Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Into The Wild

    You are no lone wolf.  Stop telling yourself that you are different. You might claim that words will never hurt you; you might as well claim to be living in Mars and hosting Zeus and his pantheon of Gods for tea everyday. Admit it. You crave for acceptance. Those likes on facebook and those retweets on twitter light up your face. All those times your manager truly praised your work or some colleague nominated you for a spot award, there was a tinge of pure joy and excitement flowing through your veins.

    At the end of the day, whatever way you look at it, we are all apes. We learn by imitating. If you have ever seen a child pick up language, you know what I am talking about.  If it is society that shapes us, are we just pawns hoping that one day we might reach the end and become queens and bishops? Unfortunately no; Cinderella’s dreams generally do not come true in real life and the one of the evil twin sisters always gets the prince. Sooner or later, the masks we wear to perform the pantomime that society demands of us comes back to define us and our perception about ourselves.

    What does it feel to wake up and head to work knowing that you will end up doing the same thing tomorrow, the next week and the week after, the next year and perhaps years to come until you retire to take up gardening or writing letters to newspaper editors? Have you ever woken up and told yourself that today you will tell your boss to go f**k himself, quit your job and just travel around the world until the end of days. What am I raving about? Everyone has those days…

    I just came to know about a guy who plays around a dozen sports and is very good at most, is a top notch sniper and a Beretta pistol shooter, digs wells for villages without access to clean water, builds classrooms in villages and whose dream is to visit more countries than his age. Also before I forget, he once drove an auto from Chennai to Mumbai and is currently teaching in a school in Ladakh. Talk about developing a multifaceted personality...  When I came to know about this, something inside me stirred, the wanderlust that society and I had managed to talk into submission would not remain silent anymore. It screamed out that I should go out, live a life of adventure and explore the world with the same curiosity that drove our ancestors out of Africa. Alas, the moment passes and I always wake up. Not literally because I am already wide awake, but because I am getting late for office.

    So what about my free will? Was my destiny pre-determined based on the alignment of stars and planets the moment I was born? When was the last time I did something just to prove to myself that I am not living in a Matrix-like-world? When was the last time I forgot about society, its rigid rules and firm machinations and did something for pure thrill? The question I ask myself and you is this - when was the last time you did something crazy?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bhimbetka - The very beginning

    Let’s rewind about 200,000 years ago, to the very beginning of mankind. In Africa, there emerged a group of apes with a large brain capable of better reasoning and problem-solving than the other apes. These apes were curious beings, interested in exploring their world and developed higher level thought processes like self-awareness and rationality. Between 75,000 and 50,000 years ago, as the world was entering its last ice age, the Neanderthals were on their way out and settings were ideal for the Homo sapiens or the modern humans to take over the planet. A long time after the last Tyrannosaurus roared and crushed its opponents to pulp, earth had a dominant species once again.

    Nestled in the hinterlands of India in the midst of a rocky terrain of dense forest on the northern fringe of the Vindhyan ranges, is a uniquely preserved prehistoric site at Bhimbetka, around 45 kms from Bhopal. These rock shelters tell us the story of homo sapien migration from Africa and exhibit the earliest traces of human life in India. These quartzite rock formations have 754 rock shelters with over 500 with rock paintings. The paintings are one of the few existing legacies of a lost time, stretching from the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) era to the Historical period. The quality and quantity of the rock art shows the long lasting interaction between hunter-gatherers and the landscape and also the gradual development of the socio-cultural life of mankind.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 1
    Ajay and I took an early morning bus from Bhopal and reached Bhimbetka at 8 a.m. The bus dropped us at a railway cross three kilometres from the rock shelters. We found a MP tourism hotel named Highway Retreat where the cook kindly prepared us sandwich and tea after the guard has turned us away saying we had come too early. After breakfast we walked to the rock shelters. A few months ago we would have run those 3 kms, but  niggles and injuries from the previous running season ensured that running was out of question. I would suggest hiring a taxi at Bhopal for travelers looking for comfort.

    One of the oldest known prehistoric art in Asia is a series of Stone Age cupules or cup-marks-in-the-rock discovered in Bhimbetka. Geological investigations by renowned archaeologists Bednarik, Kumar and others have established that these cupules are more than 100,000 years old. In other words these were not the work of our ancestors (homo-sapiens) since they left Africa only 75,000 years ago, but of homo-erectus who roamed these plains long before the first Homo sapiens set foot in South Asia.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter No. 15 - Boar Rock/Mushroom rock
    Colours used in the paintings were derived from locally available minerals - ochre from haematite and white from lime. The binding medium used was water and fixatives like animal fat and plant extract like gum. The solvent minerals get oxidised so as to leave their colour on the rock surface. Sometimes the paintings were used several times by artists of later periods without obliterating the older figures. The superimposition of paintings of different styles and periods can be seen in many of the rock shelters in Bhimbetka. Certain images have 15 layers of super imposition. 

