Since the beginning of time, mankind has feared one thing more than anything else in existence — the unknown. The unexplainable. The silent majesty of that wilderness our forefathers endeavoured to tame, whose lips shall be forever sealed to the spirit of inquiry, yet in whose contemplation lies the source of all adventure, and in whose pursuit — the root of all discovery. What fruits and triumphs the conquests of man may yield serve only to lubricate the human spirit onward to its inevitable demise — wherein, faced with the ultimate enigma, we are bound to acquire some state of realisation, however temporary, of that incomprehensible mechanism called life. What makes the Earth turn, the wind blow, the waters rise, the planets of our solar system revolve in unison to an unearthly force quite beyond our comprehension? It has forever been man’s quest to unravel and investigate the unknowable laws of nature, to dethrone the invisible order that rendered all forms of faith quite obsolete in face of the whims and fancies of circumstance.
The catalogue of enigmas that constitute the universe as we know it are endless, and grow only increasingly obscure with the passage of time. As science strives to fill in the blanks, the human mind only recoils further from their implications. We tend not to regard them with any palpable concern, but merely as follies cast upon the physical world by an unscrupulous creator. They dwell broodingly in the corners of consciousness, and take up not more of our time than a casual contemplation of the weather.
What I am about to narrate is by no means the result of a diseased imagination, as some might suggest, but instead the consequence of arduous cognitive activity. Not constructive, mind you, but cognitive. To construct, concoct and invent is no doubt a skill worthy of developing, but to calculate and measure to an accurate degree that which is already in existence, is an ability far less easy to cultivate. We know, for instance, that in the spectrum of the five senses — sight, sound, speech, touch and smell — there are imposed certain boundaries upon our capability for experiencing the material world in all its limitless truths. Members of the animal kingdom communicate with their species in frequencies quite imperceptible to even the most trained ears. The various amoeba, bacteria and microscopic germs floating about in the atmosphere are too minute for even the acutest of senses to grasp. Similarly, very much within our vicinity exists a host of creatures unperceivable to the human consciousness — invisible to the naked eye — tangible, physical beings upon whose gaze we are ever present.
Before supposing these to be the ravings of a paranoiac, you must take into consideration the fact that I, having been a sceptic on most matters concerning the inexplicable, found it hard to divorce myself from the cheering illusion that an answer to all ‘scientifically unexplainable phenomena’ did indeed lurk somewhere in the distant corners of the cosmos. But the more I glance back upon my folly of having so believed in an explanation or solution to even the most preposterous of occurrences, the more I am tempted to label my predisposition the consequence of a thoroughly rational world view; one that was well founded, but one that always threatened to crumble whenever faced with an incident that neither science nor religion could explain.
In my case it was occasioned by a visit to a place on the outskirts of Patna called Maner-Sharif, wherein lies the mausoleum of Makhdoom Shah Daulat, erected in 1616, with its protruding minarets and domes built upon the ruins of a kabristaan (cemetery). Across a stately lotus pond, stands an older tomb, that of Makhdoom Yahya Maneri. The architecture of this structure is somewhat less arabesque — its dimensions resemble those of a medieval fortress. The red sandstone boundary walls arch seamlessly into the undulating landscape converging at a rock formation at the foot of a ridge of some density. The ridge is renowned for its topographical singularity and is said to contain caves and grottos untraversed, leading to regions hitherto unknown. Most frightful of all is an underground bhool bhulaiya (maze), which is an archaeological ruin of some sort, predating perhaps even the Mughals or Chandragupta Vikramaditya. Those native to the region claim it to be ancient — closer to the Harappan age. It is currently locked by the government of India; a huge steel lock is clipped upon its entrance, wound up by a tangle of thick chains. The reason: Whoever has entered it has never returned. The last instance was of a baaraat going in there and disappearing; a party of close to 15 revellers were said to have entered it in a procession and have since unaccountably vanished.
Some of the more far-flung theories propose that this subterranean network of pathways and passages leads all the way up to Agra or perhaps even to some of the underground torture chambers connected to the fortress of Sher Shah Suri in Rohtas. I imagined it in my wildest fancy to be some sort of nether city — an underground abyss, or perhaps even a gateway to a new antediluvian civilisation. Harbouring such insidious motives as the prospect of a place in history, possibly even unearthing a startling discovery, I decided to venture in against my better judgement, obtaining permission and also the key to the metallic grating of the ruin, from the state heritage council, through a painstaking process of application, first to the state authorities, then to the tourism board, and eventually by way of a letter of recommendation from a government servant.
