13 March 2014

India - 2014

Well, here we are again.  
India, fast becoming a favourite destination of mine, and this time accompanied by four lady friends who are joining me on a visit to the SRSG ashram in Rishikesh followed by a visit to the epicentre of India's spirituality, Varanasi. The visit will conclude with an exploration of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites of Sanchi, Ellora and Ajanta, located in Madhyar Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Delhi continues to both amaze and exhaust. Air quality here has dramatically improved over the last ten years, assisted by the development of the city's Metro system, an insistence on the use of LPG in many classes of vehicles, and a daytime ban on trucks within the city limits. The most visible pollution these days is litter, and then there is the noise, the constant honking of car and truck horns - a tedious backdrop to the pulse of humanity in this huge city.
As some members of our group were new to India, we initiated them into the delights of Chandni Chowk, the old city of Delhi established by the Muslims and now choked with traders of every persuasion. Disembarking from our bicycle rickshaws we toured the wedding market, the bead market, the condensed milk market and the spice market, all within a walk of 15 minutes. Chaotic, fascinating and fun.

Next, a repeat visit to the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, the imposing Sikh temple in central Delhi, once again enjoying the prayer recitation accompanied by accordion and tabla drums, and the spectacle of their communal Pangat, dispensing free food to all-comers. But time was against us, and with a cumulus filled sky threatening a deluge, we moved on to pay a quick visit to Birla House, the site where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, before a lunch at the competent but expensive 'Rendevous'.

Refreshed with Prosecco and a Carlsberg (for moi), we headed into chronically congested roads of south eastern Delhi to reach the largest Hindu temple in the world, the Akshardam complex, housing a magnificent mandir, the approach buildings featuring beautifully crafted 'buff stone' and the mandir itself a combination of white and grey marble. A short visit cannot possibly do this new temple complex justice, but the rich tapestry of carvings is simply awe-inspiring. Note that no cameras are allowed inside, a combination of tight security and crowd management, otherwise I'd still be in there!

Dinner and overnight in the Oberoi Maidens Hotel, the large white colonial building cosseting us after a full-on first day in India.

The second stage of our journey took us, in 'first class A/C', by train to Haridwar. I've learnt to love train travel and this was no exception, the journey giving an insight into the travails of the daily Indian routine, the bustling energy of the city and burgeoning satellite towns, and the slower, impoverished pace of rural life. Haridwar to the ashram, a journey of some 25km, took an hour, the usual chaos prevailing and inimitable Indian driving techniques to the fore. Think 'pull out to overtake a tuk tuk, face an oncoming truck hurtling towards you, pip your horn and pray...'

The ashram, wonderfully located in the foothills of the Himalaya in the state of Uttarakand, was bathed in hot sunshine on arrival, although much of the border planting and associated floral splendour was missing on this occasion as a cobra had been found nesting in one area. Memo to self: keep the front door of my bungalow shut! As I was accompanied this time by some first-timers to the ashram, our host, Silvia Barrata, showed us around and a tentative programme for the next ten days agreed. Some afternoon asana helped to stretch out tired limbs, but the evening lecture on meditation was a major challenge given our jet lag. 

The first full day here is a nominated 'day of silence' (except for our instructors), so a bit of a challenge there, albeit a good way to quickly join the flow of ashram life. The next week or so will have us studying the 'Himalayan' meditation method, with a strong focus on diaphragmatic breathing, asana, pranayama (breathing techniques) and teachings on the yoga philosophy. The ashram was originally established by Swami Rama, but is now in the hands of Swami Veda Bharati, who, incidentally, is on a five year 'silence' just now. It is the base of an organisation that operates worldwide, the Association of Himalayan Yoga Meditation Societies International, AHYMSIN. More on this can be found in my 'India 2011' blog entry.

Our first day subsequently proved to be full-on, starting with the wake up bells at 0415 and prayers (in Sanskrit) before an intensive 'joints and glands' session which is great for warming and stretching every part of the body, followed by meditation even before you can think of breakfast! Classes took us through the benefits of meditation and how to sit properly for meditation, with the day ending with an intensive yoga asana session. A concert of Indian singing completed the day, although for me a swift retirement to my bungalow and Santana was the end of the day for me!

