Friday, February 29, 2008

Day 15. Ellora – The wonders continue

Ellora is another set of "caves" that extend the history started at Ajanta from 500 AD to 1000 AD. This is a crucial period in the transition from Buddhism to the renaissance of Hinduism, and the later renaissance of Jainism. So, the caves form three distinct groupings. The older Buddhist caves are not as well preserved as those in Ajanta, and thus not as impressive, but they reach larger scale. For example, in Cave 12 a three-story monastery was carved out of the stone, and the large temple on the top floor cannot but excite your imagination in thinking on the power that must have gathered when several dozen monks met to meditate among volutes of incense and the humming of drums and trumpets.
(The "caves" of Elephanta, described on Day 17, would fit here in the historical sequence. They retain the large scale of late Buddhist architecture and sculpture, but are already a part of the Hinduism renaissance).

The jewel of Ellora is the 8th century Dasavatara cave (Cave 15), where an enormous Hindu temple was carved out of the stone. The temple is an excuse for artists to weave a symphony around the rich Hindu mythology, with its 330 million of gods and goddesses. I am pretty sure no one has ever counted them, but it sounds like a good number, and indeed meandering through the halls of the Dasavatara temple one can easily get lost in the many stories that the murals develop. The peculiar thing is that these stories change as you look at them from different angles and perspectives, sculpture and architecture blending with each other in a magical way.

The last group of caves were carved by Jain monks in the 9th and 10th centuries, and to my untrained eye they seemed to be a regression to a more austere Buddhist style. The difference lies in that Jainism does not venerate the many gods and godesses of Hinduism, nor the central figure of the elightened Buddah. Rather, Jainism venerates the lives of several teachers or prophets, who reached different levels of enlightment. These teachers have given an example of life based on the respect to all beings, so the Jains are extreme vegetarians who fear even crushing the worms in the soil (so they don't eat tubers like potatoes, onions, or carrots) or the small insects that fly in the air or swim in the water).

Overall, I am in awe. It is not everyday that one gets to see a thousand years of history through the eyes of devout and gifted artists!

Note: In the previous narratives I wanted to concentrate on Ajanta and Ellora, so I took the liberty of leaving out some of the other things we saw. Here is a sampler:

On Day 14 we woke up early in the morning to go to the Caves of Ajanta, about 100 km from Aurangabad. The road traversed one of the richest agricultural regions of India, and it was a delight to the soul to see field after field of wheat, onions, corn, and various vegetables, made possible by small irrigation projects (mostly groundwater). There is a general sense of well-being and happiness around us, although small camps of migrant farm workers are a reminder that this bounty has only come to be through hard work.

The geologists in the group were also enchanted by the fact that our travel took us through the Deccan Traps, a province of flood basalts that formed about 65 million years ago, when India separated from South Africa and Antarctica to start the long plate tectonics path that would eventually cause it to weld unto the Asian plate.

On day 15 we departed for the 30 km trip to Ellora, but before getting there we stopped at the Fort of Daulatabad, which from 1300 to 1600 AD was the impregnable bastion of the Deccan Sultanate, and a major thorn on the side of the invading Musilms of Northern India. It is a medieval fortress with impressive bastions, walls, moats, laberynths, and unscalable cliffs, where time and again attacking armies were frustrated. For us it was a hot and exhausting climb, but the views were breath-taking.

After visiting Ellora we came back home, and I invited everyone to the movies to see a newly released Indian film about the Muslim emperor Akbar (about 1500 AD) and his legendary wife Jodhaa Akbar. This film has caused tremendous controversy in the state of Rajhastan, because some argue that Jodhaa was married not to Akbar but to his son (the film makes the disclaimer, however, that Akbar's wife is given different names by different historians, and that in choosing Jodhaa they are but presenting one of the possible unfoldings of the story). We decided to make a night out of it, and would have gone in a limousine had there been one available. Instead I hired three Chug-Chug's to bring us to the movie theater. We were treated like visiting royalty by the people there, because tourist never take the time to do anything but sightseeing. Besides, the movie is in Hindi, so the chances of having some foreigners come to see it was close to nil. It was a fantastic epic, with elephant battles and fabulous views of palaces (some of which we had actually visited). Of course everything was full of color and grandeur, in the best Bollywood fashion, so it easily transported us to the middle ages in India. The acting was superb, and we all followed the story in Hindi without missing a beat.

The only problem was that the film was 4 hours long! So, with much regret we decided to bail out at intermission, before the story turned for the better into a chick flick with much dancing and kissing. Oh well, it is juust an excuse for us to try to get it in DVD and organize Sultan Night with some of you back at home. The night ended with a nice stroll to a local restaurant, a delicious dinner, and a drive through Aurangabad at night under the friendly direction of our impeccable Chug-Chug drivers. Fun!

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