A Passage to India
The Marabar Caves are fictional echo caves which appear in E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India. The caves are based on the Barabar Caves, in the Jehanabad District of Bihar, India which Forster visited during a trip to India.
The caves are an important plot location and symbol in the story. The glass-smooth walls and a resonant, amplifying echo are key features . The echo makes the sound “ou-boum” which haunts the characters afterwards. Forster chose the caves to set a turning point in the novel and the lives of the characters. The caves serve to show the hollowness in the lives of the four main characters and give the novel a distinct tone. The echo haunts the characters.
The Echo of Barabar Caves
The Barabar Caves are located in the Makhdumpur region of Jehanabad district, Bihar, India. They are the oldest surviving rock-cut caves in India, dating from the Maurya Empire (322–185 BCE).
The caves were used by ascetics from the Ajivika sect. The Ajivikas had many similarities with Buddhism as well as Jainism. There are inscriptions by Ashoka (circa 250 BCE) and Dasaratha Maurya (circa 230 BCE)
There are four main caves at Barabar.
- Lomas Rishi cave.
- Sudama cave.
- Karan Chaupar.
- Visva Zopri.
Most caves at Barabar consist of two chambers, carved entirely out of granite, with a highly polished internal surface, the “Mauryan polish”, giving a mirror effect of a great regularity, as well as an echo effect. This large-scale polish is reminiscent of polishing on smaller surfaces of the Maurya statuary, particularly visible on the pillars and capitals of the Ashoka pillars.
The sculptured surround to the entrance to the Lomas Rishi Cave is the earliest example of the ogee shaped “chaitya arch” that was to be an important feature of Indian rock-cut and sculptural decoration for centuries.
Inspired by an Echo?
So why am I telling you about Marabar/Barabar?
A few months ago I pulled a large old brown wool scarf out of my ‘might be useful’ drawer. The knitted scarf had been wet felted to create a strong, uniform surface. I’d bought it from a fellow artist when she was having a clear out a few years ago. I’ve never got on with started a new piece on a coloured surface, usually preferring to use white felt.
I decided to experiment and laid out a few layers of purple, dark blue and sparkles in wool and silk fibres. This did seem to defeat the point of starting with a coloured surface but I can’t help myself! I had vague plans to make a galaxy sky and dandelions but mostly I was just letting things flow. keeping my hands busy.
This piece stayed out in the studio for a while and I would dip back into it as and when. Still no plans but pretty much thinking as I went to see if anything popped out. I back-tracked a few times when I still couldn’t make sense of it. Once it had got the stage of having some form and structure then I started to work towards resolving the composition and colours. I ended up with a wide, very geometrical, series of arches. There was a feel of crowds in the light and darkness and mystery beyond.
The piece stayed like this for a long time. I went away on holiday and then got on with commissions. I knew it wasn’t resolved so made myself leave it alone while I mulled it over.
Eventually I had a burst of activity in the studio one morning to add darkness, definition and line. I used a thin chiffon scarf that I had bought to try nuno-felting. The extreme shrinkage involved with nuno-felting meant that this scarf was way too short for that purpose, hence cutting it up for an experiment. After a few more additions and substractions the piece now felt closer to something. This way of working is so new to me as I would usually have a clearer starting point or reference when creating. I was interested in the process and curious if I’d know when it was ‘done’
After another few weeks of having this propped up at the end of the studio I decided that although the colours and shapes and textures were definitely speaking to me, the composition was just wrong. Any amount of fiddling with the details at this stage wouldn’t fix that. And so the scissors came out…
I cut the whole piece into several smaller ones. Three main one for each arch and a few small and wide off areas which are really interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing how they transform into new things.
As for the 3 larger pieces it was amazing how they clicked into place at this stage. Suddenly any desire to adjust or fiddle was gone. These were done. I wander if this is more about my mindset than the perceived problems that had needed solving.
So I sent them off to be framed by the lovely Kate at Well Hung Framing and when they got back I hung them on the studio wall to look at for a few more weeks and try and figure out where they came from and what it might mean.
One evening (while doom scrolling the internet) I came across a reference to the Marabar Caves echoes. So I went down that rabbit hole, as you do, and found all these intriguing connections. When I looked up Barabar Caves and saw the photographs of the entrances it was the most surreal moment.
Having never seen these caves before I think the influence of them, both classic and modern, on the architecture and literature in Indian and English culture might have somehow seeped through to my subconscious. Reading comics of Indian epics, watching Mahabarata on television as a child, the fascination of doors and gateways in science fiction and fantasy (The time tombs of Hyperion come to mind).
Mostly though I think for me these pieces are about reflection, taking time to process and understanding that not everything is perfect in the world and that’s okay for now.