Here’s a snapshot of paintings at the Bhimbetka site in different periods:
Time Duration
Palaeolithic( Old stone age)
Since our ancestors started using stone tools to around 10000 BC
These are linear representations, in green and dark red, of huge figures of animals such as bison, tigers and rhinoceroses.
Mesolithic( Middle stone age)
around 10000 BC
Mainly images of the natural world and life of the hunter gatherers including scenes like hunting.
Neolithic( New stone age)
around 8000/7000 BC

around 3000 BC
Quite a few of the images in the site are from this period.
Early historical
3300 BC to 1300 BC
Most of the images are from this period. Red, white and yellow were the colours used. The paintings in this period are more refined and comprises of more elaborate scenes like royal processions, horse riding and battle scenes. This period represents the beginnings of known religion (Image of Natya Shiva).

More detailed information about the rock shelters:

Rock Shelter 1:
     Major excavation work was carried out in this cave between 1973 and 1976 and has paintings from historical period. On the upper ceiling, there are silhouetted paintings of two elephants. The smaller elephant is driven by a man holding a goad in one hand, a spear in the other and sword in his waist. And both elephants are shown with long uplifted tusks. Drawings of a horseman and a soldier are seen below.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 1 - Notice the two elephants on top and below the horseman and a soldier.
Rock Shelter 3 – Auditorium cave:
    This shelter is called the auditorium cave due to its shape. The paintings portray bulls, buffaloes, deer, a peacock, a tiger and the left hand of a child. Not sure how they classified the hand impression as that of a child as it seemed to be almost as large as my hand!

Bhimbetka shelter 3 - Auditorium Cave. Notice the image of hand of a prehistoric child in the bottom.
    The cupules or cup shapes in the rocks that I mentioned above are found in this cave. These represent the art work of the now extinct Homo erectus who roamed these plains more than 100,000 years ago.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 3 - Auditorium Cave. The cup shape in front of the guys neck is called a cupule and is supposed to have been created by home erectus species more than 100,000 years ago.
Rock Shelter 4 – Zoo rock:
    This shelter is semi-circular in shape and popularly called “Zoo rock” because the paintings in this shelter comprise of more than 252 animals of 16 different species. Apart from the animal figures, there is also a depiction of a royal procession in dark ochre colour. The horsemen are shown with long hair and head dresses and armed with bows arrows and shields and are accompanied by drummers. Except a few that belong to Mesolithic age, most paintings belong to the Chalcolithic and Historical period.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 4 - Zoo Rock.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 4 - Zoo rock with more than 252 animals of 16 species.
Rock Shelter 6:
    Contains figures of dancing men and woman along with drummers perhaps indicating that music and dance were integral to their lives.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 6 - Time for song and dance
Rock Shelter 7:
    Most of the paintings in this rock-shelter are from the historical period and you can see figures of swordsmen carrying spears and riding horses.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 7 - Warriors on horses
Rock Shelter 9:
    Various colours used in different periods are on display here. I initially thought that I had finally found evidence of aliens in the paintings but they turned out to be yellow paintings of flower pots and buds. Additionally there is an elegant figure of a horse and also an image of an elephant being stalked by a shrouded human figure.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 9 - Elephant followed by shrouded man.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 9 - Elegant Horse on right. Yellow dots and aliens on left. Actually flower pots and buds.
Rock Shelter 10:
    It is said that in the early historic eras, the first Gods appeared. Here in the desolate rock shelters, you will find the very beginnings of known religion. The painting of a man holding a trident-like staff and dancing has been christened as “Nataraj” by Dr. Wakankar. Most of the paintings in this shelter have eroded due to rain.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 10 - The Nataraj bearing trishul. Probably the beginning on known religion.
Rock shelter 11:
    Pigments used for preservation by the ASI (Archeological Survey of India) in this rock shelter had an adverse effect on the paintings. The ASI had coated a layer of wax in this shelter to protect the paintings from the rain, but the chemicals seemed to have caused an adverse effect on the paintings causing blackening of pictures that survived thousands of years.

Bhimbetka Rock Sheltor 11 - Warriors with shields and swords
Rock shelter 12:
    This shelter contains paintings of Carcasses and X-ray figures - mainly the bones of animals. Probably done by a witch doctor from those times!

Bhimbetka Rock Sheltor 12 - Hunting scene
Rock Shelter 15 – Boar Rock:
    The boar rock is mushroom shaped and has the painting of a gigantic boar with two crescent shaped horns chasing scrawny human running for his life. Clearly humour and sarcasm was also part of their lives.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 15 - Mythical large size boar chasing scrawny human.
    Over time, the hunter gatherers became farmers and the shelters lay forgotten until they were discovered by Dr. Vishnu Sridhar Wakankar in 1958. He was bestowed with the Padmashree by the Government of India for this discovery.

