Wishing I was Still in India

It’s kind of surreal to think that two weeks ago I was living carefree – no Trump – nearly 8,000 miles away in India. If I were to describe my time in India with two words, it would be too short [see what I did there?]. When people ask me about my trip, I struggle to find a place to start: should I talk about the awesome 500 caves we visited, or the monkeys that stole Fjordi’s naan; should I talk about the bougie hotels, or the fact that the only Indians in them were the workers; should I talk about the beautiful, expensive houses in the streets of Mumbai, or the polluted slums on the opposite side?

At first, I was struck by how much it reminded me of home [Guyana for those who don’t know], yet it was distinct; India had its own uniqueness. I felt like I was transported back to being a 12-year-old kid again. However, it was weird because I was not living that reality but just witnessing it from a different perspective. Being back in the US, I couldn’t help but think about the little things we take for granted, like clean water [or at least water clean enough for us to drink] and WiFi. Even though there were poverty and pollution on every corner, there was this sense of liveliness in the streets. Everywhere you turn a different scent catches your nose: food, food and more food! The streets are loud: people talking, music playing, cars honking, a lot of cars honking [and a rickshaw waiting to hit you]. Man, I miss India!

There would have been no India trip without the amazing caves we visited. Magnificent and grand, worthy of the experience; the pictures do not tell the whole story. My favorite site being [sorry Elephanta] the Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora. Visiting this temple with a mass of people, chatter, laughter and screams engulfing the structure was truly awesome! I didn’t think this place could get any better, but then we hiked to view the temple from above. *Jaw Drops*

Just as how one picture does not give the complete story of Kailasanatha, only talking about caves would not paint a complete picture of Mumbai/Aurangabad. All of the different elements combined to make the experience truly unforgettable. Also, I will never forget being lost in Mumbai with Mykel and Enrique…good times!

Visiting India was one of the most exciting and humbling experiences I have had as a part of the Colgate community, and I am grateful that I shared that experience with my SRS class. Thank you, Professor Kaimal!

Kailasanatha from above
Ajanta groupie
Samira excited for Elephanta
Gateway Arch of India
Bollywood on fleek
Re and Jesse are there in spirit
Modern yogis

Looking Back

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.

 

Stray dog escort to Elaphanta

Back In The States !

Im back, back to the old routines, back to the same scenery, back to the same feelings. There was something about being in India where words and pictures do no justice in explaining. It was just a feeling of peace, that may be because I did not have to do class work or maybe its because the people there I understand a little bit better but it was something about being over there that gave me peace. As I continue to think about it, my smile was so natural over there. Its cold here in Hamilton, extremely cold here and I am not just talking about temperature. The feeling of being back at Colgate, as excited as I am to start back being productive, just feels lifeless. It may have been because I was so excited to try something different. But now that I am back, I understand how much a gain this experience was. The caves and monuments were special but the people and the food made me feel at home, even the vegetarian food. I miss it. My family and community is proud of me. It makes me feel good to have experienced something that my family hasn’t and to bring it back to them, not to show off but to share what I have learned, thats why I asked so many questions. India is much more complicated in my head than the way life probably is for them, or maybe they just make it look flawless, India is something really special and I hope to visit again within the next ten years.

My Time At Elephanta

 

Walking up the huge uneven steps, with the excitement sitting in the back of throat, I anticipate ancient greatness. I am not going to lie I was exhausted going up those stairs but it was great exercise. When I finally reach the top of the stairs, I see beautiful women in extravagant clothing, carrying the heaviest bolder on top of their heads. I sit back in awe because they walked those steps with the cut bolders on their head. WOW! When I entered the cave the Ardhanarishvara carving sits in the back left corner, rewarded with more light than the carvings that lie directing in the back of the cave down the middle.

Ardhanarishvara was the piece of work I decided to study at Elephanta. Ardhanarishvara represent Shiva as a half man and half God. While at the site, I was initially amazed by the size of the carving, compared to the size of the cave. While my understanding of the cave was not waiver, my ability to describe the cave definitely did. My main focus for the carving, to help understand the meaning of my research, lies in relation to other scholars, such as Betty Seid and Ellen Goldberg. I focused on whether or not the carving focused on balance and equality. Two subjects that were raised about Ardhanarishvara was the number of arms Shiva has compared to the woman side and the slight backward step of the woman’s foot. What does that signify if, anything? The number of arms vary depending on the location of the Ardhanarishvara and many researchers say that the number of arms signify a higher being or celestial creatures. I was able to show the students that the woman’s foot sags behind Shiva’s foot, while being at the sight better than when I was presenting through pictures in class.

