Temple Caves of India Offer Spiritual Insight

<i> Shaver is a San Francisco free-lance writer. </i>

There is inevitably a point in the biorhythm of independent travel when exhilaration of discovery, joy in the marvelous otherness of scenes and lives, give way to an acute sense of being a stranger in a very foreign place.

Camus speaks of the moment when, far from our own country, we become dispirited, seized with a vague fear, overpowered by feelings of estrangement.

It was at such a moment after three weeks of bemused exploration in India that I fled from the clogged streets--the relentless humid heat and gritty air of Bombay, from the limp babies and their insistent mothers, the lepers, the lordly cows munching street garbage--to Aurangabad.


This ancient city, high and cool on the Deccan plain, was the gateway to the spectacular caves at Ajanta and Ellora. “No one of sensibility leaves India without seeing them,” the woman in the Bombay Tourist Office had said. “The paintings and sculptures are one of the wonders of the world. The resident spirits will speak to your soul.”

Now, after a breakfast of fresh toast, almond and honey jam and a pot of steaming masala tea served in my room by a businesslike 14-year-old in white dhoti and Gandhi cap, I waited in the hotel lobby for the tour bus.

Lal Singh, the suave Sikh manager, had advised that the conducted tour to Ajanta, a distance of about 65 miles, would depart the hotel at 9 a.m. I should be ready with camera, sun hat, “accommodating shoes” and a leak-proof bottle of mineral water that, alas, would not remain cold since “loose ice is so ephemeral.”

An elegantly lettered poster above the reception desk heightened expectations of the day. On it was printed:

What held men there through time and change of faith

Hollowing out a mountain--ecstasies

of austere contemplation?--human hope

of ruthless help from powerful deities?--

or an artist’s dream of half-outwitting death?

--R.N. Currey

Could one to whom mantras and mudras meant little hope to grasp the meanings, comprehend the message of the caves’ saints, gods, demons, I wondered as I boarded the sleek Ashok Leyland bus that arrived a half-hour late belching a trail of hot brown fog. The driver apologized to the passengers at large for our tardiness.

“Well, time is eternal,” murmured the Indian in the khaki Punjabi suit across from me. “What we don’t succeed in doing today can be done well enough in the next life.”

He flashed gold-tipped teeth in a discreet smile and handed me his card. “Purham Lal, Ltd. Himroo Textiles, Bombay,” I read. His wife and three doe-eyed children seated in front of him regarded me inquiringly.

Where, oh where, was the male relative to escort and protect this lone foreign female, their gazes inquired. Most of the tour passengers were Indians, I noted with surprise, the only other Caucasians being two shrill young women whose T-shirts proclaimed them “Brisbane Birds.”

The bus loudspeaker came on bleatingly. “I am Lafar Akhter, your guide for the day,” said a young man speaking in the familiar elaborately inflected English. He was wearing a fashionably oversize sweat shirt bearing the Indo-Aryan swastika--for good luck, he later explained. “In each of the great civilizations of the world there are a few places where we may find, preserved and accessible, the essential heritage and spirit of that civilization. Just such a place where we go today is Ajanta.”

Beginning in 200 BC, he told us, Buddhist monk-masons carved 30 caves into the granite-faced hillside. And there for the next 800 years, working by reflected sun and torchlight, they painted and sculpted the Buddha in a setting of folk tales and the everyday life of their own time. There they meditated, chanted prayers and taught students.

The two-hour journey took us through an arid landscape of sienna brown, broken occasionally by flashes of scarlet-flowered palas trees, through a succession of villages smoky with cow dung fires, where shops were opening and merchants sat cross-legged beside their wares. When the bus stopped for weary beasts crossing the road, chai wallahs appeared at our windows crying “Garam chai!” (hot tea).

As we neared the famed canyon, Lafar moved to the door of the bus with the calm, portentous air of a proctor about to launch a major examination. Then there came into view a sweeping rock crescent above a rocky defile, where the Waghora River formed a necklace of indigo pools. Rushing water in the river below filled the canyon with ceaseless, one-note sound.