    Ajay and I walked back to the highway from the caves. We learnt that buses do not stop at Bhimbetka and climbed up a sand lorry to travel to the nearest town of Obaidullagunj to catch a bus to Bhopal. On reaching Bhopal, we visited Bharat Bhavan, a multi art centre with verbal, visual and performing arts. It provides space for contemporary expression, thought, quest and innovation. We found thought provoking masks, creative photos and lasting works of art created in towns, villages and forests. A must visit for any traveler to Bhopal.

    Later we had a quick lunch at Bharat Bhavan canteen and rushed back to the hotel room to freshen up and catch our train to Hyderabad. Our journey was at end and I realized that even though we had spent four days in Madhya Pradesh, it was really not enough. It might actually take months of traveling to really understand and appreciate the culture and history of India. The word “Bhimbetka” is said to have been derived from Bhimbaithika, or the seat of Bhima- one of the five Pandavas of the epic Mahabharata. Bhimbetka may no longer be the seat of Bhima, but it is definitely the seat of ancient South Asian history.

More blogs for further info on Bhimbetka and Bharat Bhavan:click here, here, here and here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sanchi Stupas - Buddhism's holy grail

    “You guys are obsessed” remarked an Aussie lady in Sanchi on learning our travel schedule. In three days of travelling in Madhya Pradesh, my friend Ajay and I had experienced various highs and lows. We spent mornings visiting UNESCO world heritage sites and historical forts, amazed at the cultural and historical riches of Madhya Pradesh and spent the night traveling from one place to another in trains. Consequently sleep was a luxury; we slept wherever and whenever we had a chance- in trains, waiting rooms and crowded platforms and had hardly seen the back of a hotel in three days. We ate at road-side stalls when we had to hurry but splurged on Biriyani in the Lalit Hotel when we had time to spare. We cycled at times, walked miles sometimes and once also ended up in the back side of a sand lorry with the wind billowing onto our faces as we sat on the tarpaulin sheets covering the sand. We were on a wild ride exploring the hinterlands of India and enjoying every moment of it.
Main Stupa or Stupa No. 1 at Sanchi
    In 3rd century B.C, more than 300 years after the birth of Buddha, the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka laid of the foundations for a Buddhist establishment in a place named Vedisagiri around 10km from the flourishing town of Vidisha. This place also came to be known as Sanchi. He erected a stone pillar (later to become the famous Ashoka Pillar) and a brick stupa. The empires that came later – the Sunga (2nd century B.C) and the Satvahanas (1st century B.C) made significant contributions to the main stupa by building additional stupas, temples for Buddha and erecting the four world famous gateways made of sandstone at the four entrances to the stupa. In its heydays, Buddhism enjoyed the patronage of four empires - Mauryan, Shungas, Satvayanas and the Guptas. Work continued on Sanchi till the 12th century A.D. after which it was abandoned.
    The stupas are meant to contain the relics of Buddha and are probably the most important Buddhist monuments currently standing, the holy grail of Buddhism. Two hundred years ago the British wanted to cart the Sanchi gateways to UK ostensibly to protect them and even the French emperor Napolean wished to possess one of the gateways. Thankfully the stupas remain where they were meant to be and not in some art collector's private gallery.
Stupa 1 - Northern Gateway
    We arrived at the Vidisha (around 10 kms from Sanchi) Railway station from Jhansi at around 4:30 am in the morning. Our plan was to present the 3rd AC ticket that was had used a few days ago at the AC waiting room, hope the attendant lets us through after failing to check the date of travel and get some sleep before heading out to Sanchi in the morning. But the railways played a cruel joke on us – there was no waiting room at Videsha. Clearly Vidisha is no longer the rich and flourishing city that it was at Ashoka’s time. We unrolled our sleeping bags and slept on the platform; becoming one among the nameless, homeless people sleeping in railway station platforms. We woke up at 6.30 am, took a bus to Sanchi and had breakfast at the MPSTDC centre there after waking up the cooks. We then walked up the hill to reach the stupas and hired the audio guides on offer to learn more about the known beginnings of Indian History and architecture at Sanchi.

