India (part IV)

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However, to the north and the northeast of India, in the regions where the forests are less heavy, where the glaciers are nearer, and the jungle is cut into here and there by great desert spaces, the synthesis was infinitely less instinctive, more abstract, and therefore more sober. It was by this route, indeed, that Greece had entered India, as Rome came later, and Byzantium and Persia which, from the depths of its history, brought the memory of Assyria, of Chaldea, and perhaps of Egypt. With Persia also came Islam, a spiritualizing force that did not love the images and despised the idols. Finally, by way of Lisbon and Venice, there came the Occident of the Gothic age and of the Renaissance. But India is a crucible so ebullient in its heat that for centuries it forced Islam to submit to its genius, to cover the walls of its mosques with living arabesques—lotus, flowering vines, figures of men and of monsters. The Greek statue, hastily imitated by the first sculptors, was forgotten as quickly as it had become known. The disquieting elegance of the works that it inspired was only a prelude to the retaliation soon to be made by a sensuality impossible to restrain. Though captivated for a moment by the unbounded grace and reason of the Greeks, India was to manifest its own power through the wandering smile of the mouths, through the smothered flame, the enervation, and the ascetic thinness of the bodies. When northern India carried its religion into the south, it also brought with it the pure column that had supported the luminous pediments on all the acropolises of the Occident. But the column was to be overwhelmed by the extravagant growth of the living forests of stone. India assimilated everything, transformed everything, submerged everything under the mounting tide of her ever-moving force. Grandiose civilizations passed over her and sowed her deserts and her woods with the cadavers of cities. What matter? Here neither time counts, nor men. Evolution returns upon itself at every moment. Like a sea, the Hindu soul is eternally mobile, between fixed shores. At no moment can one say, here the race ascends, here is its apogee, here its fall. In the crucible some substances melt, others are liquid and burning, and others cold and hard. India is the enigma, the protean, unseizable being without beginning and without end, without laws and without purposes, mingled with everything and yet alone in the intoxication which she cannot exhaust.

Thus the aristocratic and more abstract art of the north, although we may find in it traces of the Mediterranean civilizations, from Chaldea and Egypt to feudal and neopagan Europe, remains at bottom as Indian as the art of the Dravidians of the south. As it rises from the Dekkan toward the Himalayas, the pyramid becomes rounder. In central India its lines become curves, and though it is still striped like the skin of the tigers, it is less laden with ornaments and is almost without statues. In the valley of the Ganges, the curvature, upon contact with the Persian dome, is more pronounced and the vault, built of flat stones in tiers, takes on the form of the cupola or of the kiosk, supported by frail pillars hemispherical, ovoid, stocky, pressed down or swelling out, polygonal or circular, sometimes bare like those of the mosques, or carved and capped with turbans like those of the Dravidian pyramids—the domes look like enormous fat tubercles bulging with spongy matter. The form is just such a one as Indian sensualism has at all times desired. India, land of ruins that it is, must have seen the complete disappearance, a thousand years before our era, of edifices that much resembled those forests of bulbous domes, temples, or mausoleums that she was still building in our day. The Ramayana speaks frequently of "palaces whose white peaks foam into heaps of cloud."

Even before the domination of the Great Moguls, the Tartar emperors, who came at the beginning of modern times to impose order and peace on northern India, the temple of the basin of the Ganges already had, despite its wealth of ornament, a character of equilibrium and of abstract unity that one never finds in the south. The sensualism of the Indians, which caused the southern sculptors to enter the mountains, germinates in the consciousness of the north in tragedies, in poems, in hymns of words and of stone. But if the walls are barer, the forms more peaceful and retiring, if there are longer silences, and if the dome is more abstractly calculated, the temple receives its visitors with more reserve, the mystic intoxication is less heavy. In the south what spoke was the profound soul of India, a wild murmur which we hear throughout the whole existence of this people, and which breaks out spontaneously at every place that it inhabits. In the north the voice of the higher castes dominates the chorus of the people, and does so with infinitely more majesty, power, and splendor because these castes grew from the soil of India like a natural vegetation and because they were able to build up the most grandiose philosophic synthesis that man has ever conceived.

The sensual richness of the south, purified by the metaphysical spirit and rarefied by the aristocratic spirit, is found again in the details of ornament in the sanctuaries, as soon as one has crossed their threshold. The Jain temples of central India have pillars as finely cut as glassware, and the arches that carry their forests of white cupolas to the heavens turn into lace under the hands of the sculptors; and yet, despite the over-minute science of the decorators, these buildings express a living faith. In the monarchies of the north, on the contrary, the vanity of the rajahs throws so luxurious a garment over the artists' enthusiasm that its bareness and also the best of its human value are lost together. There are temples stuffed with gods of silver and gold, whose eyes are rubies or diamonds. Drops of fire gleam in the shadows; the royal robe of the tigers, the iridescent plumage of tropical forests, their flowers, and the shining tails of peacocks incrust the sheathing of metal, ivory, or enamel that covers the pillars and the walls with emeralds, amethysts, pearls, topazes, and sapphires. It is an art of externals, and its unvarying magnificence is of a paler light than that of statues in a temple underground. The spirit of feudal India is rather in the great rectangular castles, bare and austere, closed in like fortresses, defended by high towers, and cuirassed with polychromed enamel; it is in the palaces of white marble by the silent waters.

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