Our second full day started in the same way, except we walked some 45 minutes to reach the Sadhana Mandir, the first ashram established by Swami Rama, beautifully set next to the Ganges river amidst carefully tended gardens. Here we had a guided meditation session followed by breakfast. A nice way to start the day. Lectures on the 'Science of Breathing' followed, reminding me, once again, just how much more there is to learn on the philosophy and practice of yoga.

The day continued with instruction in contemplative walking (or how to take 45 minutes to walk less than 100m), extremely relaxing, and an evening class on the pronunciation of Sanskrit so that we can participate in the early morning and late evening prayers. A full day, and a good sleep followed!

Although a little early in our time at the ashram, we took a day out to visit nearby Rishikesh, as the celebration of the second most important Hindu festival after Diwali - Holi Day - over the two following days meant that it was inadvisable to leave the confines of the ashram, not least because you'd be splattered in paint and there's a lot of drunkeness on the streets. We had a great day, commencing in the German Bakery at the southern end of Lakshman Jhula, and time exploring the Kailas Nikitan temple which affords great views over the Ganges. And then there was the shopping! 
Travelling with a number of lady companions meant that there were numerous diversions all day, with multiple visits to book and clothes shops, and even I was persuaded to invest in some traditional clothing, a white cotton kurta and accompanying churidar (a type of trouser): photos may follow! 
We enjoyed a good lunch of vegetable thali at the restaurant attached to the Madhuban Temple (an ISKCON ashram, followers of Hare Krishna). We paid a brief visit to the temple afterwards, with three musicians chanting 'Hare Krishna' accompanied by accordion and drum, each of us receiving a blessing from the priest here just as we went to leave.

Onwards. Our final visit of the day was to the ghats at Ram Jhula, accessed by a motor boat across the Ganges. We watched the evening aarti, a ceremony held at dusk every evening to bless the Ganga, presided over by a prominent local Guru. Very colourful, music and song, and hugely atmospheric as the sun went down over the far river bank. 

Passing back through the centre of Rishikesh, Saturday night was in full swing, the roads rammed with traffic, so we were particulary grateful for the peace and quiet of the ashram when we finally returned to base. 
A couple of days in the ashram followed, focused on classes on meditation practice, asana and pranayama (breathing control). Sitting in on two one-hour meditations with Swami Veda on the first day of Holi, I discovered the meaning of 'discomfort' - try to sit absolutely still, either crossed legged or on the floor or on a stool, with your back straight and with your awareness only on your breath, and you'll know what I mean. Very difficult, and you have to respect the experts also in the room who can do that for hours, or in the case of the Swami, days. 
However, on the morning of Holi day, I did have a 'breakthrough': I found a sitting position where I could get properly into meditative breathing, and, 'wow', the calm, the complete absence of thought and even physical awareness of your body, was awesome (note I didn't use the word 'sensational' as this would be an oxymoron!). Let's hope this can be repeated. Everyone in our group is reporting better and deeper sleep now, most likely all of us properly chilling out after five days in the ashram. Living in the modern world takes a lot of unwinding.

But, of course it is Holi, and at 1000 the ashram erupted into chaos, with gangs of teachers and students wandering the campus, daubing all-comers in (organic) paint and actively seeking new victims. As I write this I'm hiding in my bungalow, as I hear the water pistols have now come out!
Two of our number did get caught, however, the evidence below!

We took an early morning trip to the small Hindu temple, Kunjapuri, atop a small mountain north of Rishikesh, ostensibly to get a view to the Garhwal Himalaya at sunrise. A very early start was required but we soon reached the cloud base and at the temple itself huddled against the chill of the pre-dawn breeze. We waited, in a grey gloom, for daylight to appear, but the cloud thickened and the rain started, so we retreated back to our car, there gaining some views to the south, the Ganges winding its way through a hazy Rishikesh far below us. 
But then night returned! The clouds thickened and the lightning intensified, soon producing sheets of heavy rain and some hail. Fortunately our driver had chosen to descend at a glacial pace, so we were quite safe, and soon back to the ashram for breakfast. 
It was a strange start to the day, and disappointing for those members of our group who had looked forward to seeing the mountains, but the abiding memory will be the stillness of our wait at the temple, humbled by the silence interrupted by the sporadic rumble of thunder and the spectacle of sheet lightning above us. Isn't nature awesome?
The Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama is one of the world's leading ashrams and hosts the Meditation Research Institute, so we were privileged to be shown the scientific project which is currently engaged in measuring the impact of meditation on the human neurological state. The head of the ashram, Swami Veda Bharati, is now a quarter of the way into a five year 'silence', and is tested on a quarterly basis for changes to his basic physiology and, more importantly, what he is now able to achieve in terms of manipulating his brain function. There is a larger study which is comparing the effects of the ashram's meditation technique, the Himalayan method, which focuses on abdominal breathing above all else, versus other systems like the mantra based TM, and vipassana.
We were able to get some biofeedback on our progress so far, hooked up to measure our abdominal breathing performance vs. chest breathing, and see for ourselves the impact on the respiritory rate and our resultant state of relaxation. The results clearly illustrated the effect of abdominal breathing, and noted that more practice required by all!