    The stupas are a product of the Hinayana system of Buddhism where Buddha was never portrayed in sculptures and paintings. A casual visitor may scour all the sculptures in the gateways, not find a single image of Buddha in it and wonder how the gateways qualify as Buddhist. Actually certain items on the gateways indicate a milestone in Buddha’s life and thereby symbolize his presence – a lotus flower (birth), a rider-less horse (renunciation), the Bodhi tree (enlightenment), a pair of slippers (first step after enlightenment), a wheel (first sermon at Sarnath) or an empty throne (nirvana). Etched on the gateways you will find various stories from the Jataka tales – stories from the earlier lives of Buddha as a Bodhisattva searching for enlightenment. Interestingly Gods of the Hindu Pantheon are also sculpted - Laxmi the Goddess of wealth, Indra the ruler of the heavens and Brahma the creator.
Northern Gateway - Jataka tale of Vasantara reiterating importance of sacrifice. From left Vasantara is shown leaving palace with children, then staying in a hermit after giving away both his children.
Stupa 1:
    This is one of the oldest stupas in India and 36.5 m in diameter and 16.4 m high with a hemispherical dome. Work on the stupas went on well into the 12th century A.D. The entrance to the stupas is through four magnificently carved gateways or torans. These torans are one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in India. The four torans probably represent the four noble truths of Buddhism which talk about reason for pain and suffering and how to avoid it.

Northern Gateway:
    This best preserved of the gateways present an insight into the life and architecture of the Sunga Period. The inscriptions on the torans indicate that the carvings are donations of the people of Vidisha, not just the kings. There is an arc on the top of the gateway with a yaksa has (Demigod) to the right. The circular ring like structures are meant to indicate rolled up scrolls. The three rows on the gateway are filled with Jataka tales. The story of bodhisattva vasantara is one of selfless generosity – He gives up all his riches, his kingdom and children and finally his wife. In the back side of the row, the story continues – finally the Gods relent on seeing Vasantara’s sacrifice and the family is reunited. 
Evil Mara tries to end Buddha's Penance. Buddha is represented through the Bodhi tree on left.
    The middle architrave tells the story of how Buddha overcame temptation in the final moments of his penance when the evil Mara gets desperate and sends his own daughters to tempt the ascetic. Buddha attains enlightenment and Mara’s evil army disperses in confusion.
Monkeys giving bowl of honey to Buddha. Buddha is represented here as Bodhi tree on left
Eastern Gateway:
    The pillar on this gate depicts the great departure of Prince Gautama in search of enlightenment. The Gods are shown to be helping the young prince in escaping the city of Kapilavastu. There are also depictions of King Ashoka visiting the Bodhisattva tree. There is also a statue of "shalabhanjika" who depicts the fertility and abundance of the world of nature. This is a Hindu motif that seems to have been adopted by Buddhism.
Stupa 1 - Eastern Toran

Stupa 1 - Eastern Gateway - The great departure. Buddha is represented by a riderless horse.
Eastern Gateway - Scene depicting Buddha's birth. Top frame - His mother dreams of a white elephant that enters her womb.
Eastern gateway - On left, the Kashyapa brothers warning buddha about 5 headed cobra. On the right, the brothers are paying obeisance after they see the cobra protect Buddha instead of harming him.
    Ashoka once dispersed a series of columns across North India with his edicts. The pillars at Sanchi were once 40 feet high but currently it stands broken. The audio guide tells us the story of how an iron monger once brought down these majestic pillars with great difficulty so that he could use them at his workplace!! The museum of Sanchi houses the crown of the pillars which was adopted as the emblem of India – four lions standing back to back. The words Satyameva Jayate from Mundaka Upanishad, meaning ‘Truth Alone Triumphs’, are inscribed below in Devanagari script.
Eastern Gateway - Shalabhanjika depicting fertility or abundance in nature.
Eastern Gateway - Buddha walking on water.
    Everybody knows that Christ is supposed to have walked on water; the stories in this gateway tell us that Buddha had done the same as well. Walking on water seems to be a touchstone that separates prophets from Gods!

 Southern Gateway:
    This was once the main entrance to the Stupa. When the Stupas were rediscovered by the British, treasure hunters and amateur grave diggers came in troves to find hidden treasure and almost destroyed the Stupas. This has a representation of scenes from the life of Ashoka and Buddha's Birth.
Southern Gateway - There are no sculptures below the four headed lions due to amateur conservation effort undertaken when the stupas were rediscovered.
Top - A despondent Ashoka find out that his favorite Bodhi tree is dead. Below Indra and other Gods taking away a lock of Buddha's hair.

Western Gateway:
    The western portion of the stupa had collapsed in 1822 during to the treasure-hunting by the British but restored 60 years later. It houses a few masterpieces - The first sermon symbolized by wheel preaches that ignorance is the root of all evil and it is called the Dharmachakra Pravarchan. 

