The Marabar Caves: The Dark Heart Of E.M. Forster's A Passage To India

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The Marabar caves are among the most potent and compelling locations in modern literature. The caves are the creation of E.M. Forster and form the dark heart of his 1924 novel A Passage to India.

The Marabar caves do not exist. One of the most potent and compelling locations in modern literature, the caves are the creation of E.M. Forster and form the dark heart of his 1924 novel A Passage to India. However, the infamous caves are not without a basis in fact. Forster modeled them after the Barabar Caves, which are located 35Km north of Gaya, in the state of Bihar. A further veneer of reality was provided when David Lean produced a film adaptation of Forster’s novel in 1984, utilising locations that allowed him to bring the Marabar Caves to life on the silver screen.

A Passage to India is set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s. The story revolves around Dr. Aziz and his British friends Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested. Miss Quested is a young English woman who has travelled to India to marry the City Magistrate of Chandrapore. With her companion Mrs. Moore, she befriends the Indian Dr. Aziz, who rashly invites the two ladies to his house. Suddenly ashamed of his home, Aziz instead invites the ladies on a trip to the fabled Marabar Caves in the Marabar Hills.

Adela is guided by a naïve desire to see ‘the real India’, and is determined to visit the caves, despite the warnings of her compatriots. The caves are not beautiful; they have no decorative carvings nor cave paintings, and seem to be utterly devoid of interest. Nevertheless, the caves have a vague but powerful reputation, as the Hindu professor Godbole darkly hints during a discussion with Adela. During the quixotic trip to the caves, Adela accuses Aziz of attempting to rape her. The subsequent trial brings out the racial tensions and prejudices between indigenous Indians and the British colonists who rule India.

Forster introduces the Marabar Caves with this description:

They are dark caves. Even when they open towards the sun, very little light penetrates down the entrance tunnel into the circular chamber. There is little to see, and no eye to see it, until the visitor arrives for his five minutes, and strikes a match. Immediately another flame rises in the depths of the rock and moves towards the surface like an imprisoned spirit: the walls of the circular chamber have been most marvellously polished.

The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone. A mirror inlaid with lovely colours divides the lovers, delicate stars of pink and grey interpose, exquisite nebulae, shadings fainter than the tail of a comet or the midday moon, all the evanescent life of the granite, only here visible. Fists and fingers thrust above the advancing soil — here at last is their skin, finer than any covering acquired by the animals, smoother than windless water, more voluptuous than love. The radiance increases, the flames touch one another, kiss, expire. The cave is dark again, like all the caves.

He continues:

An entrance was necessary, so mankind made one. But elsewhere, deeper in the granite, are there certain chambers that have no entrances? Chambers never unsealed since the arrival of the gods? Local report declares that these exceed in number those that can be visited, as the dead exceed the living – four hundred of them, four thousand or million. Nothing is inside them, they were sealed up before the creation of pestilence or treasure; if mankind grew curious and excavated, nothing, nothing would be added to the sum of good or evil.

One of them is rumoured within the boulder that swings on the summit of the highest of the hills; a bubble-shaped cave that has neither ceiling nor floor, and mirrors its own darkness in every direction infinitely. If the boulder falls and smashes, the cave will smash too – empty as an Easter egg. The boulder because of its hollowness sways in the wind, and even moves when a crow perches upon it; hence its name and the name of its stupendous pedestal: the Kawa Dol.

These passages convey the strange ambiguity of the caves. They are both pregnant with meaning and meaningless. Harbouring a sinister echo, they serve as amplification chambers, magnifying the fears and desires of all who enter. Inside the caves, Adela Quested, the repressed English girl, encounters her own sexuality, naked in the dark, and finds the revelation so disturbing that she flees the cave and hurtles down the mountain-side, lacerating her body on cactus thorns. In a vain attempt to re-establish her virtue, she displaces her sexual longing onto Aziz and accuses him of rape.

The Barabar Caves

Forster traveled widely in India, and it has been said that the 'Marabar Caves' of A Passage to India were inspired by the Bagh Caves in the adjoining Dhar district, though it was later decided that they were based on the remarkable echoes in the Barabar Caves, some 35km north of Gaya, in the present-day state of Bihar.

The Barabar Caves are 35Km north of Gaya, in the state of Bihar, and were visited by Forster on one of his visits to India. Struck by their curious echo, he used them as a central location in his book. The Barabar Caves are the oldest surviving rock-cut caves in India, dating from the Mauryan period (322–185 BCE). The caves are situated in the twin hills of Barabar and Nagarjuni.

The rock-cut chambers were used by members of the Ajivika sect, which was founded by Makkhali Gosala, a contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama, who founded Buddhism. Also found at the site are several rock-cut Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. Most of the caves at Barabar consist of two chambers carved out of granite, with a highly polished internal surface and a striking echo effect. The first chamber was meant for worshippers to congregate in a large rectangular hall, and the second, a small, circular, domed chamber for worship.

Film Adaptation

When David Lean endeavoured to direct a film adaptation of Forster’s novel, the key production challenge was to find a location to represent the fabled caves. Forster’s original inspiration, the Barabar Caves, were briefly considered, but proved unsatisfactory. Eventually, Lean found a site at Savandurga, a small village 30km west of Bangalore. The mountain of Savandurga is one of the tallest peaks in the region and its name means 'The Fortress of Death'. It is actually two hills separated by a deep valley.

The darker one is called the Karigudda or black hill; the other one is called the Billigudda, or white hill. At one time, there was a heavily fortified citadel here, built in the 16th century by Kempe Gowda. It was first captured by the British under Cornwallis in 1791. This location was used for the lower caves, where the picnic is set up and the elephant takes its bath. Dr Aziz and Miss Quested then climb the hill to see the upper row of caves. This sequence was actually filmed on a different mountain 25km away. Thus, the Marabar Caves were constructed from two separate locations. Even so, Lean had to cut a series of shallow holes into the rock face to simulate entrances.

The Marabar Caves may not exist in reality, but have been composited from Forster’s imagination, genuine Indian landscapes and the cinematic image. Above all, the caves remain in the mind as a dark and foreboding abyss, a meaningless black void in which the individual faces nothing but himself. The human voice reverberates around the echoing chambers, taking on a horrible significance in the dark. The caves are empty, but for what you take with you.

Please visit Tim Makins's brilliant website for further information about the locations used in the film:


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