The Deccan Trap Caves: Divine Art

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Summer's sun was searing his back as he carried a heavy basket of basalt on his head. Balraj's great grandfather had died from exhaustion under the same strain. Finally, though, the young man was able to see the fruits of his family's labor ripen, as artisans commenced their fine sculpture.

When the Kailash temple was complete, after 100 years of hand labor to remove 200,000 tons of rock, the monolith carved from a black cliff in the Deccan Traps would be the largest of its kind in the world. Preceeding it were dozens of other cave temples, both Buddhist and Hindu. Bajraj was satisfied; he had performed god's work according to his capability in society.

For thousands of years, pathways and cartways linked major towns in the heart of India--trade routes, the trail for pilgrims, the route for monks and priests. During the monsoons, Buddhist monks stopped for their rainy season meditations, as the Buddha once did. In the caves, they would find solace and shelter while they listened to the waterfalls cascading from the cliffs outside.

As I traveled to Ajanta, Ellora, Aurangabad, and Ellephanta caves, I imagined dozens of different scenes of yore.

The oldest cave was in Ajanta, a large hall housing a stupa, carved into the basalt cliffs overlooking the Waghora River in the second century BC, when the Maurian Empire had just dissolved and more local kingdoms filled the void. Hundreds of years later, Ajanta would reach its peak, after artisans had finished their masterpieces.

The artisans carefully painted on dry outlines of cinnabar using water-based pigments of kaolin chalk, lamp soot, glauconite, ochre, and lapis lazuli. The glauconite underpaintings of terre verte created a base for human figures, which slowly took shape as light reflected into the cave.

On the ceiling, other artisans drew mandalas and floral patterns as others put finishing touches on Buddha's face. Traders passed by, praying for safe passage, giving donations.

As these merchants stopped for a break from the hot sun, they watched as stories were painted onto the walls. In one story, Buddha taught dharma at Sarnath, the first turning of the wheel. In another story, Buddha incarnated as Chaddanta, the king of an elephant tribe, who used his trunk to saw his tusks from his body to give to a hunter who had shot him with a poisoned arrow. The saffron clad hunter had come seeking revenge from the chief consort of the Madda king, who Chaddanta had previously wronged. This was one of the Jatakatha Tales, detailing the past lives of Buddha and bodhissatvas.

For hundreds of past lives, the Buddha remained a bodhissatva, playing many of the roles of society--king, prince, ascetic, menial, gardener, householder, robber, teacher--and living as many animals--elephant, iguana, parrots, bull, eagle, pig, cat, snake. In each of the past life tales, Buddha was reincarnated in male form, unless I'm forgetting one. Did the artisans of the past wonder why? Either way, these virtuous stories became known, in one form or another, around the world, intertwining, it seems, with Aesop's Fables as the storytellers of the world walked ancient paths and as wanderers stopped at Ajanta and other caves in sacred spots along the trade routes.

Today, you can see these stories and glimpses of life long ago on the walls of Ajanta, although the tempera foundation of lime-covered plaster made from clay, cow dung, and various fibers had begun to crumble in places, leaving only partial stories. Dim lights illuminated many of the murals, though I had a difficulty seeing some images; others were enshrouded in darkness.

For their age, however, the paintings I could see were remarkably well preserved, a function of their remoteness, the climate, and the design of the caves and its art. Other Buddhist caves at Aurangabad and Ellora did not survive as well, perhaps victims of weather, of robbers, of Aurangzeb's Muslim iconoclasts of time. Either way, the crux of the ancient stories depicted in the murals are ingraved in human minds and hearts as part of our primal knowledge.

When Balraj and thousands of other workers had finished the Kailash temple, the Rashtrakuta king Amoghavarsha I presided over the Hindu ceremony that consecrated the temple, his three predecessors were unable to see the fruit of their citizen's labors.

