Monday, Oct 5
Today, India redeemed itself to me in the form of the Ellora Caves. If I had to leave today, I would do so knowing I had the privilege of walking back through history and glimpsing something magical… and that is a very special gift indeed.
Nothing can really prepare you for things like this. The Ellora caves (and the nearby Ajanta caves, where I will go tomorrow) are huge sanctuaries and temples carved into a mountain side, dating back to the 6th through 10th Centuries. To touch these magnificent stone figures, to walk deep into the cool cavernous and ornately carved spaces that served as places of worship so long ago… well the energy is still there. It emanates from the stone gods staring down upon you and you feel it in every minute detail of the carvings… and the carvings are endless.
My pictures are no different than what shows up on all the google searches, but what I hope to convey here is some of the mystery that brought tears to my eyes more than once today. I should mention, I had a ridiculously difficult time narrowing down which photos to post. 32 ethereal caves and a photography freak make for a lot of options and admittedly, brevity is not one of my fortés… so I have chosen my favorites and the ones I feel depicted the overall ambience best.
As the day begins, my driver urged that we get an early start and our 6:30am departure was not without reward. We arrived at the caves by about 7:15 and I started at the Jain caves to the North (the caves are divided into 3 separate areas spanning 2 kilometers, that correlate chronologically to the religious progression at the time… the Buddhist caves being the earliest, followed by the Hindus and finally the Jain.)
In the early morning light with the mist slowly lifting off the surrounding hills, I walked in utter disbelief at my complete solitude here. To my delight I was the only person around and had these caves all to myself, although the energy of the souls that built them and resided here so long ago clearly surrounded me.
The sun was coming up over the mountains letting light filter through the cave openings in a magnificent way, and I kept vacillating between wild bewilderment as to why no one else was here at this time of day and absolutely no thought whatsoever… just pure emotion. Completely alone, unbothered, uninterrupted, absorbing the beauty and the energy, touching earth turned art, turned sanctuary… well, words escape me.
As the sun rose higher I moved on to the far South end where the Buddhist monasteries were. These vast spaces and their huge carvings were in high contrast to the tight, detailed ornamentation of the Jains, but they had their own appeal for their magnificent size and their simplistic beauty.
Honestly, I was still reeling from my experience at the Jain caves when more magic bestowed itself upon me. Most of these Buddhist caves were used as monasteries, however Cave 10 (they are all numbered, 1-32) is a unique and beautiful shrine. You enter through the outer pillars into a courtyard and then must take your shoes off to enter the inner sanctuary.
The stone floor is cool and incredibly smooth from centuries of footfall, and there before you across the wide open room sits an enormous Buddha, perhaps 12 feet tall. Behind him, a towering stupa. The ceiling above is accented by arching stonework and lined with tiny dancing figures and you cannot help but marvel at the impossibility that all this was carved out of rock inside a mountain so long ago. It is truly mind-boggling.
Again, I was here alone in this breathtaking cavern, my heart racing from awe and disbelief. I wandered barefoot, taking in all the detail, circling this giant Buddha, running my hands over the sensuously shaped stone, feeling as if this could not possibly be real. After what seemed like an eternity, I wandered back outside into the courtyard area and heard someone sweeping. A man then appeared from around a pillar and I nodded hello. He pointed to where I had just come from and asked if I liked? Did I like?! All I could do was simultaneously laugh and cry with my hands held to my heart. Even if I had the words, I was unable to speak them. He smiled back at me and in his thick accent said “come.”
He led me through a small archway and up a steep, dark flight of stone stairs until we ended up on a balcony over looking the courtyard below. Then, he took out a key and unlocked a door (I had noticed a few of these in other caves… makeshift doorways made of wood and screen to keep people out of certain areas) and when we stepped inside, we were on a small indoor balcony and were now above the inner sanctuary looking down upon the immense Buddha below. I guess I was so mesmerized when I was down there I did not notice this tiny balcony from below… or perhaps it was not visible.
Either way, the perspective was unreal. As I stood looking down on the majestic scene, thinking it could not possibly get any better… it did. He started chanting, and the sound, the echo throughout the vast chamber, the resonation against all this stone sent chills down my spine and brought fresh tears to my eyes… and at that point, there was no holding back. I cried at the pure beauty of it… feeling, with my eyes closed for one long moment, that this sound, this sensation, this experience was identical to those who held this space over 1000 years ago. For that moment, that echo crossed through 10 centuries and time simply did not exist.
We were silent then for many minutes, and when I was composed enough to talk with him, he used his flashlight to point out some of the details across the cavern before we headed back downstairs. We then re-entered the sanctuary and sat down on the cool floor in front of the Buddha for a final few moments. He showed me the specific hand mudras that are depicted in the carvings, after which he sang a final, glorious chant.
At this point I simply could not fathom that there had been no other people around and that I had this space and this experience to myself guided by someone who has probably spent the better part of his life maintaining these caves. I could have stayed here forever, but with the appropriate Buddhist acknowledgment of impermanence, it was time to let the moment go and move on. There were more caves to see and I knew the crowds could not be far away.
I thanked Deepak with a heartfelt Namaste and headed off to my last stop… the grandest of all Ellora, the main Hindu temple. As in all the photo’s, scale is hard to grasp, but I found myself thankful to see a few other people around at this point, as they provided the necessary perspective.
This place, this day will be forever engrained in my memory and eternally embedded in my heart. Thank you, Universe, for giving this experience to me.