Friday, February 29, 2008

Day 14 (Feb 24). Ajanta - We have seen wondrous things!

Days 14 and 15 have been, without doubt, the highlight of our trip in that they took us to two of the wonders of the ancient world: The cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora.

For DJ and the rest of the history buffs let me sketch an uninformed timeline of the development of religious thought in India. First, Hinduism and Jainism are really, really old, easily going back to 1000 BC. Around 550 BC Siddhartha Gautama is born within the Brahmin caste (i.e., a devout Hindu), achieves enlightenment as Buddah, and Buddhism blossoms in India (very popular but not quite overwhelming Hinduism) until about 500 AD. During this time Buddhism spread through Asia, but by 700 AD had lost "popularity" in India and now is the religion of less than 5% of the population. Around 300 BC Jainism is formally formulated (in my humble opinion with much influence from Buddhism) but remains a minor religion until it reaches its renaissance around 700 AD (now accounting for maybe 15% of the population). Around 500 AD Hinduism redefines itself in the course of some sort of Ecumenical Council, experiences its own renaissance, and since then regains its position as the dominant religion of India (50% of modern Indians). Finally, Islam comes into India sometime around 1400 AD, and remains the religion of nearly 30% of modern India. If you can keep all this straight you have a much better brain than me, but for the purposes of this tale the sequence is ancient Hinduism and Jainism > Buddhism > Hinduism renaissance > Jainism renaissance > Islam.

Ajanta is a site developed by excavating monastic complexes and temples into one of the thick basaltic lava flows of the Deccan Traps, at a place where the Waghora river forms a broad entrenched meander. The "caves" are about 100 m above the level of the river, and are reached through a path that hugs the face of the cliff. They were built in two stages, one between 100 BC and 100 AD (Buddhism), and the other between 450 and 550 AD (still Buddhism), after which they were quite suddenly abandoned. Vegetation eventually covered them, and they remained forgotten until they were rediscovered in 1819.

These caves, together with their sister complex in Ellora (described tomorrow) are not only a monument to the faith that has accompanied the Indian people since Buddah reached enlightment around 500 BC (and in that sense are one of the world’s most impressive sanctuaries), but are the most remarkable record of the history of sacred painting, sculpture, and architecture. Karrie and Jessica, you would absolutely love them!

We entered this history through one of the first stage Buddhist temples. You will have to forgive the very poor photograph, but I hope it will give you a feeling for the atmosphere of the place. Buddah, in the background, is accompanied by lively tableaux, which depict different incarnations and passages of his life. The sculptures are exquisite, and awe the visitor by their kaleidoscope of movement and emotions.

Accompanying the solemn architecture and sculptures are richly colored murals that in some amazing way have survived the ravages of two millennia of weathering and oblivion. I was thunderstruck. Karrie told me that in the art world there is a controversy as to whether an author should try to explain what was meant by a certain piece, or should let the art tell its own story as a powerful language of its own. The murals of Ajanta certainly tell their own story in the varied expressions of their characters, as well as in the complex arrangements of groups. To me, as a storyteller, they were colorful expressions of the way I like to weave stories, with one small event creating a completely new line of thought, in the way fog rises in volutes to create an ever changing landscape. I could have stayed there for hours seeing these stories unfold.

The culminating point is the last cave, where a veritable cathedral was carved out of the hard basaltic lava, to recreate the peace that Buddah achieved as he reached Nirvana. Alas, no paintings have survived in this cave, but in a tour de force the artists achieved the same storytelling effect through sculpture.

I am afraid that words do not make justice to Ajanta, but I hope the photographs give you a little taste of this masterpiece of antiquity.

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