When people ask me about my time in India, I find I keep giving them different answers. It usually starts with “it was fantastic!” but then diverges into “I realized time isn’t real” if they catch me at a time I’m still jet lagged, or “we saw a ton of caves” if I had just come off of Facebook, or more often “a monkey stole our naan!”. So much happened during those ten days thats its difficult to place a single label onto the trip.
It was ten days that challenged us both physically and mentally. We were forced to face early mornings, daunting hikes and even more daunting spicy foods. We saw poverty like it doesn’t exist in the states, stark in contrast to our shiny hotel and thats something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. We got the chance to see caves that had been carved 2000 years before us, got to walk and climb through the same spaces as the monks and worshippers that lived there. We got to spend hours staring out bus windows and see miles of country and people and animals and colors pass by. Every minute of the trip there was something new to see, to hear, to smell. It’s an experience I still haven’t fully deconstructed, and is something I know I’ll keep understanding the repercussions of as I continue to go through life. Right now I am just so thankful that I had the opportunity to have these ten days to discover and grow and learn.
Pitalkhora was the last of the cave sites we visited in India, and I found it to be a refreshing anomaly. The caves are the oldest of those we visited, and the only ones in which we had to descend rather than climb to reach. When we arrived, I was relieved to find the site was located on a nature preserve and not a crowded tourist site. It was the only cave we were not harassed to buy geodes or take selfies.
The caves themselves were in the last stages of decay. Much alike glaciers, our children would likely not have the chance to see them. Due to their location and composition, water had been seeping in for years to eat away at the stone. Bats and mice and bees occupied the the caves that had once held monks and worshippers. It was fascinating to see that this flaw in geography had been realized centuries earlier, but instead of abandonment of the site, ancient people had come up with creative solutions. You could follow drainage pipes which led to a Naga king carving, a physical and spiritual bandaid to reroute water. Inside caves, bad stone had been removed and replaced with bricks, pillars had been added 500 years after the first carving and painted over again. But still the site crumbled. It made me wonder how many sites like this have been lost back to nature, or what of our own lives would endure into the future. Despite these cheesy questions, I am so glad we got to experience Pitalkhora before nature transforms it back into another bald cliff face in western India.
This entire trip has been difficult to put into words. From the views passing by the bus window to the incredible variety of food, smells, people and just things to see and to experience there is just so much to take in. That being said, actually physically seeing these sites has been one of the coolest (for lack of a better term) experiences. Seeing photographs cannot begin to do justice to these sites. Of these experiences, exploring Cave 15 at Ellora has been one of my favorite thus far. I had done my project during the fall semester on the relationship between the three religions at the site, but after all that researching nothing prepared me fully to see it with my own eyes. As I led the way through the entry archway into the site, the buildings were nothing like the pictures had appeared.
My first thought was that I had made some crucial mistake and ended up at the wrong site. It took a few frantic minutes before I found that not only that I was at the right site, but that the evidence I want to explain was even more obvious than I had hoped. The Hindu depictions, mainly of Shiva, are set deeply into the stone, and it can easily be imagined that they are carved over some earlier Buddhist work. Additionally, the figures on top of the second floor pillars are Buddhas, with all the iconography that goes along with him. The idea that the site was an unfinished Buddhist cave later reconstructed for Hindu use was no longer some hypothesis from a scholars article, but something that I agree with based on what I saw with my own eyes. It felt as if some great puzzle was being pieced together after so much time, and thats a feeling I won’t soon forget.
If you are interested in looking farther into how Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sites relate to one another, I suggest the following articles;
Kumar, Krishna. “The Buddhist Origin of Some Brahmanical Cave-Temples at Ellora.” East and West 26, no. 3/4 (1976): 359–73.
Owen, Lisa N. “Kings or Ascetics? Evidence of Patronage in Ellora’s Jain Caves.” Artibus Asia 70, no. 2 (2010): 181–225.
As the holiday season is coming to a close, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I’ll be on the other side of the world two weeks from now. I remember last year, when I had found out I had been accepted into the SRS program, one of the most difficult things had been that I would have to wait a whole year before actually getting on the plane. And again this semester, learning about and seeing photographs of this sites we were to visit, there was a sense of anticipation and awe that I felt. But this week, as I’ve was explaining to countless relatives (“so your mom tells me you’re going to India!“), it really doesn’t feel like I’ll be standing at the foot of Elephanta in 13 days.
I’m not quite sure what to expect, or even how to feel. I guess it might take physically getting on a plane for me to finally believe that I’m actually going. Until then I’m enjoying the excitement of preparing for the trip, getting suitcases and outlet converters as Christmas gifts and almost passing out during my hepatitis shots. And as I’m reflecting back on it now, I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I am so lucky to be able to have this unreal experience to travel and learn, and I truly cannot wait.