In the 250-foot-high cliff face were five rock-hewn structures with cyclopean-eyed windows. Connecting these were rows of massive stone pillars, the entrances to the monasteries that had housed the temple keepers. A series of steep stone steps led up to a concrete terrace fronting the entire crescent.

Approaching those steps was high theater as one recalled guidebook accounts of the dramatic discovery of these caves after centuries of being lost to the world. British officers of the Madras army in 1819, hunting in the Indhyadri hills for tigers, were led by a half-wild young shepherd to a cliff face overgrown with shrubbery and brush. Hacking through the thick cover, they found an imposing stone portal that led into a cavern lined with pillars. Lanterns held high revealed a towering stone Buddha at the far end, benignly smiling. This was the first of the caves we were about to see.

Cautions to hush were unnecessary as we entered the semi-gloom of the rock-hewn halls. The sense of pious ghosts and the powerful icons they tend were sufficient to awe even the giddy “Birds.” There was an impression of extraordinary beauty of design and an almost frightening engulfing darkness beyond.

Reinforcing the psychic impact was the phenomenon of the echo--sounds of footsteps resounding as if an army of a thousand was marching through the caves. Strategically placed electric bulbs provided a minimal illumination. Solemn attendants with mirrors moved quickly into place to provide additional reflected light as we elbowed ourselves into position to see the various extraordinary decorations.

Bats and birds, mildew and vandals all had taken their toll. Only segments remained where we could make out the once-exuberant colors made from pebbles and vegetation--red, yellow and brown ochres, lamp black, white and lapis lazuli. Although the dominant theme of the paintings was religious, they were really an epic of life during a span of almost a thousand years.

Paradoxically, Lafar reminded us, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s theology was an austere one, forbidding images of himself, condemning painting and sculpture and excluding women with their “seductive apparel that excited desire” from the order of monks. The best way to attain salvation (Nirvana), according to early Buddhist doctrine, was to suppress all desire for happiness and earthly pleasures.

But as Buddhism evolved, strongly influenced by Hinduism during the 800 years of work on the caves, desire and pleasure became acceptable so long as humans “remembered the pain of existence.”

Cave 1 featured King Mahajanaka listening to a buxom Queen Sivali, her pearl necklaces falling sensuously between her breasts, with sloe-eyed attendants languorously lounging nearby. There was a huge carved Buddha sitting placidly in the center of the large square hall. When illuminated by a spotlight on the left side, Buddha appeared solemnly meditative, but when lit from the right side, astonishingly, he was gently smiling.

In Cave 16 was the spectacular “dying princess,” Buddha’s half brother’s wife, who, being a properly submissive spouse, simply expired when her husband rejected her and the world to become a monk.

Cave 17, one of the richest in the complex, had ravishing women, the “Celestials,” flying overhead with roguish carved dwarfs supporting the hall’s pillars. Here, too, was one of the most famous Ajanta paintings, that of a royal princess performing sringar (an elaborate toilette). The “Brisbane Birds” were enthralled and stayed behind to study the elegant princess further.

The later cave paintings featured groups of lovers floating across ceilings, leaning toward one another in bowered settings and in high relief carvings at doorways. There was a sense of high voltage energy with figures everywhere in a state of motion--gesturing, kneeling at the Buddha’s feet, dancing, turning, reaching toward one another.

In Cave 26 there was a captivating scene of the temptation of Buddha by a Brahmanical Cupid with bow, while the seductive Maravadhus women hovered nearby. There were scenes of the Buddha returning from his enlightenment to beg alms from his surprised wife and son. And finally, Cave 26 brought the sacred saga to a happy ending with a colossal reclining Buddha shown released into the peace of Nirvana.

There was little talk as, trance-like, we returned to our bus. Many dozed, lolling perilously out over the aisles as the bus jolted its way back to Aurangabad. I mused about the ancient monks in their paint-stained cassocks, lying on their backs, perched on ladders, pouring all of their repressed guilts and desires, their yearnings for ultimate salvation onto the walls and ceilings of those vaulted repositories.