Starting my session, breathing rate 21+ breaths per minute, the red line showing chestal breathing and the white line the preferred abdominal breath

Just three minutes later, with concentration, breath rate down to about 9 breaths per minute, and the flatter red line showing less dependence on chestal breathing and a more rhythmic and deeper abdominal breath

The following day, we enjoyed a full day out of the ashram, in fabulous weather. Setting off early for Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakand, we were dropped off in the Tibetan refugee's enclave in Clement Town, just south west of the centre. This is the home of a giant standing Śākyamuni Buddha, the Mindrolling Monastery of the Nyingma-pa sect and the Great Stupa. 
The whole enclave is beautifully kept, in stark contrast to the Indian areas peripheral to it, with houses adorned with prayer flags, Buddhist symbols and flowers in abundance. We were made very welcome in the area, first making a circumnabulation of a smaller stupa attached to a more compact monastery of the Gelug-pa sect, occupied by two young monks who were chanting a puja for a flock of elderly Tibetans who subsequently enjoyed a free breakfast, courtesy of the local monks, under a large awning. Very atmospheric and friendly. 

We were allowed into the stupa to observe the monks, before walking a little south to visit the main monastery of the area, the Mindrolling Monastery. This is the base for some 300 monks and within the monastery we found excellent statues of Śākyamuni and the great teacher Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), the walls adorned with multiple images of both, and larger frescoes of the various deities such as Hevajra.

Our final stop here was back at the smaller Gelug-pa monastery, Phakyul Palden Tashi Yae Khil, with many young monks milling around before their English language class, and the monastery was opened especially for us. Imagery here was more focused on Śākyamuni and the adept Tsongkhapa, plus numerous images of the head of the Gelug-pa, the current Dalai Lama.

A nice visit, enjoyed by all of us and it set up the rest of the day nicely.
We ventured back into the congested centre of Dehradun before turning north into the hill country which builds up to the very high summits of the Garhwal Himalaya. The road ascended from the flat plains around Dehradun and after many switchbacks, we reached the hill town of Mussorie, established by the British in the 19th century as a resort area, and subsequently as a convalescent area for military personnel. 

We pushed on a little further uphill to reach Landour on the ridge above Mussorie, now at 2100m, and had lunch in Rokeby House, previously owned by one Frederick 'Pahari' Wilson, adventurer and entrepreneur, who was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's 'The Man Who Would Be King'. It was subsequently a boarding house for Methodist missionaries, then a guest house before becoming a heritage hotel & restaurant. Excellent food, service and atmosphere. Highly recommended!

A post-prandial walk was a must, and we walked what is known as the 'chukka', an old bridle route, now surfaced as a minor road, which provides a great circular walk with views to the higher Himalaya to the north, viewed though giant pine and deodar trees, and views to the south and west over Mussorie and down to Dehradun in the far distance. From this vantage point, the river Ganges and Yamuna can be seen, their next meeting point many hundreds of miles away to the east in Allahabad. Wonderful views, fresh, cooler air. A beautiful afternoon.

The return to the ashram took a couple of hours, but the effort of the day well worth it.

Says it all really 😊

Our final two days in the ashram were of quiet study (I'm currently struggling through Mircea Eliade's Yoga - Immortality and Freedom), asana and meditation practice. Although there's a natural impetus to return to the 'normal world' there is a progressive calm, in body and mind, emerging. It's difficult to put into writing, but I'm certainly more mindful of what's going on around me, feeling greater equanimity, and able to feel fully relaxed with little effort. Sleep has deepened, with more lucid dreaming than I can ever remember, and overall, a feeling of calm contentment prevails. Attending the final prayer session on the evening before our departure, I felt no burning desire to leave, as I did last time, and could easily have remained here longer.

