Monday, February 6, 2012

Around the World: Ajanta

February 6, 1992

While I was waiting for the bus to take me to the Ajanta caves, I met Alain from Switzerland, who has also been on his own since arriving in India almost a week ago. We introduced ourselves and promptly gave each other a huge hug. Anywhere else, that might seem like an odd way to greet someone you've just met. Consider though, that I'm used to finding other backpackers along the way and since I arrived, Alain is the first person I've seen that isn't from India. Today, we found sanctuary, a haven of familiar. Like strangers who have shared a similar crisis, nothing more needs to be said. Just tell me your name.

Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra
UNESCO World Heritage Site

There are a total of twenty-nine caves at Ajanta, all hand-carved from the steep rock face of a deep gorge. They contain a well preserved historical recording of a time when Buddhism was thriving in India (200 BC to 650 AD). When Buddhism went into decline, the caves were abandoned and remained untouched until 1819, when a hunting party accidentally discovered them. Except for some heavy handed restoration work shortly after their discovery, the caves' paintings and sculptures have been meticulously preserved since.

There is no source of light in the caves.  The most effective way to see them is to join up with any of the plentiful tour groups and take advantage of their powerful flashlights. Alain and I are about to discover something about the peculiarities of acclimatising to India.  It's not a place where one can just arrive and absorb.  Adjusting to the constant sensory overload demands periodic pauses to process and regroup.  Alain and I are overdue for a release and because of this, I have just two words.

Sorry, Buddha.

On one tour, the guide is talking about a painting on the cave wall. "Here you can see Buddha's arm," and he snaps his fingers to direct everyone's attention. Then he mentions another point of focus and Snap! Alain randomly adds finger snaps; each time the guide says the word "and", or if someone clears their throat. Soon, some members of the tour group join in amusement and add their own misplaced snaps, completely unhinging the now very irritated tour guide. It's hard to giggle quietly in a cave that echoes the faintest sound.

Ajanta Caves, Buddha
Photo by Richard Harper

In another cave is a Buddha statue carved from the stone. Depending on how light is directed onto the face, Buddha is either smiling or frowning in thought. This tour guide places the flashlight on a stone to focus the light and when he claps his hands, another man runs out of the cave's shadows to move the light. Suddenly the light isn't where the tour guide would like it and the guy in the shadows doesn't understand what the guide wants and a verbal brawl between them ensues. Once that tour group is gone, Alain and I try moving the light with hand clapping, but for some reason, it doesn't work for us.  It seems to me that the stone Buddha looks happiest when he's left alone.

Goofing around aside, I did appreciate the history and significance of the Ajanta caves, although a day spent laughing is as equally soul enriching as learning, if not more so. Sharing some laughs with a new friend makes the sensory assault of India a little more bearable.  Like the stone Buddha, sometimes the light needs to be aimed properly to get the perspective you need. 

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"There is a destiny that makes us brothers: no one goes his way alone,
All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own."
~Edwin Markham