As I reflect back on my presentation I believe I did a good job explaining the main points of my research with the support of the previous scholars. Below I have posted pictures while being at Elephanta.

 

Goldberg, Ellen. “Ardhanār?Śvara: What we Know and what we do Not.” Religion Compass 2, no. 3 (2008): 301-315

Seid, Betty. “The Lord Who is Half Woman (Ardhanarishvara).” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 30, no. 1 (2004): 48-95.

More from Pitalkhora and Aurangabad

Professor Ganvir explains how channels dug into the rock at Pitalkhora drew monsoon rains away from the caves and out through this fountain shaped as a multi-headed snake. You can see the traces of that snake just above the shadow of his hand.
Professors Ganvir and Rotter at the crumbling caves of Pitalkhora. Fortunately none of the local jaguars, bears, or swarms of honeybees decided to join us there.
SRS India greets you from the Bibi ka Maqbara, a tomb built in the architectural tradition of the Taj Mahal and Akbar’s tomb, for the wife of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb by their son.

Pitalkhora [Dying] Caves

Although getting to the Pitalkhora Caves was a bit of a hike, the site was worth the sweat. It was fitting that we visited these caves at the end of the trip so as to make it easier to locate important features and methods of preservation by comparing it to other caves – mainly the Ajanta Caves. Though in ruins, these early Buddhist caves are grand and awe-inspiring. Remnants of chaitya arches are visible above the chaitya caves, while others had a vihara layout, with the foundation of dwelling rooms still preserved.

For me, it was amazing to see the effects of time on a site that appears to be  timeless. The damage on the cave was quite evident from the outside, however, there are features such as the painted pillars in the massive chaitya hall and row of elephants in front that gives this site its own magnificence. With the ongoing damage caused by water and other factors, measures were taken to preserve the oldest known rock cut caves in India. Modern pillars were erected in the chaityas to help with holding up the structure. This is why the chaityas were less damages compared to the viharas, where I can’t recall any structural support was built. Further down the mountain, stupas were reconstructed to preserve the little that was left from the original.

By visiting the Pitalkhora Caves, I think that I was most taken aback by the fact that a site so grand and awe-inspiring will cease to exist in the near future. It allows you to pause and appreciate these magnificent structures even more.  

Elephanta Caves

Although I personally favor the caves at Ajanta because it was the location my research project focused on the caves at Elephanta come at a close second. Elephanta was the first place we visited in India and it was not at all what I was expecting. As Reyna had mentioned in her presentation and what I believe is the most powerful part of our entire experience in India was that we truly had no clue as to how big everything we studied was we arrived at the sites in person. Like Professor Kaimal I enjoyed looking that the rock art of Shiva slaying Andhaka because of the large amount of masculinity that Shiva is showing. Shiva is at the center of this art and is seen holding a large sword in his right hand and the bowl in his left hand to catch the blood of the beast to ensure it would not come alive again. The detail in his face was very interesting because it looked as if he and his rage was alive. Seeing his fangs and the anger in his eyes was something that you could only experience in person.

Shiva slays the Beast

Ardhanarishvara

I loved seeing the sculpture Ardhanarishvara in person at Elephanta. I enjoyed seeing the unity and balance between male and female first hand. I was especially captivated by the specific parts of the sculpture where you could clearly decipher the male versus the female because it seemed really exaggerated. Examples include the jutted out hip, difference of earlobes on both ears, etc. It was like the artisans clearly wanted you (the audience) to know exactly what it was they were trying portray in this relief.

Ardhanarishvara at Elephanta!