But, return to the world we must. So an early morning start to catch the Jan Shatabdhi from Hardiwar to New Delhi and the comfort awaiting us at the Raddison Blu in Connaught Place. The experience of travelling on Indian railways is a must. All life is there. People sleeping on the platforms, beggars in profusion, food stalls, and the usual bunfight to board the train. We were in first class a/c, although on this occasion, the only thing 'first class' about it was the pitch of the seats. Hey ho, it was moderately comfortable, and a wonder to watch the sun rise as we headed south from Hardiwar.

A day of R&R in Delhi, gorging on Kingfisher beer, G&Ts for the ladies, and meat, meat, meat. Too much as it turned out...we all decried the after effects of suddenly returning to our normal indulgences, the comparison with the simpler, cleaner diet we had all been on in the ashram showing just how unhealthy our long term regime really is, well, certainly in my case! But, we were soon on the move again. This time heading for the new Delhi domestic airport terminal, which, as it turns out, is a delight. Modern, efficient sporting stores like WH Smith, Costa and M&S, plus some nice design touches like the statue of a well known yoga sequence called Surya Namaskar, the 'salute to the sun'. Stylish.

We flew for about an hour on JetKonnect to Varanasi, about 500 miles south east of Delhi, a small but vibrant city which sits on the sacred river Ganges, and is a site if pilgrimage for millions of Hindus and also for Buddhists. A quick lunch enjoyed at the Radisson in the city, then it was off to visit the site of the Buddha's first sermon, the Deer Park in Sarnath, 10km north of the city. First a look at the archeological museum there, containing atrifacts dating back to the 3rd century BCE...many damaged following the Moghul (Islamic) invasions in 12th century CE, but there are some sublime images of Śākyamuni Buddha and early representations of bodhisattvas that came to be revered from the 1st century CE. Then to the Deer Park itself, with many stupas (well, in most cases only the bases, a result of Islamic vandalisation and erosion over the centuries), some for relics, other for commemoration (notably the large, restored Dhammachakra stupa, which marks the site of Buddha's 'first turning of the wheel of Dharma'), and the more numerous votive stupas, built by followers of the Buddha as an act of respect. It's a very peaceful spot just beyond the manic city of Varanasi, and there were Buddhist groups from Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka, plus a smattering of Tibetan/N. Indian monks, all in prayer around the site. Hugely atmospheric.

In Sarnath, there is also a large standing Buddha, built by donation, to replicate the famous Bamiyan Buddha destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan a few years ago.

But for any tourist visit to Varanasi, one of the great highlights is the early evening visit to see the daily aarti, a series of prayers and rituals to the many Hindu gods, including, of course, the sacred Ganga. A long and entertaining ride on a bicycle rickshaw brought us to the ghats, the steps that take worshippers down to the river itself. This involves hundreds of near misses with cars, auto rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, cows, bulls, random people of all religious persuasion, and other bicycle rickshaws, crossing chaotic roundabouts, passing through markets and shops selling just about everything, and Hindu temples and mosques revealing themselves at every turn. Great fun.

At the main Dashashwamedh ghat itself, we were able to sit on a balcony just above the ceremonial site and get a good view of the proceedings. Thousands of people throng here each evening, the ceremony starting at 1830 and lasting just over half an hour, seven pandits going through a choreographed sequence of offerings, involving much incense and fire, accompanied by sung prayer and music. Pilgrims and tourists alike crowd the ghat steps, whilst others view from a flotilla of boats which cling to the shoreline. This is one of the world's most iconic sites, and well worth the visit if you can stand the crowds and the noise.

The return from the ghats to our bus was just as entertaining, the crowd streaming away from the ceremony, and the streets alive with vendors selling all sorts of tat, and food stalls doing a roaring trade. A great thing to do!

