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Jasmine Dispatch

Caving into History
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.

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The experience was so enchanting in fact, that the peace lingered with Claire and I as we returned from this paradise back into the eye of the storm, downtown Aurangabad. Despite the incessanthorn blowing, the raging auto rickshaw drivers, and the hawkers trying to push their latest steal (the bargain of a lifetime) into the open side of our taxi we seemed to float above the madness unscathed by its aggression. I was lost in thought, wondering about the power of belief in one's faith; a belief so deep that it could fuel such an extraordinary effort.

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.

Click image for
larger view
It wasn't until 1819 that an Englishman, hunting tigers, stumbled upon this labyrinth of rock-carved temples which had been lost to the world for over a thousand years. His first sight of a cave was the obtrusive oval shape from the top of cave ten, the largest and oldest of all of the Ajanta caves. Upon investigation he found clearly cut stairways through the jungle that had grown up around the caves and immediately reported the find to authorities. (But not before carving his name, 'John Smith April 28, 1819 - Calvary', inside the cave.)

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.

Click image for larger view
But I'm getting ahead of myself! Back to those frescoes. The paintings are not technically fresco at all. Fresco is a painting done on a wet surface that absorbs the color. These are more like tempera because they were painted on a dry surface. The paint colors were all natural and derived from local plants and vegetables. Every color except the blue that is, which was called Persian blue because it was imported from modern day Iran.

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.


pristine - original purity, uncorrupted
consecrated - to set apart and declare sacred
incessant - continuing without interruption
obtrusive - projected or jutting out
lotus - an aquatic, flowering herb

The most stunning Buddha is one that is world-renown. Built in the 5th century, this larger than life statue of Buddha, defended by cobra guardians and angelic helpers, changes facial expressions with different angles of light. When the light is shining straight on the front of the statue, Buddha's expression is one of deep, peaceful meditation. When the angle of light comes across the right side of the statue, his lip curls up before your very eyes and he is a smiling Buddha. Then, when the light is shown from the left angle, Buddha looks sad as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders.

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

Jasmine - Cow-Hippie-Gypsy Market
Jasmine - Oooooomm...Meeting Sai Baba
Kavitha - You Had to Ask: Kavitha and Pramila Ponder Their Roots In India

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