Western Gateway - First sermon at Sarnath. Buddha is represented by the wheel. Notice the deer on either side to show that this happened in a deer park.
    This gate is famous for depiction for the first sermon of Buddha at the deer park at Sarnath. The six incarnations before becoming the Buddha is called the Manushi Buddha. The architrave is supported by pot-bellied dwarfs showing various emotions like anger, duty, pain and joy as the weight of the torans bear down on them.
Western Gateway - Story of the Monkey King. The top frame shows the monkey king making a bridge across the river.
    There is also a story of a monkey king Bodhisattva whose clan is attacked by a human king. The monkey king makes a bridge between two trees allowing his subjects to cross the river and escape but perishes in the effort. The importance of sacrifice is a motif that is mentioned many a times in the stupas.
    Also finding mention many a times is the theme that devotion to God is always rewarded. One such story is that of Sama, a devoted son of his blind parents being shot down by a king who mistook him for an animal. The King regrets and prays to the Gods who bestow
the gift of vision to the blind parents.
Western Gateway - Story of Sama. On left frame king fires arrow that kills Sama. On right the blind parents.
     The Western Gateway also depicts the story of a Bodhisattva who was a royal six tusked white elephant. His jealous younger wife feels left out, vows to be reborn a princess so that she could kill him, pines away and dies. She is reborn in human form and becomes the Queen of Varanasi. The Queen sends men to kill and get back the tusks of the six tusked white elephant. The hunters wound the elephant but find it difficult to remove his tusks. The Bodhisattva elephant obliges by removing his own tusks and presenting them to the queen who realizes her folly and perishes in grief this time... The cave paintings in Ajanta have a beautiful painting of the entire Matropaksha Jakata - here

Temple 17:
    This was built in the beginning of the Gupta period around the 5th century A.D. and consists of a flat-roofed square sanctum and a portico supported by four pillars. This is remarkable for its structural propriety and symmetrical proportions.
Remains of Temple No. 17 from Gupta period.
Temple 18:
    This is the remains of temple or stupa. Does not look special now, but in those times it was a paradigm shift in temple building and most of the Temples in India now are built in this style.
Temple No. 18
Temple 45:
    This is a temple of the medieval period and stands on the ruins of an earlier seventh century structure. Still has a glorious image of Buddha with images of River Goddesses Ganga and Yamuna on the door indicating that Buddhists adopted established Brahminical motifs over time. The statue shows Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment.
Temple No. 45 in the background.
Stupa 2 and Stupa 3:
    The second stupa stands at the very edge of the hill and its most striking feature is the stone balustrade that rings it. The third stupa once contained the relics of Buddha’s disciples Sariputta and Mahamogallena. This stupa was reconstructed brick by brick after it was destroyed by treasure hunters.The relics that the treasure hunters found were taken to London but were returned after India became independent and are now housed in the monastery in front of the Sanchi Stupas. If only the British would return the Kohinoor diamonds this easily!
Ajay in front of stupa no. 3
    On the path to enlightenment Buddha says – “It is better to travel well than to arrive”.  Ajay and I headed back to Bhopal with the satisfaction that we had traveled well and walked the path once taken by giants.

P.S. For more info Sanchi stupas and the gateways:

Friday, March 16, 2012

Khajuraho - Truly Incredible India

Wrote an entry on Khajuraho for - A travel based competition requiring participants to visit all UNESCO World Heritage sites in India within a year - here

My usual longer-detailed blog on Khajuraho will come in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora - Part 2

     When you see a sculpture or a statue of a God in a temple nearby, what is the emotion you see portrayed? Joy? Anger? Guilt? Probably not. Gods, these days, are portrayed as solemn and majestic beings. This richness of emotions and stories conveyed in sculptures and paintings of the temples of the old is what separates them from the temples built today. The empires of the old left us art and beauty in structures that were meant to last; we unfortunately are leaving our descendants dull serious dolls in bricked walls that will not outlive the generation that built them. Here is the story behind our journey to one more of the great temples of the old - The caves of Ajanta.
The horse shoe shaped cave temples of Ajanta
    After visiting the breathtaking cave temples of Ellora, Ajay and I returned to Aurangabad and chose a budget hotel to spend the night. Ajanta is around 104 kms from Aurangabad and bus services are frequent, unlike the services between Ellora and Ajanta. From the cave entrance, we had wait for half an hour to travel a further 4 kms by CNG buses as diesel buses are not allowed in the vicinity of the caves to avoid pollution. Along with a couple of French students touring India, we hired a guide just before entering the first cave. Our guide hardly bothered about explaining all relevant details and kept repeating the few details he knew. I suspect he who woke that morning, decided to become a guide and read a couple of pages about Ajanta in his son’s history book. One more good reason to push for audio guides across all UNESCO world heritage sites in India.

    There are 30 caves in Ajanta and all are a product of Buddhism. Five of the caves are Chaitya halls (Prayer halls) and the rest are Viharas (Lodging places for the monks and artist-monks). The caves were built across two entirely different time periods.