Amoghavarsha I entered the temple along with his entire procession and the Brahmin priests from the caves of Ellora and beyond. The shivalinga, the phallus originally named after the furrowing plow, in the inner sanctum was prepared, carefully blessed, covered in holy water, milk, and offerings. The cloudy water fell from the linga onto the yoni, symbolizing the creation forces of Brahman, the infinite, the all pervasive, the transendent, the everything, the nothing all at once. In this case, the linga was the form of Shiva, the Godhead manifestation of Brahman for Shaivites. For Shaivites, Shiva was the supreme Godhead, representing creation, maintenance, and destruction of the universe all in one.

The king looked at the temple before him and felt god in his heart. He felt the history of ancient wars in his bones. He felt the goddesses, the gods, the many forms of the all pervasive god as they all blessed him and the Kailash temple.

The Kailash temple was a spiritual manifestation of Mt. Kailash, the abode of Shiva and Parvati, his consort or Shakti energy. At Kailash, Shiva and Parvati enjoyed their pasttime of playing transcendental dice, with Shiva cheating and Parvati objecting, loving bickers of the godly couple. Underneath their feet, the demon Ravana shook the world, with Shiva placing his big toe over Ravana to calm him. The king walked through the temple, praying before intricately-painted statues depicting these scenes.

A few yards the north, at a small Hindu cave, a family prayed to the statue of Durga, after all, the harvest was approaching. They prayed to her for a good harvest and protection from evil. Looking into her eyes, they saw her compassion as her feminine energy defeated the buffalo demon Mahisha. She represented the archetypal feminine energy. Only this energy could defeat the demon.

In the myth, the gods could not defeat Mahisha and his army of asuras, who conquered the world. They gods gave Durga all their weapons, and after ten days during which the earth was in shambles, she was victorious. The family gave offerings to Durga, understanding the feminine powers of creation, fertility, love, virtue, and shakti, the divine energy that leads to action. Without Durga, the family realized, their crops would wither and their efforts would lead to naugt. From this, the demon Mahisha would rear his ugly head and spread famine, disorder, misfortune, and violence through the countryside.

Throughout the cave temples of Ellora, I looked at these myths before my eyes, hundreds of years later, the paint fallen from the statues, their hard basalt noses broken by the idol smashers. I imagined the progression of religion across the land, as power ebbed and flowed--Buddhist then Hindu, then Jain then Muslim. Nearby, an elderly woman sat, reading a book as I looked at a few bodhissatvas--both male and female--Tara, Manjushri, Padmapani--in the Buddhist caves. After a while she said hello: "most people don't look as long as you so I wanted to talk to you."

"I've been in India twenty-five years. I've been sculpting all my life, but when I came here, I stopped." She found the divine in art and had written a book about Ellora and other stone caves in the Deccan Traps; Ellora: Concept and Style by Carmel Berson, she showed me over dinner. Calm, composed, caring, she told me a few hints of places to look for juicy sculpture--in Aurangabad, in Elephanta. We talked about art and its meaning, of India, of journeys. After moving from America, she was living in Mumbai, but visited Ellora often. Over a quarter century, she had traveled India, had malaria twice and hepatitis, and had written books. All the shopkeepers and hotel owners knew her. She was a part of Ellora.

"Did you see the Tara and the musicians," she questioned, concerned? "Yes," I said as she breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh good." I had returned from an afternoon at the nearby Buddhist Aurangabad Caves. The ancient caves in general weren't in good condition, but several sculptures--Tara, Padmapani and the mortal fears, and an inner sanctum with praying devotees--made the trip worthwhile.

After reaching Mumbai, I took a ferry to Elephanta Island, where another ancient basaltic Shiva temple rested. In the center of the temple was the all-important shivalinga, guarded by dvarapalas. Behind the shivalinga, however, was an immense sculptural human representation of the linga, the panchamukha linga, the five-faced linga. Only three faces are visible, however--the feminine form of Uma, the wrathful form of Bhairava, and the central form of Mahadeva or Sadashiva.

After reflecting on the trip to the rock caves of the Deccan Traps, I realized the immense story-telling power of images, whether paintings or sculpture. Through these images, the spiritual world was open to all, even the illiterate, who passed the temples on the main trade routes of central India.
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