May 24, 2000
I'd spent the day at what some call the most magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples in all of India; the cave temples, carved into the stone cliffs at Ajanta and Ellora. After seeing these visions for myself, I would surely agree. The very location of the temples was pure and pristine. Deep valley forests, serene and mystical, seemed a world away from the hectic, noisy streets of India. The caves were stunning, each unique in design, some dating back over two thousand years.
Dominating the view at the cave temples at Ellora, is the magnificent Kailasa Temple, or "Temple of the Gods", a well-known masterpiece. Kailasa temple, built by King Krishna I of the Rashtrakut dynasty in 760 CE, was the ultimate gesture of honor to the gods, and a grand feat of architecture. Twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens, this incredible endeavor required the removal of 200,000 tons of rock and is cut from a single piece of stone!
Kailasa, is a representation of the great Mount. Kailasa. This is Shiva's, the god of destruction, home in the Himalayas. It is still a pilgrimage site for Hindu believers today. But Hinduism is not the only religion represented in the Ellora cave temples, Buddhism and Jainism are equally present; and all three religions exist side by side on this sacred land. Ellora was once the crux of a major trade route, and its strategic position gave traveling merchant disciples a resting place to meditate, pray and sacrifice offerings to the gods. The cave temples at Ajanta, however, were not so well-known, and farther off the beaten trail.
UNESCO has long since declared these caves World Heritage Sites and has worked to preserve their legacy and history. From end to end, each cave tells a story that paints a very clear picture of the evolution of Buddhism from 2nd century BCE to 650 CE. As the designs of the caves get more elaborate we also begin to peek into the way of life far back in time.
I was amazed when I saw the famous Ajanta frescoes that decorate the insides of the caves from ceiling to floor. Is this religious graffitti? You would never believe that you were standing inside a cave! The mountains have been carved and sculpted into huge statues of Buddha, surrounded by precise rows of columns, sunken floors, and vaulted ceilings.
To create the look, monks would first coat the stone walls with a mixture of cow dung and rice husks, allow that to harden and dry, then cover the surface with narratives depicting scenes from Buddha's life. They would also use decorative designs like lotus blossoms, flowers, animals, and geometric abstractions on the ceilings.
The paintings are from the Jakatmala (stories Buddha told for moral lesson), they depict these moral lessons and show Buddha in his various incarnations. Buddha was once a pink elephant, a monkey, a king, and a beggar, all of which he remembered once he reached enlightenment and became Buddha.
Clues can be found in the paintings that show the way people lived. Over 100 different hair styles are depicted in the women. And they were very color coordinated with a great fashion sense. Okay, fashion sense may depend on your taste. In one picture of two men sitting together drinking wine, one man has on a blue cap with a striped shirt and matching blue socks. The other man has a matching red beret like cap to top off his red pants ensemble.
In addition to the fashion do's and don'ts, the sculptures in the caves speak to the way of the times. As a matter of fact, you'll notice that in the older caves Buddha was not yet worshipped as a god (because he had not reached enlightenment at that time) so he was not depicted in the carvings as he is in the later caves. Instead, the people worshipped the huge stuppa. As the people evolve into worshipping Buddha, stuppas are no longer a part of the cave décor. Small rooms toward the back of the temple are then consecrated to hold enormous statues of Buddha in various positions and postures.
There is so much history in India, and it stretches back thousands of years. Stay tuned as we continue to discover the fascinations of this beautiful land.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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