Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Trip Part 2: Ajanta and Ellora

In order to reach the small town of Ajanta, we got off the train at Jalgaon junction, and hopped a bus (again with the cramming) that took us there. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Buddhist caves for which the town is known.

The caves, a World Heritage Site, are 29 individual excavations cut from a rock face that wraps around a ravine. They date from around 200 BC to AD 650, around which time they were abandoned until rediscovered in the mid-19th century.

Each of the caves is lined with elaborately painted wall murals depicting scenes from the Buddha's life. It was easy to see why they are widely considered masterpieces of Buddhist art.

Because the caves were hidden to the world for so long, the frescoes are extremely well preserved, though somewhat dulled and crumbled.

Most of the caves also had sculptures of deities and animals, as well as stupas and oversized sculptures of the Buddha.

The Ajanta caves were established at the height of Buddhist influence around the area. They served as a place where monks could go for worship and congregation, and the sanctuary-like layouts reflected that.

After the site closed for the day, Matt and I found ourselves without a means of transport to our next stop, 3 hours away. We waited by the side of the road for the state bus, not quite knowing if or when it would arrive, until a jeep pulled up and asked us if we needed a ride. Considering the possibility that we might have to wait another hour for the bus, and that the jeep would be the faster mode of transport, we shrugged and packed ourselves in the back with a number of cave staffers.

Twenty minutes into the ride, our jeep started sputtering madly, emitting toxic fumes, and then promptly died. So much for that. The jeep driver hailed down a large private tour bus, and after exchanging some Hindi words, motioned for us to board.

The passengers in the tour bus turned out to be orthodox Muslims who all seemed intensely displeased that Matt and I had infiltrated their ranks. I promptly fell asleep, but Matt later told me that the attitude toward us in the bus seemed so hostile that he was kept on edge the entire way, afraid that we'd be kicked out or worse. We were happy to finally reach our hotel.

The next morning started early. The caves at Ellora, the sister site of Ajanta, were a spectacle to behold. After Buddhists abandoned the Ajanta caves, they set themselves up at Ellora. Hinduism took over when Buddhism began to wane, and even Jains had a voice later on. Spanning the years 600 to 1000 AD, Ellora's 34 caves depict all three religions.

Repeated depictions of Bhudda.

You can tell that this is Hindu from the cow figure.

There were a handful of caves that looked like the one below -- several stories high, with stairways and alcoves running up the sides, and a spacious interior with wall carvings and backrooms. These I found striking in how modern they looked, with the stick-straight columns.

The unmistakable highlight of the Ellora sight was the stunning Kailash Temple. It is impossible to describe the effect of seeing a three-story tall monolith carved top-to-bottom entirely out of the surrounding rock.

The temple took 200 years to complete, not at all surprising given its size, level of artistry, and the detailed sculptures that adorn almost every inch of space.

A terrace on the backside of the temple.

I was impressed enough from viewing the outside, but my jaw dropped when I explored the inside. It was spacious, with smooth walls and floors, columns, separate rooms and alcoves to house icons, plus sculptural depictions of gods and animals.

For the rest of the day, I couldn't get over the level of will, religious fervor, technical prowess, and sheer manpower so apparent in the construction of such a structure. When did people stop dedicating such time and artistic effort into constructions, and why? Our modern appreciation of buildings is increasingly on a macro scale. I'm nostalgic for the time when architecture was in the details.

I could have easily spent hours more at the Ellora caves, but we had to meet our taxi to Jalgaon junction, where we hopped our (luxurious 2AC class) train towards the next stop of Varanasi.

Aside: So far on the trip, I'd discovered how tremendously difficult it is to photograph architecture in a way that is dynamic and captures the scope of the structure. My photos may be lackluster now, but this is an area in which I'm trying to improve.

To be continued...


Manish said...

don't worry your pictures are good and moreover your information is too good and informative.

Ellora caves said...

Nice pics. Ellora Caves, an extraordinary compound of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain cave. Temples and ancient monument must visit. In total there are 34 caves out of them 12 are Buddhist caves, 17 are Hindu caves and 5 are Jain caves. Cave 32 is a small version of the Kailash Temple.