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.

Jain Caves at Ellora

Our second day at Ellora was one of the highlights of this trip for me, for several reasons. For one, they were Jain caves, rather than Buddhist and Hindu which were the primary sites we’ve been looking at. Though I think these three religions were undoubtedly intertwined, Jainism has always intrigued me. I’m not an intensely religious person, yet if I were I think something like Jainism would be fitting. It has a lot to do with meditation and self reflection in order to reach enlightenment, which, in theory, sounds pretty cool. The other thing that inspired a lot of my writing while I was there was the fact that they were all unfinished. As you walk around, you can see finished stupas, surrounded by rock that was clearly intended to be a part of the site, but that never got crafted into the full bodies or designs that surrounded it. To me, that emphasized the humanity behind these sites. It made the idea that people made them more real. It’s hard to think about the fact that people came to these sites to pray, worship, etc, and the unfinished stone made me realize that these things didn’t just appear. There was a level of cooperation and community and camaraderie that went into each site. There was a common purpose that connected people and brought them together to make such a magnificent piece of history. I could probably write a book about just this one day and the emotions I had and tried to grapple with throughout the time at these sites, and I hope that one day I have the opportunity to come back and explore more while they are still intact.

Experiencing Elephanta

The Trimurti Sculpture at Elephanta

Presenting at Elephanta was a pretty intense experience for me. Researching something without having seen it in real life, though significant, can’t quite compare to seeing it in person. As I walked into the first cave I was overwhelmed at seeing how large the Trimurti sculpture actually was. In my mind it was much smaller, something tucked away in a corner that I would embarrassingly tell my classmates I couldn’t find. Yet as you walked in that was the first thing I saw. Maybe it’s because I spent weeks and weeks researching it that I have more of a connection to it, but I think Elephanta affected me most as I walked in. The size of everything, the power that each sculpture demanded, it all kind of hit me at once and it made being in India feel suddenly very very real. It was like, holy crap, I am in this different country, on an island, in this ancient cave that I have been studying all semester. It’s hard to convey what I felt with words, and I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I am by no means an expert on art history, yet I don’t think you need to be to get something out of these caves. Though the site had a lot of meaning for me having studied it all semester, I think you could walk into any of these sites with little knowledge about the history and still appreciate the artistry behind it, the fact that real life breathing human bodies built these spectacular sculptures. That being said I think context is important and should not be ignored, and I am pretty satisfied with how our class allowed me to place a lot of these sites in a larger framework.

Elephanta Reliefs in Person

Presenting my research in front of the reliefs that I have read for months about has been an out of body experience. It was amazing seeing the Shiva and Parvati Seated on Mount Kailash and Ravana Trying to Lift Kailash in person because I could see a lot more details in the work that the pictures I have been looking at didn’t pick up. Being there enhanced my understanding of the reliefs because I could clearly see the evidences scholars used to support their works and ideas. My research focused on which myth variations can be seen on the reliefs and how these different myth interpretations illustrate the power dynamics of Shiva and Parvati’s relationship.

The most popular variations in interpretations of the reliefs either depict Parvati as Shiva’s equal or gives Shiva all the power in the relationship. There are many scholars that support either side with clear evidence which makes it hard to clearly state which interpretation of the myth the artists portrayed in their work. On Shiva and Parvati Seated on Mount Kailash, you can see Shiva cheating while gambling with Parvati. In the relief, Parvati has her back turned away from Shiva and is using her right hand to hold a servant as support for standing up off of the ground. Neema Caughran interprets Parvati’s back to Shiva as an action of disdain. She is fuming with so much anger about Shiva cheating and not owning up to it that she can not stand to be in his presence. Ravana Trying to Lift Kailash shows Parvati embracing Shiva while he roots the mountain with his toe, trapping Ravana. George Michell states that she is clinging onto him because she is terrified and he assumes the role of the protector by pressing down the mountain. In this interpretation, despite Parvati being a powerful deity herself, all the power is seen in Shiva as he protects her from Ravana.

There are many more interesting points from the reliefs that scholars use to prove that the reliefs are either meant to glorify only Shiva or portray Shiva and Parvati as equals. Seeing the reliefs in person reignited my passion for this topic. I would love to continue researching the topic by starting to compare interpretations said to be depicted in these reliefs to others with the same myth, such as Ravana Shaking Kailash at Ellora Cave 16.

Recommended readings for more information include:

Neema Caughran, Shiva and Parvati: Public and Private Reflections of Stories in North India (American Folklore Society, 1999), 514-526.

George Michell, and others . Elephanta, the Cave of Shiva, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).

