BOMBAY TO ELLORA: Maximum city to ancient cave temples

An overnight train takes us from Jaipur to Bombay. There is no pressing reason for us to go to Bombay; it’s just one of our favorite Indian cities, and we haven’t been here fortwo years. The humid coastal air, the grand colonial architecture, the vibrant culture, and the dynamic intensity of an entire country-worth of people compacted into a pressure
cooker of a space make this a place like no other. And then there is the food. If India is a collection of countries within a country, Bombay is India within India. All of its diverse parts are here, and there are just too few meals within a day to enjoy them.

On the flip side, all of its diverse parts don’t always get along. Pitched battles are currently taking place on a number of parochial fronts, all fueled by a xenophobic “Maharashtra for Marathi only” party, the Shiv Sena. Most of the city’s taxies aredriven by “Northerners”, typically from Bihar, and they have been given 40 days to learn Marathi or be tossed out by the Sena’s goons. Bollywood, of course, lives in Bombay, and its biggest star, Shah Rukh Khan, came out with the seemingly-innocuous statement that Pakistanis should be allowed to play on Indian-based cricket teams. For this the Sena is screaming patriotic invectives at him, and tearing posters off theatres, and threatening to riot in any movie house which shows his latest film, which is to be released this weekend. The biggest story, however, happened today. Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru clan, son of the martyred Rajiv, heir apparent to the venerable Congress Party and P.M.
in waiting is visiting the city. The Sena said it would meet him with scores of black
flag waving protestors. Not only did the protestors fail to materialize, but Rahul, in a
masterstroke, abandoned his planned helicopter itinerary, and walked over to a suburban
station and got onto a commuter train. Everyone, including his own security, was
dumbfounded. You can’t over-estimate what the commuter trains mean to Bombay, and now everyone is enthralled with Rahul, and the Sena is left huffing and blustering, looking deflated and foolish.

From this maximum city on the coast to the ancient abandonnedof the interior is only a half-day train ride. On the train Katheryn gets to
talking with two young women beside her. They are Muslim, and although they are following events in the city closely, they are scared to be overheard talking in public about them. We are heading Aurangabad, named after the (Muslim) Moghul emperor, Aurangzeb. The Sena are great revisionists, and want to change the name to something more “Hindu”, as they did with Bombay/Mumbai. But there are too many Muslims here like Katheryn’s friends, and so far it has not been possible.

The Emperor Aurangzeb, (d.1707) in fact, is buried not far from Aurangabad. The remarkable thing, for such a perceived iconoclast, is that three km from his tomb there is the greatest treasure of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain sculpture in India. The cave temples of Ellora pocket a two km stretch of this limestone escarpment. It’s still a mystery as to “why here”, and why the ancients chose to carve caves into solid rock rather than build temples; but in Ellora it’s the effect that matters. The monastic communities lived at this site for over 500 years, carving the whole time, until they abandoned it in the 12th C. The Buddhists got started first, at a time when a new revisionist moment was formenting in their religion.  For 1000 years the appeal of Buddhism had been the simplicity of the teachings of Buddha
and the lessons of the ascetic rigor of his life. Early on there were never even any depictions of the Buddha in a human form: he was always implied by a footprint, a wheel, or a collection of geometric shapes called a “stupa”. The new teachings that were practiced at Ellora were probably coming from Eastern India, and as they developed they became known as ‘Tantra”. Tantra envisioned complex cosmologies around the Buddha, powerful associated figures like Bodhisattvas, and esoteric rituals designed to fast-track what had been a slow evolutionary approach to the final goal: Nirvana. Here in Ellora the monks were working to create what was in effect an Enlightenment Machine. In each new cave, at each new try, they were refining it further. They used the most powerful tools at their disposal: pure compassion symbolized by the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara; enormous figures of the Buddha, his hands forming esoteric gestures to instruct the initiated; and, most importantly, the monks put all the elements together to form three-dimensional mandalas which are the cave temples.

Times change and so does royal patronage. By the 8th C. Buddhism here was in decline, replaced by its revitalized older sister, Hinduism. If the Buddhist art here is cerebral, typified by rows of slightly different Buddhas, the Hindu sculpture are visceral. Take the huge panel of
Shiva as Gajahasta at the entrance to cave 10. This god is not advocating a course of sitting meditation. This is a god you worship because you are terrified of his power.  He takes the biggest thing the sculptor can imagine, and elephant, and pulls it into a thin sausage above his head. He skewers a demon with one arm, collects his blood to drink with another, and causes mayhem and death with the others. His face screams with a primal roar; there is no reason in his eye, just pure, fanged destruction.

The rest of the Hindu sculpture also draws heavily on that elemental energy. It was a time when the cult of the Seven Mothers was popular. The sage Lakulisha was its proponent, and their images, and his, are found throughout the site. In the dark recesses
where the Seven Mothers are carved, they are always presided over by the skeletal goddess of death Kali; you can imagine the more extreme practices of Lakulisha taking place here.  The big attention-grabber at Ellora, however, is the Kailash Temple. It is a massive
undertaking, from the 8th C.: a monolithic sculpture of a temple carved from solid rock; a cave in reverse. Deep trenches were cut out of the rock face defining the temples dimensions, and then the carving was started from the top down. It’s one of the truly audacious ancient works of art on the entire planet. All the temple courtyards, sculptures, shrines and sanctums were hollowed out and now you, and busloads of tourists and school kids, can wander through it, taking dark stairways to different levels, and wondering how it is possible to take a defining photo in such a tight space.

Many thanks to Helen for all her help in solving some of our technical problems.  She has also updated our 2010 sales schedule, which is now posted on our website  The photos of our recent trip through the ancient sites of the interior shouldn’t be missed, and you can find them there by going to the flickr button at the top of the website page.   There are also some great videos – go to youtube and search for Kebe and Fast.  Just to give you a taste of some more Ellora pictures…

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