole wanderer about Orchha’s Bundela mort, I sensed the creeping stealth of dust that stifles a bastion’s sandstone screens and the lattice-work of jaded trees filleting mortar of stone to must.. Here, red stone renders its Rajput flush like a battle-notched soldier with malarial eye. Domes that once aspired shrug crestfallen and the four-fold symmetry of Persian garden is dulled by the maharajas’ redounding hush. Stone bare without tomb, the sanctum, void of idol, scrollwork, encrusted gems, rose garlands or the Quran’s most sacred quotes. More armoury than mausoleum, monkey danna dropped as grapeshot. Yet pairs of paramours, green parakeets, undulate on timeless tides of air; a black baubled hive blobs a corbel’s eave; squirrels scat the skirt of walls in bursts; and stonework still breathes the living past. Above, flouncing the finials and aery vaults, white-smudged ghosts from some eerie domain, enormity of wing, things supra-normal, draggled griffons on retracted stilts or gargoyles freed from frieze of capitals, scarce fail to lure in more lucid light.

Raptors on crescent glide, quoin to parapet, wheeling upward, riding the thermals’ ease, with neither panache nor ceaseless beat. And there, regaling the roosted turret, redoubted on extended lease, a maharani, cowled swan-necked beneath the curve of cupola’s tight fit, framed by fluted columns and cordoned, but rebuffs her mate with ruffle and fluffs; he hovers the ledge but curtain he flubs. Shunting up wedges of stone shin-barked, tenter-hooked for toehold, scalp scotched, shoulders cramped in tight-tunnel spiral, I stumbled out, breathless: the arched view plumbed through the parallel chhatris aligned; cool passageways and multiple symmetry a Mughal legacy. Now I descried, over curtain’s edge, one grey fluffball hatch cadging neath mother’s coverts buff-etched. Sidling the fall below the unwalled terrace, my gaze followed shadows to the cornice: a bee-buzz of furies, kamikaze fliers, bottle-green, bombing a feathery carcass. About death, one wonders the winds of karma. Becalmed, this vulture, lapsed in grace: buff pinions and wedge tail ruched, gorget of mottled grey and whitish ruff, sable wings neatly tucked, scalpel finally hooked. Not one sign of crash-landing, broken wing, disease or blood. Even in death, its long stemmed legs lay demurely parallel. To these airborne untouchables, the Parsis undertake their own carrion

for vultures to pick clean at sky burial, Towers of Silence, bone envy of jackals. ‘Tis said: All touched by dead matter befouls. Touched, my vulture’s bald head I tagged and left the dance of death to frantic raga.

Michael Small April 5-18, 2009 published Printed Matters, issue 8, August, 2009


Above, flouncing the finials and aery vaults, white-smudged ghosts from some eerie domain, enormity of wing, things supra-normal, draggled g...