We were up early to return to the ghats the following morning, this time to take to a rowing boat to observe the early morning ablutions, prayers and blessings of the Hindu pilgrims, who routinely bathe and consume the 'holy water' of the Ganga. Yet another example of the amazing spirituality of the Indian people, in all of its various manifestations, from the 'happy clappy' style of the Hare Krishna followers, the insanely decorated wandering sadhus, white clad yogis with shaved heads apart from a little tuft retained from the crown, and then the multifarious followers of Shiva and Vishnu. 
Pilgrims come from all over India to bathe here, many consuming the river water (well known for its noxious content), although our guide insisted that none of them fall ill afterwards. Yeh, right.
After viewing the main ghats upstream, we reversed direction, and were soon at the principal 'burning ghat', the site for many Hindu cremations each day, a major user of wood, and producing mounds of ash, most of which is unceremoniously swept into the river (and upstream of more bathing ghats!). There's even a role for the untouchables who do this (lucrative) work, panning the ash at the edge of the river for any gold remaining after the body has been consumed by fire.
Landing at the burning ghat, we were led up into the main part of Varanasi's old city, a veritable warren of narrow alleyways, teeming with cows, goats, and pilgrims heading for the Golden Temple, a most important site, particularly as the Muslims had erected a mosque over its original site back in history, still a very sore point. Security presence was very tight here, no bags, cameras, phones to be taken into the temple complex at all, and frisk searches on entry mandatory.
As non-Hindus, we were not allowed into the inner sanctum to view the lingum, but instead sat and tried some delicious chai masala, very welcome after our early start.

After a breakfast break, we then visited the non-religious 'temple to Mother India', housing a large 3D representation of the Indian sub-continent carved from marble in the 1920s. Worth a quick look. Then on to the inevitable - a visit to the Muslim sector of Varanasi, to see its thriving weaving industry. Predictably, this led to a shop selling fine quality hand woven silk items and some impressive salesmanship. Yawn. The group then retreated to the hotel for some R&R given that afternoon temperatures at this time of the year (March) rise to the mid '30s C, bound for Delhi the following day.

But for two of us this was to be the last chance to see Varanasi as we were heading for the railway station to get the 1550 Kamayani Express to, of all places, Bhopal. The train journey took over 15 hours, and on this route first class isn't offered so we resigned ourselves to a long night in 'second class A/C', an experience that wasn't bad at all, both of us having a long comfortable sleep (probably aided by the rocking motion of the train) in a bunk bed arrangement parallel wth the corridor and privacy afforded by curtains. Much better than expected!
Bhopal was to be our base for the next couple of days, with a plan to visit Sanchi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 46km to the north east of the city, and site of the Great Stupa, commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, which is the oldest stone structure in India.

Our arrival in Bhopal was uneventful, although it was noteworthy that everything here looks a lot more ordered and clean than Varanasi. And even the little tin roofed shacks huddled up against the railway tracks as we approached the city station had satellite dishes sprouting from the rooftops. Our hotel, the Noor Us Sabah Palace, is splendidly situated on a hill just to the west of the city, overlooking Upper Bhopal Lake (Bhojtal). It is a converted Moghul palace and offers old style service, plus a spa and good internet. A good spot for the next day or two before another overnight train adventure.

Sanchi is about 48km north east of Bhopal, a journey of about an hour, on good tarmac, eventful only for a collision we had with an enraged (and very large) water bison who had been having a spat with another of its kind. Our driver swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but the animal put a big dent in the rear offside of our jeep, and smashed the rear quarter light. No significant damage to us passengers, although some aches for one us tomorrow methinks. 
Anyway, after that little bit of excitement we crossed the Tropic of Cancer, and headed through rich arable country, wheat being mechanically harvested, bordered by numerous sandstone bluffs. 

Sanchi is a delight. Guides are employed by the Archeological Survey of India, and we had a good tour,  viewing the original stupas, associated monasteries that followed during the Mahāyāna and Vajrayana evolutions, and observing the development of Buddhist iconography as the site continued its pre-eminence through to the 12th century CE. It's a beautiful setting up on a hill and nicely maintained too. There were no other western tourists in sight, perhaps due to the soaring temperatures, today around 36C.
There's also a museum, showing pictures drawn immediately after its discovery by British military officers in the 1800s and then completely overgrown, and housing many early Buddha images and artefacts. A good spot for Buddha enthusiasts!

We had a day to pass in Bhopal after our Sanchi exploration, as our train for Aurangabad leaves just after midnight. So, we took a tour of this city of 5 million souls, unfortunately best known for a major toxic gas explosion at the Union Carbide plant in December 1984 which killed an estimated 4,000 people and injured, some permanently, over half a million people. The site has now been cleared, the event marked by a modest but poignant memorial nearby. 