Don Handelman and others, God Inside Out : ‘Siva’s Game of Dice, (Cary, US: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Ravana Trying to Lift Kailash          
Shiva and Parvati Seated on Mount Kailash

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.

Day 2 at Ellora

Rè Cooper on the far side of the Chota Kailasa temple
Scrambling at the Chota Kailasa
We all want to dance like Shiva
From above the great Kailasanatha temple at Ellora with our local scholar, Professor Shrikant Ganvir (Deccan College, Pune)
Hiking up to the Jaina caves at Ellora
Jesse Allen points out the inattention of scholarship until recently to Jain monuments like this one, the Small (Chota) Kailasa

My Ajanta Experience

For most of the morning before our trip to Ajanta, my mind was wrapped around the presentation that I was going to give later that day.  I spent that morning and part of the bus ride going over my thesis and annotated bibliography deciding what I was going to say, but by the time the bus stopped, I still did not feel confident in what I was going to present.  I later realized that the reason I did not feel ready for my presentation was because I had never actually seen the Ajanta caves in person.  Luckily seeing the amazing view calmed my nerves and made me excited to explore.

Even after seeing the view and exploring the first cave of Ajanta, the moment did not truly become real for me until I saw Buddhist monks.  REAL BUDDHIST MONKS! After studying and practicing Buddhism for the past couple of years, I thought very highly of Buddhist monks, so it was kind of like seeing celebrities.  Although I felt as excited as an Indian child when they see Re, Gabby, or Connor, I felt that asking for a selfie might not have been entirely appropriate; so instead, I made a mental note and moved on.  I was also amazed by the godlike Buddha statues in most of the temples.  Upon entering a cave, the statue, which was sometimes illuminated, would immediately steal my gaze and draw me closer.  I would have to say that my favorite Buddha statue out of the many that I got to see yesterday was the statue in Cave 11.  If anyone needs a reminder of which one that was, refer to my previous post or checkout the background on my phone.

Aside from my interest in Buddhism, I think the reason that I enjoyed our visit to Ajanta so much was because it had been my research topic.  This allowed me to move about the caves with more of an art historian’s perspective than I did any other day, paying special attention to cave maintenance and water damage.  I also found that as we moved from cave to cave, I was able to recognize more Naga depictions, which made me more comfortable for my presentation.  After experiencing the caves leading up to 16 and gaining clarity from Professor G(I can say it but I won’t even attempt to spell it) regarding the things that I already knew, I was able to give a confident and stress-free presentation.  To top off my Ajanta experience, we all got to turn the unfinished cave into our play house, which is a moment that will always bring me joy when remembering Ajanta.

Gangadhara @ Elephanta

Learning about the reliefs at Elephanta in class was one thing, but being there and experience it puts you in a different state of mind. Just the impressive size of the sculpted figures was enough to leave me in awe. The stories behind each sculpture brought the piece to life and it was nothing short of extraordinary!

My research was focused on the Gangadhara relief which depicts Shiva receiving the river Ganga in a lock of his hair [link to the myth]. This dynamic relief also featured Parvati – Shiva’s wife – along with Vishnu, Indra and other celestial beings and ganas. I was trying to demonstrate the physical evidence to support claims made by Wendy Doniger and George Michell stating that the positioning of Parvati is indicative of her jealousy of Shiva receiving Ganga. With close inspection of Parvati’s posture, you can actually see that her feet are carved from different stones which give her the ‘uneasiness’ that Doniger points out. Seeing this in a photograph is almost impossible to understand, it is something that much be seen firsthand to draw the connection. Other indications of her apparent jealousy are quite evident in the relief: her body tilted, looking downward, and Shiva’s consoling touch on her right shoulder. By viewing the sculpture up close, it was very noticeable that Parvati’s unusual posture reflects her feelings towards Shiva receiving Ganga.  Familiarizing yourself with the following references will give you a better understanding of Parvati’s anger/jealousy and appreciation for the massive Gangadhara sculpture at Elephanta.

Berkson, Carmel, Wendy Doniger, and George Michell. Elephanta, the Cave of Shiva. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Michell, George and Bharath Ramamrutham. Elephanta. The India Series. Bombay: India Book House, 2002.

Experiencing Ellora

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.

Example of Buddha depiction above flowering pot on second floor pillars at Cave 15.
Panoramic of cave 15, to the right and left are Shivas that have been deeply engraved and the second floor pillars depict Buddha.
Views from on top Cave 15
Approaching the Kailasanatha Temple (16)
Landing at sunset in Aurangabad
Lunch within view of Ellora caves

 

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.