Thoughts on India

When people ask me about my trip to India, I don’t feel like I can really tell them what it was like to be there. They’ll ask me what my favorite part was, or what the food was like, or how it was different than other places I’ve traveled to. But I always find it difficult to express in words what it really felt like to be in India. I think it’s an experience that you can’t really know until you’ve had it yourself. Nevertheless, there are things I want to tell people about my trip. I want them to know that it wasn’t the sites or the food that will stay with me the longest – although the caves and the curry were all amazing – but rather the differences I observed between the lifestyle in India and the lifestyle I am familiar with. Overall the pace of life in India felt slower; it felt like people were enjoying their time with others or alone, going about their daily lives. Even in Mumbai I observed people walking down the street, often talking to people. I rarely saw phones; instead I saw people interacting with each other and the space around them. Seeing this made me think about what it would be like to live without a constant agenda – without having to always be rushing off to the next activity, checking items off a to-do list, or doing things just for the sake of being busy. From what I observed in India, it must be pretty nice. The people there may not have as much material stuff as we do here, but I think their lives have just as much meaning as ours do. If anything, our trip to India got me thinking about what really matters – maybe it’s not cramming as much as possible in 24 hours, but rather choosing what’s important and remembering to stop and look around once in a while. Our ten days in India were short but packed full of amazing experiences. I can’t wait to go back.

The Caves at Pitalkhora

After visiting Ajanta, Ellora, and Elephanta, where there were crowds of other visitors and modern buildings nearby, the stillness and solitude of Pitalkhora was refreshing. I was most intrigued by these caves because they provided a departure from the other monumental palace-like cave temples we visited. Originally they were most likely similar to the grandiose temples at other sites, with high arches and large sculpted elephants. But because we saw Pitalkhora at a moment during its decay, what we saw did not represent what it once was. It was interesting for me to see Pitalkhora in this state of decay because it reminded me that all these caves are made of living rock that will not stay around forever. But even as they begin to crumble they still provide a striking sight and a meaningful experience.

Mahabharata and Ramayana at Ellora

My research focused on themes among various depictions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. I compared the friezes of these two epics at the Kailasanatha temple at Ellora with depictions at other sites, created both before and after the ones at Ellora.

Depictions of Krishna from the Mahabharata frequently differ from their written text sources in that they overemphasize Krishna’s childhood in proportion to how much the texts are concerned with it. Comparisons of earlier and later depictions of Krishna’s childhood reveal a trend toward less ordered, less thematically linked depictions. At Kailasa, the images are arranged in horizontal bands, with deliberate placement of the panels so that panels are thematically linked with one either on top or below. In contrast, two tenth century pillars at Marai display no attempt to thematically link the scenes, and three tenth and eleventh century friezes at Sohagpur show a shift from displaying a compelling narrative to ignoring correct ordering of events altogether.

The Mahabharata frieze at Ellora

A prominent theme among Ramayana friezes is royal symbolism. I compared the frieze at Ellora to the Nageshvara temple at Kumbakonam and the Papanatha temple at Pattadakal. All three convey a message of divine kingship. Both the Nageshvara and the Kailasanatha temples have been interpreted as a double reference to Rama and to its royal patron. The arrangement of scenes from both the Ramayana and Mahabharata around the outside of the Papanatha temple transform the temple into a visual metaphor for divine kingship.

The Ramayana frieze at Ellora

Having previously only seen the friezes in pictures, viewing them up close and in person was an amazing experience. Pictures do not do these pieces of work justice. They are, essentially, enormous storybooks carved in to the sides of the temple. Seeing them in the context of the temple, understanding their placement and observing their size all helped me grasp the idea of how important these epics must have been to Ellora’s patron.

For further reading, here are some sources I used in my research:

Hawley, John Stratton. “Scenes from the Childhood of Krsna on the Kailasanatha Temple, Ellora.” Archives of Asian Art 34 (1981): 74-90.

Sanford, David T. “Ramayana Portraits: The Nageshvara Temple at Kumbakonam.” In The Legend of Rama: Artistic Visions, edited by Vidya Dehejia, 43-60. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1994.

Stadtner, Donald M. “Medieval Narrative Sculpture and Three Krsna Panels,” Ars Orientalis 17(1987): 117-135.

Wechsler, Helen J. “Royal Legitimation: Ramayana Reliefs on the Papanatha Temple at Pattadakal.” In The Legend of Rama: Artistic Visions, edited by Vidya Dehejia, 27-42. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1994.

The Final Countdown

In less than 12 hours I will board a plane that will take me from San Francisco to Newark, beginning my long trip to Mumbai. Until now, the thought of India has seemed far away and intangible. Now it is close, right in front of me, and more real than ever. I don’t really know what to expect when I step off the plane in Mumbai. People who have traveled to India have told me that some of the first things I may notice are the sounds, which won’t cease until I board the plane back to Newark; the smells, which will be stronger than anything I’m used to; and the sights, which can be at times beautiful and at other times heart breaking. Whatever my experience will be during the too short time we are in India, I know it will only be a glimpse into a corner of the world which is, in the grand scheme of things, small, but which is also bursting at the seams with colors, people, culture, and history. I cannot wait to see what this magnificent country has to offer, and to soak in every moment that I am lucky enough to spend there.