Reflecting on What I Have Learned

After leaving India, I knew I had learned a lot about Indian art — that was the goal of the class after all. I wondered, however, how much I had actually retained about India itself. I wondered about how much I had come to understand the culture, the people, the food, the languages, the geography, etc in just nine days. Nine days is not very long, as I realized boarding the plane to leave. For every question answered in those nine days, I gained two more than remained unanswered. In such a religiously diverse, socially unique, and geographically broad country, there was so much left to learn.

I sought to answer some of my questions and learn more about India, so I switched my Core Communities and Identities class to Core India once I returned home. Last night I finished the first reading from the class from the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata and began to uncover how much I had truly observed, learned, and retained while traveling in India. So much of the texts resonated with the customs and Indian history that I had learned while in India and in our class. I was able to understand the usage of the word boon, understand the way time is considered cyclical in the text, and understand how the religious nature of the text relates to some of the art we viewed. As I observed the rest of the students in the class begin to wrap their minds around these understandings, it became clear all that I had retained. I really do know quite a bit about India from our trip. While I trip was quick, it was also completely immersive. I learned a TON and it has already made me a better student and a more informed person. Our trip to India was truly amazing and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity. I’m hopeful that someday I will be back and visit the incredible streets of Mumbai and the beautiful landscape of Aurangabad.


The beautiful busy streets of Mumbai. My favorite image captured from the trip.

Pitalkhora Caves: Monasticism and Landscape

Much like other students said in their blog posts, one of the most striking aspects of our trip to India was how much more there was to learn from being physically present at the various monuments compared to reading about them. I was most struck by this at Pitalkhora. Set into the rolling hills of Aurangabad, Pitalkhora seems to illustrate the monastic ideal perfectly. It is easy to picture the hills covered in green flora during the rainy season and to imagine the caves as active sites of worship. Being physically present at the caves at Pitalkhora helped me better understand the message that Pia Brancaccio described in her text the connections between religion, commerce, and agriculture in her text “Buddhist Caves of the Deccan: Art, Religion and Long-Distance Exchange in the 5th and 6th Centuries.” Looking out from the deep-set caves of Pitalkhora I felt the connection to the natural landscape that she describes. Upon viewing the beds and benches of the caves, I can see how clergy residing in those caves were closely tied to use the natural landscape, using it for for irrigation and agriculture. In fact, given how isolated the caves were, domesticating the surrounding landscape was surely necessary. Finally, the ornately painted and well preserved pillars inside the cave gave color to Pia Brancaccio’s words. The lush garden was not in contrast with the stone-carved caves, but rather in harmony. Both the landscape and the caves were magnificent in their own way, coexisting together with the monks to connect the two. While Brancaccio laid the groundwork for my understanding of monastic connection to local landscape, my visit to Pitalkhora solidified it. This was surely my favorite single site visit of the whole trip.

The Caves of Pitalkhora looking out onto the hilly landscape.
Ornately painted pillars o the Pitalkhora caves.

Brancaccio, Pia. “Buddhist Caves of the Deccan: Art, Religion and Long-Distance Exchange in the 5th and 6th Centuries.” In Living Rock: Buddhist, Hindu and Jain Cave Temples in the Western Deccan, edited by Pia Brancaccio, 93-107. Mumbai, India: Marg Quarterly Publications, 2013.

Ajanta Caves

My presentation at the Ajanta caves focused in on themes of monastic asceticism compared to worldly luxury at the caves. The research that informed this presentation focused in on the way the caves were important features in trade routes, how monks became integrated with local societies, and the somewhat paradoxical way kings patronized ascetic sites of worship with lots of money. All these features were made very present in my research. However, upon arriving at the site, the caves presented far less explicit explanations of this history than did words on a page. The copious amount of information that I uncovered through my readings took a great deal of effort to form. The caves taken in isolation show none of these answers. In order to see the themes at play, one must dig deep into the geography, reliefs, and local history of the caves. As a result of visiting the caves and realizing this, I gained a new appreciation for the deep research and time that went into the scholarly accounts of such caves.

For more information about the above three identified features of the Ajanta caves, the following sources are very helpful:

Geographic trade route relations:
Chakrabarti, Dilip K. “Buddhist Sites across South Asia as Influenced by Political and Economic
Forces.” World Archaeology 27, no. 2 (1995): 185-202.

Monastic integration to society:
Strenski, Ivan. “On Generalized Exchange and the Domestication of the Sangha.” Man, New Series, 18, no. 3 (1983): 463-77.

Patronage for religious merit:
Spink, Walter M. “The Caves at Ajanta.” Archaeology 45, no. 6 (1992): 52-60.

The Unknown is Confusing… and VERY Exciting.

Sometimes it is difficult to get excited about things before they happen, especially if I am not sure of what to expect. That is a bit how I feel about India. Don’t get me wrong — I am, in fact, excited. However, for all that I learned in class, there is so much more left unknown. The cave, temple, and stupa monuments that we studied are only a TINY portion of Mumbai and Aurangabad, and a far smaller portion of the entire country. So, with so many questions unanswered, so much exploring to be done, and so many experiences remaining to enjoy, the question of about what I exactly I should be excited remains unanswered.

What I am excited about is putting an answer to some of the questions and filling in the blanks in my understanding of India. Amidst the many isolated and stagnant monuments that we studied in class is a dynamic and unique Indian culture to which I am entirely foreign. I cannot wait to feel the culture that we have been studying for the entire semester. I have a good feeling that I will be most excited once this feeling begins and want to explore as much as possible.

So now, nearly exactly 24 hours before arriving at the airport, it is time for me to start packing. See everyone soon!