Hinayana Phase:
     More than 2200 years ago, the Mauryan Empire was at its zenith extending from present day Afghanistan to Southern India and the first phase of the Ajanta caves were supposedly built under the patronage of their feudatories – The Satyahana Empire. The oldest caves excavated in 2nd century BC are a creation of the Hinayana sect of Buddhism. In the Hinayana sect, Buddha was never portrayed in human form in the paintings and sculptures.
Stupa in Ajanta cave 10
    Five caves belong to the Hinayana period - Chaitya caves 9 and 10 and Vihars 8, 12, 13 and 30. The pictures paint an image of an austere and frugal time. There are themes and motifs from everyday life as well as the life of Buddha(without actually portraying him).

Mahayana Phase:
    The rest of the 25 caves, excavated centuries later in the 5th and 6th centuries make the Mahayana series. Researcher Walter M. Spink declared that most of the work took place over short time period, from 460 to 480 CE, during the reign of Emperor Harishena of the Vakataka dynasty. By this time, the effects of idol worship prevalent in Hinduism were seen on Buddhism and Buddha was portrayed in human form. Yet there were strict rules regarding how he was to be portrayed. Buddha's long earlobes are a sign that he came from a noble family and the tight curl of the hair is a sign of an important man. These rules did not hinder or limit the imagination of the artist-monks of that time. As a result, not only does Buddhism teach us simplicity, peace and the meaning of life, it has also passed onto us a treasure trove in the world of art.
Ajanta Cave 1: Bodhisattva Padmapani and his wife
    When compared to other rock caves in India built primarily by the Rashtrakuta and Chalukya dynasties, the Ajanta caves are not only the oldest but also boast of an art form not found in other caves - Paintings. The technique and process used to produce this kind of artwork is unlike any other artwork found in the art history of other civilizations, including within the history of South Asian art. Various natural substances were used to create colours and the place is world famous for "Ajanta type" paintings - vivacious figures of men and woman with elongated eyes, adornment and the history of the bodhisattvas and the avatars of Buddha. 
Ajanta Cave 2: Epiphany of Buddha - The wheel of Dharma.
     The central themes on the walls are either about Buddha's life or the Jataka tales - tales about the previous births of the Buddha where he was a Bodhisattva (either in the form of a human or animal) in search of enlightenment. The Jatakas are portrayed across all Buddhist monuments and I’ll cover a few of these in further detail in one of my next blogs on Sanchi.

The Mahayana caves:

Cave 1:
    One of the most famous paintings of Ajanta is the image of the serene looking Bodhisattva Padmapani and his attractive dark wife to his right, amidst a scene of festivities. On the right there is an image of Buddha in hundred different attitudes. The Jataka tale of King Sibi protecting a pigeon from a hawk also finds prominence.

Cave 2:
    There is a panel depicting the birth of Buddha and the prediction that the boy born would either become the greatest ascetic Buddha or the Monarch of Monarchs. Legend has it that Buddha cleared up the confusion when he was born by proclaiming that he would attain the highest release and cross the ocean of existence. Robust pillars ornamented with designs support the cave and the ceilings of the caves contain paintings of ornamental flowers.
Buddha with various postures and emotions
Cave 6:
    This is the only two two-storeyed structure in Ajanta, unlike Ellora where there are a few three-storeyed structures.

Cave 16:
    This is one of the most imposing caves.  Though very few paintings inside have survived, a few masterpieces have withstood the ravages of time. The famous painting of the "The dying princess" depicts Sundari; the heart broken wife of Buddha's cousin Nanda who gave up his royal lifestyle to became an ascetic. The picture depicts the princess' pain and anguish at seeing her husband one last time.
Ajanta Cave 16: Dying Princess
Cave 17:
    This temple has the largest number of paintings in good conditions. The theme of self-sacrifice is prominent among the Jataka tales painted in this cave. One famous Jataka tale called the Matropaksha Jataka tells the story of a Bodhisattva born as a six tusked white elephant that is attacked by warriors commissioned by the queen of Banaras. The Elephant-Bodhisattva removes his own tusks to present them to the queen.
Ajanta Cave 17: Matropaksha Jataka
Cave 26:
    This is a Chaitya hall with a colossal reclining Buddha figure. The wall also depicts Gautama's final test before becoming Buddha - one where evil Mara sends his own daughters to seduce the great ascetic and break his penance. Buddha of course does not give in to temptation and touches the ground bidding mother earth to bear witness to his enlightenment.
Ajanta Cave 26: Reclining Buddha
    At the end of the 7th century Buddhism began to decline in the land of its origin and the Ajanta caves were abandoned and later forgotten. For more than thousand years, the caves lay buried under the forest canopy until 1819 when Sir John Smith of the East India Company did something every archaeologist dreams of. While out hunting tigers in the region, he re-discovered a lost city - the awe inspiring caves of Ajanta. A long time ago, sacred chants of monks reverberated across these caves. Those artist-monks are long gone but etched in the walls of these consecrated caves, their stories live on.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora - Part 1

    There is a deep and appealing notion in Hinduism that the Universe is indeed the dream of the Gods. Our ancient history shows that at times religious ideas are transcended by art. The sculptures and paintings of Ellora and Ajanta are an expression of the ideal that men may not be the dreams of the Gods but rather that the Gods are the dream of men.

