Today was a great day; despite starting it by locking my self out of my room…
Our main activity for today was visiting the Ajanta Caves. But in the course our day, three themes stood out above all the rest.
Reminders of Home:
On the way to the caves, we discovered the first of two things that we Nebraskans will flock to. While traveling, we stopped at a rural Indian truck stop for a break. As we pulled into the parking lot in this farming community, we sat in awe as we saw…
I can only imagine what the locals thought about a group of tourist piling out of a bus and toward an old dirty tractor. While industrializing rapidly, India still has an agrarian economy. Approximately 65% of India remains rural and reliant on agriculture. Nebraska being an agricultural state, the tractor was a welcome reminder of home. Naturally we ran over and took turns climbing onto the tractor for pictures. Later we talked with the owners of the stop, learning that they own the truck stop and farm the land behind it. We took sometime to wander their farm and ask questions about their life style.
The second reminder of home that we found was shopping. Right before returning to the hotel, we stopped at a factory that helps to teach the ancient art of making shawls on hand operated looms. The manager of the shop showed us the different looms used over the years and taught us a little bit about how they operate. After, he took us to a show room where he brought out examples of shawls created in that very shop, all for sale. Watching our group dig through the massive pile of textiles reminded me of going to the fabric story with my wife. The same vigor and excitement filled the room that I see in my wife as she finds the perfect cloth. We left that shop with many full bags, and much lighter wallets.
Over the course of our two days in Arungabad, we managed to get our local tour guide, Sanjay, off topic many times. One of the most enjoyable ones was when he spoke about his engagement to his wife.
Arranged marriages are a common part of Indian culture, and Sanjay was no exception. In Hindu culture, the process of finding a partner for marriage becomes a family and even community affair. Sanjay described the process of how his parents were introduced to his bride-to-be through an aunt. The mother and the aunt first discussed arranging Sanjay’s wedding while attending another one. This aunt acted as the matchmaker; saying she knew just the girl.
Not long after parents of the girl traveled to meet Sanjay and his parents for an interview. Upon the approval of the girl’s parents, Sanjay’s mother and father traveled to the girl’s city, to meet this young woman. Because of the distance, they brought Sanjay, and he stayed in his aunts house, while the interview happened. Only once both sets of parents were satisfied, could Sanjay meet his bride-to-be.
After meeting, Sanjay only had 20 minutes to decide if this was the woman he was to marry. His first reaction was to say “I want to think about it…”; a polite way to say no. Then Sanjay said that he felt like he “had to trust his culture.” Arranged marriages in India have existed for thousands of years, and India only has a 1.1% divorce rate. He thought about how she came from a good family, and a good family means a lot in India. With faith in his culture, he agreed.
They had a “small” wedding, with only around 600 invited guests at the ceremony. At the reception, there were far more. He spoke about the wedding vows (during a Hindu marriage) that couples take while walking around a ceremonial fire (7 times: 3 led by the man, 3 by the women, and 1 together) and how so many pictures are taken with everyone who comes.
“Marriage,” he said “is not just for the couple. They are also for the community.”
The Ajunta Caves
The caves that we visited today are similar to the caves at Ellora; both hand carved out of a single piece of solid rock. However, they were older with carving starting approximately 200 BCE. The caves were also lost in 600 CE following the decline of Buddhism in India and remained undiscovered until a British hunting party found the site in 1800’s. The caves, while majestic and impressive, were completely unknown to the local culture.
“Indians are good at creating history,” Sanjay quipped several times, “but not very good at writing it down.”
Most noteworthy, these caves retained their original paintings. Having been undisturbed for so long, the caves were well preserved, minus a small inscription were the British soldier inscribed his name on a painting. The pictures told stories of the life of the Buddha, who lived in India approximately 600BCE and founded the religion.
The caves are divided into two distinct eras of carving. An older era of caves was carved from 200 BCE to 200 CE. Then, due to turmoil in India, there was no work for 300 years at the site. Then from approximately 500-600 CE, there was a final round of excavation.
The two distinct eras of caves allowed us to examine how Buddhist art evolved over that time frame. The alters of Buddhist caves are referred to as “Stupas”; and during the early phase of excavation while Buddhism was still evolving, the Buddha was never shown in person. Any pictures of Buddha that appeared in these caves were created during the second round of carving. The stupa in these caves are a large round stones that reach almost to the top of the 30 foot ceilings, with a small platform on the top for any relics the cave was to hold. By contrast, the stupas in the newer caves are tall pillars that contained intricate carvings of the life and stories of the Buddha. These stories also extended to the carvings and paintings on the walls, surrounding you as you entered.
Each cave required approximately 150 years to dig; which spanned about six generations of people who had to work on these caves. Some of these people would carve for their entire lives one of these caves, never to see if completed. The weight of this thought left our group stunned.
Some of the caves carved at the end of excavations were finished in haste. As political instability again threatened the region in 600 CE, the artists quickly finished their work, leaving out some of the finer details. One cave remained half dug out, a reminder to just how impressive working with one solid piece of stone is. When asked why they finished in such haste, Sanjay told us how even though they knew their time was running out, they wanted to ensure that they would create a monument that would last forever; regardless of what social changes might happen in the area around the caves.
During the time that we have spent in India, I have noticed how religion has seeped into every area of Indians lives. Driving through the Indian countryside to the caves, you could spot a local Hindu temple every couple of miles. Even in Mumbai, the stores, restaurants, and homes prominently place small shrines for all to see. Taxis and cars all have small reminders of their faith on dashboards and windows. Indian dress, hats, saris, and Bendis (the small red dot women wear) stand as a reminder that faith is everywhere. Finding members of other faiths is also easy; as symbols of Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, even Christians exist just around every corner. You never need to look far to find them. All these faiths coexist peacefully in India, and even influencing and occasionally merging with one another.
With litter, squalor, industrial development, and even the lives of the young women rescued from the trafficking and sex trade, life feels harder in India. But simply looking around, you see that these people have not lost their faith that something greater is out there, whatever that might be.