If you ever get the chance to travel to India, one of the first things you will observe is that religion is everywhere. Temples to the various Hindu gods dot the streets. People have statues of their favorite god on the dashboards of their cars. Men and women paint a tilak on their foreheads to signify that they have prayed (at least that's what they tell me), and pujas (prayers) are said on all significant occasions to gain the favor of the gods. Religion is everywhere and it is a beautiful thing, both philosophically and aesthetically. You haven't seen colorful until you've seen the inside of a Hindu temple.
The religions aspect of Indian life has long been fascinating to me, so when I began planning our time here I was very aware of trying to find sites of religious significance. My research took me to the state of Maharashtra's tourism website where I read about several complexes of caves carved out of mountains by monks of various faiths. The city of Aurangabad seemed to be the perfect base camp, so we booked a flight from Delhi and headed south.
Nothing could have prepared me for the three cave complexes we visited, the Aurangabad, Ellora and Ajanta caves. Three religions are represented at the caves. Aurangabad and Ajanta house only Buddhist works, but Ellora contains Jain, Buddhist and Hindu temples and monasteries. Simply put, they were breathtaking. The photos I'm about to share can't possibly do them justice.
As you look at these photos, keep in mind that the caves were carved around 200 to 400 after the birth of Christ, with simple hand tools. They were meant to be places of worship and retreat for monks and pilgrims seeking a closeness to god. What kind of devotion was necessary for these artists to look at a mountainside and decide to begin carving?
Sculpture of the Bodhisattva Tara.
If you ever want to feel like a rock star, come to India and go to a rural area. They don't see many white people there and they will want to take about a million pictures with you. Oh, and just look at those colors! Why are the clothes we wear so drab?
Why are statues of the Buddha so lovely and serene? Even this one with most of his limbs fallen off is stunning. I probably took about a thousand photos of Bhudda statues throughout the three cave complexes, but this is the first.
The first "cave" we saw--a true sight to behold--the Chhota Kailash temple, a monolithic temple with a surrounding monastery. I have to admit, I'm having a hard time resisting the urge to do some sort of filter over this to give it a really dreamlike quality. You may not see it as it really is, but you'll know how I think of it. Simply beautiful.
A painting from inside the temple. How beautiful! Unfortunately, I don't know who this is. I don't know much about Jainism, but I'm guessing he's on the the tirthankars.
Kailasantha Temple. This is the largest monolithic building in the world. The temple was carved from the top of the mountain down over a period of 100 years to imitate Mt Kailas, the mountain home of the gods. Much of the art in the colonnade surrounding the temple focuses on the god Shiva and his wife, Parvati. Around the outside of the temple is the story of Rama's exile from his kingdom, the kidnapping of his wife, Sita, by Ravanna the ten-headed demon. Rama's triumphant return is celebrated every year during the Diwali festival (whose celebration I'm hearing outside my window as I type). The stories depicted on the wall are recounted in the Hindu scripture, the Ramayana. I've learned a lot about this while I've been here. Diwali is as big a celebration as Christmas is for us, and in many ways the celebration of Diwali echoes the celebration of Christmas. . .with some Independence Day mixed in. We're going out later to have our own fireworks show at the home of Pankaj Misra, our friend here in India.
Oh, one last thing, to give a little perspective. This temple is twice as big as the Parthenon in Athens.
This is the Tin Tal monastery (which I think denotes that it has 3 stories), a Buddhist monastery at Ellora. It is incredible and very highly ornamented as far as Buddhist monasteries go. It has some of the most beautiful statues.
There was a lot that we didn't get to see when we went to Ellora. We'd hired a guide and he only showed us the highlights. Now that I look back I wish I'd seen more, but what I did see was stunning. (Hiring the guide, by the way, was totally worth it. We saw much more in the caves that we did enter than we would have alone.) Here's one more shot of Ellora before we bid that place goodbye.
The Ajanta Caves were the final cave complex that we visited. While Ellora is well known for it's carvings, Ajanta is known for it's cave paintings. They were breathtakingly beautiful. Archaeologists believe that the Ajanta caves were abandoned and then forgotten by 480 AD. The caves were rediscovered by a British hunter in 1819. Over 1300 years of neglect by humans can account for their amazing preservation.
Now, are you ready? I'm going to show you a bunch of my favorite paintings.
Of course, the caves had amazing carvings as well, but none of them were as beautiful as the lying Buddha.
Here is a close-up of his face.
Here are a few pictures of the outside of Ajanta.