My name is BG Ayodhya, and I am myself a man of science — seismology to be precise. Hence my long journey into the forbidden maze was not merely a matter of personal tourism as much as it was on account of a recent development that had been reported to us by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). As per certain sightings by meteorologists and trigonometrical survey officials deployed to keep the boundaries and perimeters in check, and also according to recent seismic readings observed at the site, there appeared to be developing at an alarming rate — over the course of the past few weeks — an irregular form of geological activity from beneath the maze; detectable some 80 to 90 feet under the ground.
The maze had by all likelihood been designed by an architectural ingenuity quite surpassing even that made possible with the aid of advanced technology. It had probably been built as an escape route for the retreating army to deflect an advancing enemy, who would doubtless be lost in its recesses, the route known only to the kingdom that had spawned it. As I approached the mouth of the structure, that lay rapturously ahead at the conclusion of the gravelled driveway, I noticed the gathered maintenance staff slowly shrink away from the premises.
I advanced towards the entrance, producing the key and slanting an eye backwards. No living being witnessed me open the rusty lock of the maze, that had stayed sealed for over a year and a half now. As it clanged apart and the chains poured out from under it, the metallic gate to the bhool bhulaiya rumbled open, unleashing a musty breeze stale with the incalculable stench of lost aeons. I entered the maze after much deliberation, torch in hand, my belt-pouch stocked with 16 double-A batteries, and an electronic A-5 indicator compass strapped to my belt. I hesitated to turn back once the grating had clasped shut. I shone all the available illumination at my disposal on into the descending abyss as I made my way down.
The prospect of never returning did not deter me in my blind pursuit. I possessed a sleepwalking security that I would make it back to the entrance, by means of a string that I had attached to the grating.
All kinds of delirious associations plagued me as I turned into dead ends. The pathways were intricate and myriad, branching off into sub-routes, sometimes through tunnels hardly large enough to crawl through, over escape hatches and trap-doors into earthen vents hewn from the rock, leading to luminous chambers. The maze was an entangled network. Before it was locked, most visitors mainly sought its facilities for the purposes of surveying or photographing rare specimens of archaeological ruin that were less likely to be discoverable at a more noteworthy historical monument. It was known in most circles to be a kind of tourist attraction, a daredevil funfair for eloping lovers, a friendly challenge to be undertaken by those foolhardy enough to endanger themselves. But no one had as yet explored it in its entirety.
I walked on, surveying the underground alleyways before me, gazing cautiously about the many artefacts that seemed to stretch on into infinity. Silence encompassed the labyrinth. After about six and a half hours of futile navigation through the intersecting routes, and after having depleted the string available, my compass appears to have been demagnetised altogether by an untraceable force not of identifiable origin. I can sense the promise of a tremor emanating from beneath the path I walk on.
It is then perhaps from beyond the grave that I write this to you, for I do not expect that this note will ever be recovered, much less examined. I am currently some 70 to 80 feet under the earth’s surface. I am running out of nourishment and illumination, the latter being the more pressing concern, as that will doubtless determine whether or not I am able to document my onward findings.
I have only to note at the moment, without going into any detail, that I have seen centuries worth of skeletal remains, some even clad in medieval armour, defying both history and geography; creatures unimaginable, not belonging to either the animal or mineral kingdom; abominations accumulated over centuries of slaughter; nameless, faceless catacombs; endless corridors adorned with murals and altars; scriptures incomprehensible; rituals unrecognisable; remnants of underground civilisations and settlements; waterbodies defying the laws of physics; vistas and landscapes of the most preposterous description.
Before I lapse any further into what may be categorised as a wholly fanciful account, let me say that I am in complete command of my faculties as I document this.
I am now running out of paper, and the only available source of information as to my adventures will be recorded on stone, in engravings on the unending walls, or possibly in the discovery of my mortal remains... the condition of which will doubtless determine what my ensuing fate within the depths of this dungeon will be... As of now I have only the remotest recollection of all that has occurred.
Vivaan Shah’s novel Living Hell , published by Penguin Random House, will be available in stores from January 28
Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.
We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of TheHindu Businessline and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.