India is an endless parade of cultures, colors, and chaos spilling like a fount over a vast expanse of cities, villages, and countryside. Trying to describe any single aspect leaves a thousand other integrally tied factors misjudged and misrepresented. Putting it all in perspective isn’t easy as the poverty and piles of refuse can overshadow this country’s rich complex history, monolithic monuments, magnificent temples, and promising future. I have found that when I allow myself to be angry at the intrusions of life’s injustices instead of feeling pity and loathing I can open my heart and mind to accept the unique brilliance India has to offer. India has become indelibly imprinted onto my soul and my view of the world. Today was just such a uniquely brilliant, life changing day in India.
Harsha and I arrived in Aurangabad on Sunday afternoon. In many ways Aurangabad is just one more faceless Indian town with growing prosperity amidst noise, clutter, and horrendous deprivation. What makes Aurangabad so exceptional and awe-inspiring are the enigmatic Ellora and Ajanta caves. Though Aurangabad is a mere postage stamp on the face of the earth it contains an architectural wonder built between 200 BCE and 700 ACE that instills a mind altering perspective of human achievement and faith that is hard to fathom. I’m fairly certain I witnessed the divine and my brain and senses are still reeling from the impact.
Traveling along 100 miles of rambling chaparral and high desert flecked with trees and scattered patches of farmland there is no hint of what lies secreted away amongst the rolling hilltops. Tucked into the curve of a mountainside rising 500 feet above a dry riverbed, etched out of solid rock are a series of elaborately crafted Buddhist temples, monasteries, and assembly rooms known as the Ajanta caves.
These astonishingly intact ancient structures reveals folklore, mythology, and religious piety that emanate from the frescoed painted walls, staunch pillars, towering statues, and impossibly carved bas reliefs perilously hanging from stone rafters and ceilings. The main chambers are extravagantly decorated cleaved in seamless symmetry with pillars perfectly aligned supporting the enormous weight of the mountain above.
What boggles the imagination is that every detail in this sanctuary: every entry way, room, statue, depiction, carving, and column was hewed and shaped from the top down directly out of the rock. There are no separate pieces of stone anywhere; everything is connected to each other and the earth, only the unneeded offcuts and fragments chiseled out of the mountain have been removed. Think of it like Mount Rushmore only infinitely more complex and sophisticated centuries before TNT or advanced equipment and machinery had been invented.
To be exact the only thing separate from the mountain was added on late in its expansion around 7thcentury are the painted walls illustrating in multidimensional portrayals the stories and teachings of the Buddha. Layers of plaster painted with crushed minerals such as lapis lazuli or plant emulsions express in evocative portraits the Buddha’s life. You can’t imagine how advanced these renderings are. Art in Europe wouldn’t catch up with the depth and subtlety of form and composition here until the 15th and 16th centuries. Facial expressions of inordinate beauty and poignant meaning are easily discerned. Loving relationships are composed with clever nuance expressing eternal values for devotees and passersby alike. The images are haunting and unforgettable.
Human achievement over the millennia has been a continuous progression building on the past to create the future, but here in Ajanta the future was already established, time was just waiting to catch up.
Written byPaula Begoun
Paula Begoun nicknamed The Cosmetic Cop and founder of Paula’s Choice skincare. An ardent traveler, with an amazing sense of humor and ability to see beyond the obvious.