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The story behind the stones

Have you wondered why people flock to Machu Picchu–the Inca ruins, Palenque ruins in Mexico, the Colosseum in Italy, Tikal ruins in Guatemala or closer home Hampi? Why are these heaps of stones and broken monuments of the bygone era so alluring? Ruins have inspired poets, artists, writers, archaeologists and architects, becoming an object of intrigue for man. French philosopher Denis Diderot told French artist Hubert Robert who is known for his paintings on ruins, “Do you realise that ruins have a poetry of their own? You don’t know why ruins give such pleasure? I will tell you. Everything dissolves, everything perishes, everything passes, only time goes on. What is my existence compared to crumbling stone?”

For a long time now, ruins have been a subject of fascination. These man-made structures that once exuded life, over time, fall into a state of disrepair. Despite having become progressively derelict due to weathering and scavenging, obsession with these abandoned and decaying spots is widespread.

Ruins tell us stories of the past and perhaps of our future too. They honour kings, leaders and kingdoms and invoke melancholy and nostalgia, and fuel imagination. Narrating history and connecting people and places, sometimes, they are our only connection with the past. American social and cultural geographer Bradley Garrett said, “Ruins may be decaying, they are not dead, they are filled with possibilities for wondrous adventure, inspiring visions, quiet moments, peripatetic playfulness, dystopia preparation and artistic potential.”

Nothing is permanent on the face of earth, be it buildings or kingdoms. It talks about our impermanent existence on this planet and to what extent we go to claim it as our own.

Ruins may mean different things to different people. For poets and artists these are a source of inspiration using which they narrate their stories. For architects, ruins symbolise a potential future rather than a mark of the past. M Veeresh, a seasoned tour guide in Hampi says, “People crave to be closer to nature and ruins do justice to that. They want to understand how their ancestors lived, what their stories were and what stands to be learnt from them. You could say there are two types of visitors to ruins–one who come looking for enjoyment away from city life and the other who want to learn about art, architecture and the stories behind these ruins. On an average 80 per cent of people are interested in the architecture and the story.”

For the philosophically inclined, ruins could be subtly hinting at the fragility and vulnerability of human life, bearing hidden lessons. P B Shelly in his poem Ozymandias talks about meeting a traveller from an antique land who tells him a story. He tells the poet he had seen remains of a statue in the desert with two enormous legs without the face and next to the legs was the face that was damaged. In the poem, the poet speaks of a statue that was once great, but now is in ruins. It says even the mightiest of kings fall. Nothing is permanent on the face of earth, be it buildings or kingdoms. It talks about our impermanent existence on this planet and to what extent we go to claim it as our own.

After all, we are here for just a while with a brief role to play.


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