     Ajay just wanted to get out of town every weekend. In an attempt to make his plan more concrete, he hit upon the idea of visiting all the UNESCO world heritage sites in India in the current calendar year and invited a few of his friends to take part in the challenge. There are 28 world heritage sites in India. The sites cut across religions, time-periods and dynasties - temples, mausoleums, churches and forts, a few caves that were excavated Before Christ, a few national parks including the man-eater tiger infested Sundarbans, one railway station (CST), another a rail network. Also they are spread across the country from the Qutb Minar in the North to the great Chola Temples of the South, from the Kaziranga National Park in the East to the Elephanta caves in the West.

    So we definitely have our tasks cut out for us if all these sites are to be visited in one calendar year. The marathon season ended with the Auroville marathon on Feb 13th; so when Ajay invited me to this, I was more than looking forward to a new challenge. Just to make things a bit more formal, Ajay set up a web-site to track activities of participants and remind them frequently that they have plenty more places to visit - here. 

Bibi Ka Maqbara: 
    Ajay and I decided to visit the famous Ajanta-Ellora rock caves during the weekend after the Auroville Marathon. Such impulsive travel is difficult in India because it's not easy to get train tickets at the last moment. But Tatkal and a 10 Mbps internet connection made this trip possible. We reached Aurangabad at 8.30 am, had a quick breakfast in a nearby hotel and then took an auto to Bibi ka Maqbara (meaning wife's mausoleum), around 7 kms from the railway station.
Bibi Ka Maqbara, Aurangabad
      This structure was constructed between 1651 and 1661 A.D. by Prince Azam Shah, son of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, in memory of his mother Rabia-Ul-Durrani. Not sure how he managed to do this since the wikipedia says that he was born only in 1653. The kid was all of 7 years old when this mausoleum was completed (in 1660) making him India's very own Bob the Builder... The Maqbara is a poor imitation of the Taj mahal, perhaps indicative that the prince just wanted to build a mausoleum better than his grandfather Shanjahan but ran into financial difficulties midway. It is part marble and part plaster and the interior decorations are nothing when compared to the Taj Mahal; but the place has its own grace and charm. Unfortunately, the ASI (Archeological Survey of India) is 'scientifically' rebuilding parts of the structure using cement making it look like one of those partially constructed residential complexes you find in big cities these days. 
Daulatabad Fort:
    We then hopped onto a jeep to go to the Daulatabad Fort- a pyramidal fort that's about 600 feet tall and around 15 kms from Aurangabad. The place had its moment under the sun when Muhammad Tughlak ordered his capital to be shifted here in 1338 A.D. I wonder what Tughlak saw in this dusty little town to shift his capital here and what he disliked in this place to transplant the entire population back to Delhi. Needless to say, the arduous to-and-fro journey killed thousands en-route. The climb uphill was tough and we were definitely not aided by the steep and narrow steps built to confuse invaders, stinking dark tunnels full of bats and a scorching sun that showed us little mercy.
Ramparts of the Daulatabad Fort
Plenty of howitzers and bronze cannons at Daulatabad Fort
      If you wish to study the various types of cannons used by the Mughals in war, this would be the ideal place to start off. We found large to heavy guns to medium howitzers, most made of iron and a few of bronze. We reached the top to find a bastion with a large bronze cannon and plenty of school children perched upon it encouraging their class mates below to click pictures. Attention seeking langurs were patiently waiting for handouts, scrambling and fighting when one of the kids threw down a banana. We rested for a few mins at the top, got down what was once the most powerful fort in India and again took a jeep to Ellora, around 13 kms from the fort (28 kms from Aurangabad).
    By the time reached Ellora, I felt exhausted and had no idea if I had energy left to cover Ellora that day. Somehow I had always imagined that I was tougher than most people, being a runner and all. So it was a bit of a reality check that maybe I had overreached myself during the running season. The only reason I managed to walk miles in Ellora was because of a short nap at the hotel after lunch. I still don't know what Ajay what doing when I indulged in that cat nap. A word of caution - the Ajanta Caves are closed on Monday and Ellora Caves are closed on Tuesday, so plan accordingly.
The majestic Kailashanatha Temple in Ellora
     The caves of Ellora are a product three religious systems – Buddhism, Brahmanism and Jainism and each one of them brought in its own individual style in architecture. Ellora has around 34 rock cut caves, the first twelve Buddhist, the next sixteen Brahmanical and the last four Jain. All the caves have been excavated out of the vertical face of the Charanandri hills.

