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.
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.
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.