Possibilities of Space (Ellora)

We took a bus to the caves at Ellora. Usually we take rickshaws, but given the choice between a 1000 rupee (about $17) private taxi tour or a 30 rupee (50 cents) local bus, we decided to give the local option a try.  Although local buses usually put sardine cans and clown cars to shame with what a friend called ‘human tetris’  and buses (and all Indian cars) usually employ some serious stunt driving, we took a chance and were rewarded with a surprisingly comfortable bus ride.

We got off the bus and waded through the usual tourist sight mob. Anxiously waiting by the entrance to such sights are a sea of street merchants and tour guides, swarming tourists like mobs of teenage girls at a Beatles concert.

“Sir, sir: here is a guide of the caves. There are 34 caves. The guide tells you everything…” “My friend, where are you from? Would you like a guide? I can tell you everything…” “Sir, excuse me, sir, would you like a necklace? This beautiful necklace? Maybe for your wife? Or camel? Very pretty, handmade in this town. Or elephant? I have everything…”

Jevhon and I have developed very different strategies to deal with touts. I start politely with a “No, thank you” and try to explain: “We’re exploring on our own and we don’t need a guide,” or “No thanks, I have plenty of camels.” But these guys are persistent. I clearly did not understand the amazing service they are offering. So they keep at it and I get a little more frazzled: “Sir, we’re fine! No thank you!” Eventually one of us gets exhausted and we go our separate ways. But by the time I’ve gotten free, Jevhon is always half a block ahead of me.

Jevhon has developed a different strategy. She feigns a kind of inattentive deafness or ‘sophisticated spaciness’. She greets every and all touts with a smile, a nod, and then continues walking without acknowledging any of their calls. She calls hers ‘more effective.’

Perhaps.

As we made our way to the caves, which are set inside green hills, lush with trees, shrubs and monsoon waterfalls, we happened upon monkeys, whole packs of them. There were two kinds: ones with brown hair, red faces and butts, and ones with white hair and black faces. Groups of people gathered around the monkeys to take pictures, and at least the white-haired ones looked nonplussed. We bought some bananas from a vendor and threw a few to the white-haired ones sprawled on the sidewalk by our feet. They quickly grabbed them, peeled them, ate the white, pulpy inside and then chomped down the peel.

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We saw some brown-haired ones by a tree away from the sidewalks and we wanted to reward them for being less pushy than the white-haired ones. “They’re just shy,” we thought, “how cute.” So we went onto the grass and threw them a few bananas. They, too, quickly grabbed and ate them voraciously, and seemed satisfied.

Until there was no more banana.

They turned slowly, bared their teeth, and barreled towards us. Fight or flight. We ran. Also like teenage girls at a Beatles concert. Once we got clear to the sidewalk, with everyone laughing and pointing at us, someone came up to us and said, “Only feed the white ones. They’re nicer.”

Racist.

We came to Ellora not only because the famed sculptures are literally marvelous but also because my Great Aunt, Carmel Berkson, a scholar of Indian art and sculpture, did many years of research in the caves. She lived in India for almost half a century. She stayed at the Salvation Army in Mumbai. She swam laps everyday at a nearby pool. But for months at a time she basically lived in these caves. She wrote books about them and she replicated the style of the sculptures in her own art. Could some caves really be that impressive? While I’ve never had a close relationship with Carmel, what with her living halfway across the world and all, I wanted to see what inspired her desire to spend more than forty years living and working in Mumbai.

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Gazing upon the temple at cave 16, the largest monolithic structure in the world.

Built over a period of more than 400 years (about 600 AD – 1000 AD) the caves at Ellora house some of the most impressive works of sculpture in the world (if you’re to hear my Aunt Carmel tell it), including religious shrines, monasteries and assembly halls. The caves are split up into three sections: Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain. While there are other collections of caves like these in India, including the nearby Buddhist caves of Ajanta, the breadth of religious tradition and the testament to medieval sculpture makes Ellora unique.

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The caves are dark echoing chambers, lit only by the few rays of sun that make it through the entrance. The water dripping from above and the pungent smell of bat droppings create dank, musky conditions. Sculptures of deities or meditation cells surround the room, with a main shrine at the back wall. In this day and age of architectural dioramas and pizzas made by 3D printers, it struck me profoundly that these caves and sculptures were slowly and carefully carved by a monk with a hammer and chisel, and some time.

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Inside the Buddhist temples

The contrast between the Hindu and Buddhist caves was palpable. In the Buddhist caves, we immediately felt a sense of calm, as if the aura of the meditating monks and the humming of their mantras were infused in the walls and we were absorbing it. The peaceful vibe seemed to be reflected in the simple surroundings. If there was a sculpture in the cave, it was of the Buddha, seated in a preaching position, flanked and guarded by simply dressed bodhisattvas, but not much more.

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The Hindu caves, on the other hand, were downright festive. Ornately decorated sculptures of Krishna, Shiva, Lakshmi, Ganesh and more filled the rooms. While the Buddhist caves reminded us of the silence of meditation, the flamboyant attire and the dramatic gestures of the Hindu sculptures brought us back to the blasting music and spirited dancing of festivals, the chaos and dynamism of India. The Hindu caves gave the sense that these sculptures were in no way inanimate.

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The festive, alive sculptures of the Hindu caves.

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After a few hours of browsing the caves in the afternoon sun, we needed to take a rest. We walked down the road to Hotel Kailas, where my Aunt Carmel stayed while researching the caves, to say ‘hello’ to her old friend, the owner, Sureka. Sureka showed us some well-appreciated Indian hospitality.  Even though we were only a distant relation of an old friend, she offered us lunch and tea and a place to stay. She opened up to us about her life, family, and the struggles with running the hotel. And after a long, intimate talk we hugged and said goodbye, feeling more like old friends than acquaintances of only a couple of days.

We couldn’t find the bus when we were ready to leave so we opted to spend a few more rupees on a shared jeep for what we thought were comfier seats and a shorter ride. However, as we started driving, it became steadily more crowded. More and more people kept getting in. After a while, it seemed like we were more concerned with breaking a record than getting to our destination. We counted ten, twelve, fourteen, eighteen, twenty… what? We’re stopping again?! We held our breath. I don’t know folks, can this family of five fit?! Is it possible?? Can they do it??!?

You know it’s a precarious situation when even the Indians start groaning.

By the time we made it to back to our hotel, we had at least 25 people crammed into the two rows and the seats in trunk. But I can’t say for sure how many people were holding onto the bumper or sitting on the roof.

Whether in a cave or a jeep, in the arms of a new friend, or with thoughts of a distant relative, it’s amazing what we can do with space.

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