The Buddhist Caves:
    The Buddhist caves are the earliest (500-700A.D.) and the caves are either Viharas (dwelling place for wandering monks) or Chaitya(Prayer) Halls. Cave 2 has an interesting sculpture of Buddha on an iron throne; perhaps he was king as well as an ascetic. A sculpture of Saraswati – the Hindu goddess of learning adorns cave 6. Cave 12 is a three storey structure hewn out of rock! The simple facade outside does not betray the rich sculptures of Buddhist Gods and Godesses inside. Cave 10 is a proper Chaitya Hall and has a sculpture of Buddha in stupa along with attendants. The ceiling has been carved to give the impression of wooden beams. 
Buddha sitting on throne at the Buddhist 'Carpenter' cave.
Carpenter Cave - Long shot
Cave No. 10 - Teen Taal,  3-storeyed structure hewn out of rock
     The art forms are so similar to later Hindu sculptures and designs that there must have been very little trouble naming Buddha as one of the Hindu Gods leading to the virtual extinction of Buddhism in the land of its birth. That the Buddhist caves remain is testimony to the fact that the war was fought in the debating halls rather than in the battlefield.

The Brahmanical Caves:
    A smile, a word of thanks and joy in the eyes of the beholder is perhaps the vindication of an artist’s genius, dedication and years of hard work. The symmetry, precision and grace of sculptures hewn out of rock mean that generations of sculptors spent their entire lives in the confines of these caves. What was their motivation? I always wondered what the Rashtrakuta kings of the yore bestowed to the Picasos and the Ravi Vermas of their age. Anyways that era is clearly a sharp contrast to present day IT industry where you are termed a failure if you stick to the same job for more than two years.

    The Brahmanical caves, excavated between the seventh and ninth centuries are glimpses of an era when Buddhism was on its wane and Hinduism on a resurgent second coming. Lord Shiva and the Dash Avatars of Vishu replace Buddha and the Bodhisattvas. Most of the Rashtrakuta temples in history are based on the same motif – the richness of Hindu Mythology. Frescos and scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata adorn the walls and the temples are as a rule multi-layered. The bottom layer is made generally carved with elephants indicating the strength of the Rashtrakuta Empire. Amorous couples in various states of undress adorn the upper layers hinting that perhaps our present-day Victorian-based society is a legacy of 400 years of British rule.
Kailashanatha Temple - Shiva Dancing.
      Cave No 16 or the Kailashanatha Temple is the unrivalled masterpiece of Ellora. This muti-storeyed temple that would cover two-thirds of a football field is hewn out of a single monolith and is meant to mimic the appearance of Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. The temple resembles other south Indian temples built by Rashtrakuta rulers based on the Dravidian style architecture like Pattadakal or Halebid. The temple is richly carved with pilasters, windows and niches and various master pieces of Hindu Mythology adorn the walls of this temple. Sculptures of the Natya(Dancing) Shiva and a scene depicting the wedding of Shiva and Parvathi and another depicting Ravana trying to lift Mount Kailasha are a few of the highlights.
Ajay and me at the entrance of the Kailashanatha
Kailashanatha Temple - Ravana lifting Kailasha
     The other Brahminical caves contain very little note-worthy when compared to the great Kailashanatha temple. Sculptures of Brahma (a rare sight in Hindu Temples), Indra lording over the heavens, Goddess Durga killing the buffalo demon and Varaha Avatar of Vishnu are a few notable sculptures in the other caves.
Cave 16 - Durga killing demon.
  The Jain Caves:
    The four Jain caves were excavated between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Cave 32 is a two-storeyed cave that is a smaller version of the Kailashanatha Temple and called the Indra Sabha. There are figures of Mahavira and other Tirthankaras of Jain religions lore. The statue of God Parshvanath being guarded by the Serpent King is an example of a historical personage elevated to the status of God.
Jain cave no 34 - Mythical creature or aggressive fat lion?
     At 6 pm the ASI guards began shouting out and loudly blowing whistles to clear the caves of persistent visitors like me who were intent on not missing out even a single sculpture. Ajay and I took a jeep to Aurangabad and the driver filled in around 15 people into a 9 seator vehicle and insisted on us paying him in advance. He must have worked as Mumbai local train driver before taking up this job, I thought. We were least surprised when he managed to squeeze in a few more people into the back seat on the way. We were done for the day; it was time to rest our tired bodies and sated minds in Aurangabad. The Gods of Ajanta would have to wait for another day.