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Writing on the rock

Try to read the musical inscriptions on stone, writes SUBHA J RAO

PHOTOS: K.ANANTHAN

STEEPED IN HISTORY The cave.

It is dry and dusty and the sun is blazing. Not the right kind of day to travel, more so to a place we've only heard about. What keeps us going is the thought of seeing a 4th Century musical inscription in a cave tucked far away from motorable roads.

As first-timers, we ask the villagers nearby if they know where the CAVE is. Most of them have not heard about it. Others send us on a wild cave chase. After a couple of wrong turns, we manage to get on to the right path - the one that leads to the stone quarry.

Rural landscapes

En route to the cave at Arachalur, one can spot hardy women washing clothes in a shimmering water body and farmers nurturing turmeric plants.

The deafening noise of rocks being crushed into gravel tells us our destination is not far away. Braving the clouds of fine dust from the stone crusher, we ask the watchmen for the route to the cave, a monument protected by the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology. Nearby, a huge rock face juts out of a scrub jungle rimmed by coconut groves.

All that the men on duty are willing to tell us is that it is up the rocky incline. We set off trusting our instincts for we have no clue as to what the place holds. This scrub jungle is as dry as it can get and there is no sign of habitation.

Suddenly, a peacock comes into view. It is unnerving but enthuses us to move on. After a 10-minute walk, an old shepherd asks us to go on till the pasture land further down and seek the help of his brethren in the area. We soon sight goats, and humans. Our guide is 85-year-old Manickam, who moves with the fleet-footedness of a mountain goat. We struggle to keep pace with him.

On our way, he points out to a rustic check dam constructed using boulders and rock. And a treacherous plant (Entirolobium - whirl thorn) that can cause serious damage to your clothes if you're not careful. The minute a thorn from the plant engages your garment, the others follow suit. As you remove one hook, another latches on.

Suddenly, the terrain changes. It's all rock. Small rocks in all colours greet the eye. From there, it is a steep climb, difficult if you are not wearing proper shoes. After five minutes of skidding on small rocks, it is time to try and ascend the bigger ones with no foothold. We slip and struggle in our sandals, a direct contrast to Manickam.



The music inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi.

Once at the top, we take a well-needed break and refresh ourselves as a cool breeze blows. Above this rock outcrop, said to be 3,000 million years old, is a temple dedicated to Lord Muruga.

A rock lizard whose ancestors probably settled in the cave centuries before, peeps out, annoyed at the unexpected visitors. Then, the old man points out to the now-defaced inscriptions. I can faintly make out the markings of taa thai thai ta. A couple of modern ones have cropped up, etched for posterity by love-struck youngsters.

The inscriptions find mention in Iravatham Mahadevan's Early Tamil Epigraphy, published by Cre-A, Chennai, and the Sanskrit Department of Harvard University, U.S. Mahadevan's versions of the inscriptions read thus: ta tai taa tai ta, tai taa tee taa tai, taa tee tai tee taa, tai taa tee taa tai, ta tai taa tai ta, kai ta tai ta,kai ta kai ta kai ta tai ta kai ta tai ta kai ta kai ta kai ta tai ta kai

In his book, Mahadevan says these are syllables used in dance and compose what may be called taalak kalam. This musical inscription is in Tamil Brahmi and said to date back to A.D. 4, the Sangam period.

Centuries ago, this was home of Jain monks, who chose it because of the protection it offered from the natural elements.

Now, few people come here. Even those who do have to rely on the locals. There are no route markers or guides to help you see a slice of history.

How to get there

Drive up to Vellode (91 km from Coimbatore) and take the road leading to Chennimalai. Arachalur is 9 km from Vellode. The cave falls in the reserve forest area.

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