A point that was brought up about the sculpture that completely stuck with me was that, besides unity and balance, this piece can represent how inseparable the female and the male are. This point was further explained with the example that both the male and the female are needed for creation to occur. I found this piece of information completely shocking because I had never thought of the relief in that light before. Another part of the relief that was further talked about was we know that Shiva is the male counterpart of the figure, but we do not know who the female is. However, people tend to always assume that the figure is Parvati. I had been one of those people who assumed that the female counterpart was Parvati. I loved realizing my mistake in that moment because it raised so many questions for me and made me wonder. The most powerful part about seeing Ardhanarishvara was all the new information I acquired from people who were more familiar with the sculpture.

 

 

Kool-asanatha

The most striking visit of the trip for me was our time spent at the Kailasanatha temple on our first day at Ellora.

Kailasanatha Temple (cave 16) from above

Its size, as shown in these pictures from above is immediately awe inspiring. After that shock wore off, it was equally impressive considering the manner in which the cave was constructed-chiseled from the top down.

Kailasanatha Temple (cave 16) from above

It is hard to fathom with the size and level of detail on all parts of the structure how this would have been planned and executed. The Kailasanatha encompassed the whole class for me, and incorporated ideas that I had previously only considered in isolation, and in the classroom. Here, architecture, iconography, school children, and good food came together to form an unforgettable experience. And while I think nothing will match standing in front of the massive rendition of Mt Kailash, pictures can portray such an experience better than words

 

Gabby, Re, and Enrique take in the sights
Inside a pillared hall

Gavaksha engravings

 

Jain Caves at Ellora

My presentation at the Chota (small) Kailasa Temple at Ellora focused on my research on the importance of the Jain structures in the Ellora complex. We acknowledged Ellora in our studies as a tri-religious site, but learned it as a Buddhist and Hindu dominated place. To an extent, all the metrics support this: there are only 5 caves attributed to Jains, they were completed in the last periods of construction, they are smaller than what we saw yesterday (on our first day at Ellora), and some scholars see the Jain imagery as repetitive and unoriginal. As seen in this interpretation of the Jain caves, the importance of an academic following is clear for the perceived importance of a site. We see with Walter Spink the number of man hours that can go into creating educated conclusions on a single cave let alone a whole complex. And so the Jain caves lag or are left out to a certain extent, especially in colonial era work. The Chota Kailasa gets its name from its resemblance to the Kailasanatha Temple. It is however smaller, and unfinished which adds to this diminutive name. This shows the lense through which those studying it were seeing it through- the majority of references to it noted it as a “poor” imitation of the Kailasanatha. And while the similarities are important, it’s also important to see the intentionality of the cave. Jainism is similar to Buddhism and Hinduism in its focus on achieving enlightenment. The 24 Tirthankaras or Jinas are those who have reached this level of enlightenment and serve as teachers to those still seeking. The Chota Kailasa is a space that houses these figures. They all are portrayed in the perfected form they reached which means that all 24 figures look similar if not identical to the untrained eye. These Jinas, in turn look similar if not identical to figures of the Buddha and later figures of Shiva. The function of the Jinas is to show the ideal form, which does not require a complex image. Instead the beauty of the imagery is in the lesson it teaches about the state of meditative reflection. Add in the standing position of several Jinas and a galaxy of other gods and you’ve achieved a complex and interesting iconography but when you looks for Shiva in everything, you can find it.

In seeing the Chota Kailasa, and the other Jain caves in person, it was even more evident the separation between the colonial-era readings I found and the few more recent Jain scholars. Although Owens and Cort especially described the way that the imagery and the layout interact, there is no replacement to seeing it in person. It also left me a little more divided on my critique of previous scholars for attributing too much of the Jain caves to the “possibly Shiva” category. On one hand, the imagery looks very similar, and the inference that is necessary when dealing with aging and decaying works. On the other hand, much distinction has been drawn between the similar iconographies of the Buddhist and Hindu caves, showing the ability to deal with separateness among similarity which is not afforded as equally to Jainism, as shown and propagated though fewer active scholars.

Some suggested readings:

Owen, Lisa N., “Relationships between Art, Architecture and Devotional Practices at Ellora.” In Living Rock: Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain cave temples in the Western Deccan, ed. Pia Brancaccio, 127-37. Mumbai: Marg Foundation, 2013.

Owen, Lisa N. Carving Devotion in the Jain Caves at Ellora. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012.

Cort, John E. Framing the Jina : Narratives of Icons and Idols in Jain history. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.