The following morning, with a comfortable sense of community, we found ourselves, most of the original group and several new converts, aboard the Ashok Leyland for the short journey to Ellora. One glance at the 34 rock temples there told us that we had never before seen their like nor would we again.

Many scholars believe that the builders of Ajanta moved to Ellora when they unaccountably abandoned the painted cave complex. This new site became a crossroads for India’s diverse religions. Twelve of the caves were done by Buddhists, 17 by Hindus and five by Jains. Here and there were traces of residual color, but the general effect was of monumental gray-and-black stone complexes, many with several galleried stories, against the dun colored hillside.

Here was the rock-hewn radiance of Shiva and Vishnu, the statues and bas-reliefs depicting the various legends of this multiple god’s career. The Buddhist caves, less pretentious, featured Siddhartha Gautama Buddha legends that, after Ajanta, affected us like anecdotes about prized old friends. Jain temples, the most intricate and elaborate, depicted complicated themes that remained obscure to us despite Lafar’s explanations.

But the central attraction at Ellora was the magnificent Kailasa temple, twice the area of the Greek Parthenon and 96 feet high. Named after Kailas, the symbol of the earth, it resembled the mountain of Hindu imagery. It was hard to believe that not only the great temple itself but the obelisks--life-size elephants, grotesque monsters, dancing gods and bewitching goddesses--were all carved in one piece.

Quarrymen, starting work from the top of the great granite cliff, laid bare a huge monolith for the sculptors. Practically encyclopedic in its carved pageantry, Kailasa has been called the noblest Hindu monument of ancient India. Lafar told us it is man’s idea of a gods’ heaven.

The afternoon heat had become oppressive as, water bottles empty, we took a last hypnotic look at the great bas-relief of Shiva and his wife Parvati bracing against a horrendous earthquake, and took our places in the bus. Panchakki, with its limpid gardens, great emerald pool and historic wooden mill wheel, was our last stop, where we lingered under a prodigious banyan tree, sipping cool lemon tea.

Purham Lal, the Bombay merchant, spoke pensively of the Indian custom of taking the family on pilgrimage, of the felt need to achieve a spiritual transcendence. He lamented that India’s young people no longer know the Hindu gods and have to be told about the symbolisms of the temples. I spoke of anthropologist Joseph Campbell and his use of the cave as metaphor, the womb of the great mother where rebirthings occur.

We pondered the symbolisms in the need for a guide through the ritual passage, for torches to light our way, observed that myth and reality seemed to fuse in the rarefied ambience of the caves.

Lafar listened, intrigued, and glanced at the Brisbane Birds, who had threatened at several points along the way to swoo-oon and had then given up touring in favor of nearby benches and bottles of cola. Lafar made a pointed reference to the disastrous cave experiences of the neurotic Miss Quested in E.M. Forster’s “Passage to India,” and quoted Forster’s wry comment that “Pilgrims who generally seek the extraordinary, here found too much of it.”

It was late afternoon, “cow dust time,” when the cattle being driven home to the villages stir up eddies of dust along the roads. Back in Aurangabad, the bus halted at first one hotel and then another. I watched my fellow tourists press rupee notes into Lafar’s willing hand as they got off. Their faces and mannerisms had become deeply familiar in the two crowded days.

We made the dignified namaskar gesture to one another, palms together, thumbs against chests. “Namaste,” we said, goodby and blessing on you. More than a conventional gesture, this was our acknowledgement of the linkage that had occurred. Though from diverse spiritual heritages, together we had made the traditional pilgrimage to great shrines, and those shrines had stilled the troubled waves of our minds.

We had shared darshan, which required neither prayer nor obeisance but was rather an act of seeing, a seeing that submerges the self in a striving after the infinite. And we were going home with a new vision of the faith, pieties and ancient equilibrium that provides the necessary filter with which to face the harsh realities of our worlds.