But today, Bhopal is a thriving, clean and plenty city to visit, the standard of roads and civic responsibility in stark contrast to the filth of Varanasi. The current chief minister of the state of Madyhar Pradesh is clearly an enlightened man, having reduced female infanticide dramatically over the last ten years by state funding of dowries, having supported farmers left destitute and hungry after flooding, and achieving a degree of cleanliness not seen in any other city seen so far on my travels around India. Litter is still there but minimal, roads are mainly well surfaced, and there is beautiful flower planting on the periphery of the city, especially adjacent to the large man made lake that wraps itself around the western side of the city. 
Add to that some superb new museums, and I mean superb if the newly opened Tribal Museum is anything to go by, and some impressive mosques that were empty of tourists but nonetheless accessible and welcoming. Bhopal's population is 40% Sunni Muslim, the rest mainly Hindu.
We visited the largest mosque in Asia, the Taj-ul-Masajid, built over the period 1868-1991, one side of which borders a large lake planted with water chestnut. 

And we also dropped in on the Jama Masjid, built in 1730 by the then female ruler ('Begum'), accessed via a hassle free and friendly bazaar. Completing our circuit of Central Bhopal opposite a fine bronze statue of Nehru, we visited Moti Masjid, completed in 1780 by another Begum. 

Returning to the hotel, we visited the excellent new Tribal Museum, with very impressive external and internal design standards, before a short tour along the southern fringe of the city's lake, fringed with wall murals and prodigious plantings of colourful bougainvillea. Impressive throughout.
And then...another long train journey to look forward to, only 11.5 hours this time, so a glass of beer and a nice massage in the hotel spa enjoyed in readiness for another night on the Indian railway system.

The night on the railway system took a little longer, however. Our train, which originated 17 hours earlier in Amritsar in the far north west of India was an hour late, so a long wait in Bhopal's 'upper class' lounge (defined by clean toilets and only one cockroach spotted) ensued. The train was reasonably full, with many Sikhs who use this route to travel south to another of their famous Gurdwaras. Our bunks were in a compartment of 2+2, and laterally positioned so that the ride was akin to being on a small rowing boat side on to the current. 

Anyway, fitful sleep was achieved and as we pressed further south into the state of Maharashtra the land became drier in places, interspersed with impressive rock outcrops, almost desert like in places. The agriculture is very different here too, with fields of sunflower, cotton, maize and sugar cane on the flatter ground.
We arrived in Aurangabad in Maharasthra state (400km north east of Mumbai) at about midday, and were whisked to our accomodation, the huge Lemon Tree Hotel, for a quick freshen up before heading for our next objective, the Ellora Caves, about an hours drive away. Aurangabad is a city of 1.5m people, with a good industrial base encouraged by cheap land and cheap labour, so Johnson & Johnson, Skoda and Fosters Lager all have facilities here. The traffic is heavy throughout the city, but when the open road was reached we were into expansive landscapes punctuated by basalt hills and outcrops.
But it was the spectacle of Ellora we had come to see, and it did not disappoint. Set in the Charanandri Hills, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has 34 temples and monasteries hewn from the fine grained basalt rock, five of which are Jain, seventeen are Hindu and twelve are Buddhist. The juxtaposition of these sites of worship clearly illustrate a marvellous period of religious tolerance in ancient Indian history.
It's about 30km to Ellora from Aurangabad and the journey takes you into the Western Ghats past the impressive Daulatabad Fort, set on top of a prominent basalt outcrop, and surrounded by extensive fortifications. We didn't visit as we only had time to see Ellora, and the prospect of climbing 750 steps to get the top somehow seemed unattractive in the 36C heat!
We started our tour of Ellora with a visit to the Jain temples, carved out of solid rock in the 9th and 10th centuries, and attributable to the Digambara sect. Although the central figure looks like the Buddha, it is Mahavira, the 24th in the Jain lineage.

Some visitors from Gujerat who seemed very keen to see their picture on my camera!

The Hindu temples occupy centre stage in Ellora. Built over 200 years from mid 6th century to late 8th century by carving out rock from the top and sides, before the detailed excavation and carving of the intricate iconography, these structures are truly impressive. The principal site, Cave 16, best known as Kailasa, involved the removal of 200,000 tonnes of rock and took 100 years in the making. The Hindu temples here are mainly Shaivite, and the Kailas temple resembles a huge chariot, with the core temple designed to resemble Mount Kailas. This site, carved from a single rock, covers an area twice that of the Parthenon in Athens, truly remarkable.

