Friday, December 18, 2009

Pt. 6: In Which I Learn That There Is In Fact A Light At The End Of The Tunnel.

There has been much said and done, and very little reported. Sorry, it’s the same old problem. We’ve taken several trips around southern India, namely, to see the amazing carved temples of Ellora and Ajanta in Aurangabad, in the state of Maharashtra, and also to the east coast, ostensibly to attend the Fulbright Fall Conference in Pondicherry, but with stops at the pilgrimage temple of Tirapati, to see the shore temple and other carvings of Mahabalipuram, and a brief stopover in the megacity of Chennai. School has continued apace, and I’ve just finished marking half-yearly bundles (grading midterm exams). It fulfills one of the last large requirements of my work here, so for the next 2 weeks or so I get to kind of cruise through some curriculum just, as they say, for kicks and giggles.

What you should know about these highlights: In Ellora and Ajanta, people used to carve temples out of the igneous rock cliffs. Now I know that people have been cutting and carving and piling stones on top of each other in the name of god for thousands of years, but there’s just nothing quite like seeing it carved by hand out of the “living rock” (as they put it in Spinal Tap). These temples range from 10 to 40 meters deep, from 5 to 20 meters wide, and from 3 to 10 meters high. In Elora we found Temple 16, dedicated as all of the Hindu temples there are to Shiva, the Kailashnath temple, which is the masterpiece of the site. Here they dug one “trench” into the solid rock bed 20 meters straight down into the rock with sides of 40 meters. With the block in the middle created by this trench the carved out a 6-story temple, complete with larger than life full relief statues of the gods, demons and mythical beasts du jour. There are large galleries, stairways, porticos, windows, balconies, and terraces. Into the outside of the trench they carved a continuous columned portico that runs almost 150 meters and every meter is another larger-than-life full relief depiction of a god in battle pose. Their every action, gesture and expression is vividly portrayed with a vitality that makes you think they were caught by some cosmic freeze ray in mid combat thrust. We wandered Temple 16 for over an hour, and even though there were many other visitors there as well, I don’t remember hearing the sound of people. Mostly they walked with their mouths agape, staring dumbly. If this does not suitable impress you, then I guess you just had to be there. There are 34 different temples cut into the cliffs of Ellora over about a 4km stretch. I think we made it to 9 or 10 over about 4 hours.

Much older, more remote, and IMHO more impressive, compacted as they are along a single 1 km bend in the Waghora River, the Ajanta, 28 Buddhist temples rule this stretch of cliff. You’d think they might’ve paused after completing the first few of temples and maybe say, “well, that’s a suitable tribute to man,” but apparently not. It turns out that these temples were thriving communities, hosting thousands of artist-monks who lived in antechambers lining each temple gallery. And while the enormous stupa and 5-meter statues of the Buddha that dominate each temple (usually in a separate chamber at the back) are a highlight, it’s the remains of the intricately painted interior walls which held our gaze. Blessed are the forces of preservation at Ajanta. Visitors are kept back away from the walls, the lighting is muted, and guards limit the number of viewers at any one time. The result is that entering one of these temple caves we were enveloped in semi-darkness and quiet, much the way their creators would have experienced them.

Never mind that our visit to Ajanta was bookended by about the heaviest downpour of rain we’ve witnessed here. We waited out the opening salvo at the first temple and took the opportunity to enjoy a picnic lunch on the ancient portico, much to the bemusement of the Indian tourists around us. Then at the end of our visit, at the bus shelter by the Visitor Center and Craft Market, a highly motivated shopkeeper found us waiting out the shower, disappeared for 5 minutes before returning with a pair of umbrellas. All we had to do was accompany him back to his shop. Seemed fair enough to us. And $38 later, we were on our way back to Aurangabad’s citrus-fresh Lemon Tree Hotel.