The Kailas temple, Kailasanatha

An iconic figure in Indian art - Ravana attempting to lift Mount Kailas, the abode of Lord Shiva

Figures from the Ramayana epic

Giant pillar representing the 'glory' of the Hindu pantheon

Great views of Kailasanatha from the top of the rock

And, finally we walked on to see the Buddhist monasteries (viharas) and the single prayer hall (chaitya), also carved out of solid rock a little after the Hindu constructions, around 630-700CE. This was the time when Mahāyāna Buddhists were well established throughout India, and the iconography has the Buddha (Śākyamuni) surrounded by bodhisattvas and other celestial manifestations. In some of the halls the craftsmen of the day recreated the look of wood in the carved stone.

Cave 12, 'Tin Tala' - a multi storied Buddhist monastery, with sleeping quarters, kitchens, living spaces and a chapel

Cave 10, the 'Carpenter's Cave', also known as 'Visvakarma', a chaitya (prayer) hall, with ceiling carved to give the impression of wooden beams

Śākyamuni Buddha flanked by Avalokiteśvara and Maitreya, the future Buddha. He is in teaching posture, vyakhyana mudra.

Suitably rested overnight, we headed to the rock monasteries and prayer halls at Ajanta, 115km (about two hours) north west of Aurangabad. Constructed in two phases, firstly in 2nd century BCE during the period of the early sangha, and with further development between 460-480CE during the Mahāyāna phase. The wall and ceiling paintings here are remarkably well preserved for their age, having been applied by the 'dry fresco' method - painting applied to a dry plaster surface. The preservation of this remarkable site was aided by the fact that the caves were abandoned sometime after the end of the reign of Harishena (c.480CE) and remain undisturbed and hidden by vegetation until 1819 when a British military officer, out hunting, stumbled across them. It was adopted by the Archeological Society of India, and more recently the Maharashtra Tourist Board has developed a huge visitor centre, complete with full sized replicas of four of the key caves. We visited this briefly, and it's a very large project and the quality of the reproduction of the actual caves has to be seen to be believed. 'White elephant' comes to mind though, as currently it's been sidelined due to political diffrences between the various authorities and is away from the tourist bazaar that guards the main entrance.
All this apart, Ajanta is a triumph of human ingenuity, sheer effort and artistic brilliance.
The early caves were hewn out of the cliffs during the Satavahana period (100BCE to 100CE) and are a mixture of viharas and chaitya. At this time the representation of the Buddha was aniconic, and he was represented by a stupa rather than a figurative sculpture.

Ajanta, monasteries and temples cut into the cliffs above the horseshoe shaped gorge containing the Waghora river
Fine carvings and wall paintings in Cave 2

The second construction phase of the Ajanta complex, creating 20 temples, came during the Vãkãtaka period, during the reign of Emperor Harishena. This occurred when Mahāyāna Buddhism was prevalent in India, and there were also some iconographic additions to the earlier temples, but in Ajanta it is the image of Śākyamuni Buddha that dominates, with some bodhisattvas as attendants.  
Throughout Ajanta, the paintings illustrate tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, known as the Jatakas, and the story of the life and times of Śākyamuni Buddha.

Cave 10, a chaitya hall, from the first phase of development. No figure of the Buddha was used at this time. The stupa represents him instead and is the object of veneration.

Cave 10, an early chaitya in which paintings were added following patron donations in the second period
More stupa representations of the Buddha in the earliest caves
A typical vihara, square in shape, small dormitory cells cut into the walls, with a shrine at the rear featuring Śākyamuni Buddha. 

Well preserved ceiling art

Cave 19, a chaitya hall, with standing Buddha in front of a stupa

Reclining Buddha, in paranirvana, in Cave 26
Cave 26, Buddhas and bodhisattvas lining the walkway around the stupa, a circumnambulation performed by Buddhists in a clockwise direction and known as pradakshina

Cave 24, half built, showing the method of construction, typically started by cutting a narrow tunnel at roof level, then expanded downwards and outwards

And so we come to the end of this particular odyssey. A heady mix of ancient spirituality and modern Indian life. A flight from Aurangabad to Delhi, about two hours, and Delhi to London on BA...roast beef and a can or two of Fuller's London Pride are definitely on the agenda!

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