A Journey Through Indian History,
There are a wide variety of small specially built Indian economy cars interspersed with Audis, BMWs and Mercedes appropriate for showing off India's growing upper middle class.
We left Mumbai, on our way to the Ellora caves, passing through the extremes that are India. There are streets filled with every sight and sound imaginable; stalls selling vibrantly colored cloth, and street kiosks selling equally vibrant snacks, sweets, and fruits. The narrow lanes are jammed with traffic moving in all directions at the same time. Between the tightly packed cars are the emblematic three wheeler auto-rickshaws, put-puts, releasing clouds of black fumes into the windows of the cars nearby.
Many of the streets are lined with modern marble and glass office buildings and new apartments. In front of them are lines of older apartment blocks now slightly faded and decaying, and in some places, there are a few houses from a hundred years ago built with hand crafted bricks and beautiful inlaid woodwork. These few remnants serve as a reminder of Bombay at the time the British Raj when portraits of Queen Victoria still graced all public offices and buildings.
Lining some of the roads and freeways are tin shacks with tarps for roofs where small communities have established an entire life. Children play, women cook over small fires, men play cards, families groom each other, and some pray at small makeshift altars. At some points along the freeway there are families that do not even have this, just a space on the sidewalk and a few rags to separate them from their neighbors. Our driver tells us that when the rains come these people need to move under the freeway itself. These children will never go to school because their parents need to maintain them in a cycle of begging to support the family throughout successive generations of life on the street that somehow still inspires within them belief in the divine.
As we drive through India's large cities, it is easy to focus on these "have not's" because their situation is so dramatic, but they are just one small facet of a much larger Indian social and cultural framework. It is important to remember that India's poverty and overpopulation are largely the result of 1000 years conquest and colonialism, first by the Muslims and then by the British. These conquers were lured by India's incredible wealth and abundance.
Urban poverty also stands in sharp contrast to the thousands of well organized and tightly knit Indian villages that have sustained their inhabitants comfortably for thousands of years. In the last twenty years, millions of Indians have joined the middle class. They are moving to the suburbs and condominium communities that promise a life of ease and greenery where they can find leisure and, according to some of the billboard we see showing a person in a Yoga pose, the chance to "take the time to find yourself."
Finally we begin to rise up into the mountains. As the air clears and the sun begins to set, there is a deliciously cool breeze that caresses us as stars rise over the mountain landscape. In the morning, we drive out to the Ellora caves near Aurangabad, considered to be one of the great wonders of India. The road winds up through gently rolling hills and soon we approach the gate of an old walled city marking one of the last of India's Moghul, or Muslim forts, giving us a sense that we are moving back through time to the very dawn of Indian history.
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When we reach Ellora, we find well-tended gardens and a path leading up to a massive out cropping of granite. We slowly approach the entrance to the first cave and stand in awe! How is it possible that something like this could have been hewn from solid stone almost two thousand years ago? How would one begin chiseling an entire city from the top down from solid stone? The structures are so solid and impressive, so intricate and at the same time so subtle, that they seem to be speaking; expressing feeling with their stone bodies even after fifteen hundred years of vandalism and weathering.
All of this was carved from a solid mountainside over a two hundred year period with two thousand workers each day spanning the reign of a half dozen rulers from a single dynasty. I suddenly become aware that understanding something of this magnitude requires a guide. Intuitively, I look to the side and see a curious looking older gentleman seated on a granite bench. His attention is turned inward, very unlike most of the guides we have encountered in India that trail us, calling incessantly; "Guide mister? Guide mister?" The only thing that denotes this man as a guide is a small discreet badge and flashlight. As I approach him, he seems to come out of some deep meditation. I ask if he is a guide and he looks at me with wide eyes and a curious smile which seems to say, "Yes, I've been waiting for you." He shows me the paper with his official guide fees, and as he stands up we notice that this being is more like a hobbit or some mythical creature than your standard Indian tourist guide.
He waives his hand to all that we see around us and says, "All of this was cut from a single stone over a two hundred year period, but to understand it, it is better to begin at the beginning." He leads us back to one of the earliest caves, a Buddhist cave from the fifth century. As we enter, we can immediately sense the monks who lived and prayed here as well as the presence of the Buddha himself. There is a large prayer hall in which the central feature is an impressive statue of the Buddha whose energy fills the entire cavern. The Buddha's hands are in Dharma Pravartana mudra, the gesture of the wheel of dharma. His eyes and face convey a serenity that could only be expressed by sculptors with both tremendous artistic ability and direct experience of the Buddha's teachings. The life-like contours of Buddha's body are a living link with the era in India between the first and tenth centuries when Buddhist monks roamed the landscape just as they do today in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
On both sides of the central prayer hall are monk's quarters: cubicles about six by six feet cut into solid granite. The energy of the hundreds of years of meditation performed in these spaces still resonates within these walls. This monastery complex also includes kitchens, water storage areas, and a large courtyard where the monks would assemble to hear the words of the direct descendants of the Buddha's teachings.
Next, we enter cave number 10, a Buddhist cave called the "Carpenter's Cave" because the roof has been cut to resemble a ceiling with arched wooden beams. As we enter, there is an overwhelming sense of depth and silence. At the rear of the cave is a luminous fifteen-foot statue of the Buddha sitting in front a stupa. At the back of the cave is a second story choir loft resembling that of a medieval cathedral. To one side of the Buddha is a sinuous statue of the goddess Tara, whose form speaks loudly and clearly of her essential quality of compassion. At her feet is a female aspirant in a very well aligned Thunderbolt pose, showing both the presence of female Buddhist practitioners and also of meditative Yoga poses as early as 500ce.
The solidity of the granite surfaces and the silence draws all who enter immediately inward. Within that silence, our guide chants the Buddhist mantra of the threefold refuge. "Buddham saranam gacchami, dhammam saranam gacchami, sangham saranam gacchami." The sound echoes endlessly through these chambers bringing us back to the time when this space was filled with chanting Buddhist monks. As we listen, we are directed to the massive statue of the Buddha and we are mysteriously drawn into his smile whose essence, embodied in granite, is somehow still living and breathing.
As we emerge back into the sunlight of the outer courtyard, our guide asks me if I understand the meaning of the chant. I respond that it is for taking refuge in the Buddha, the truth of his teaching, and the Sangha, the community of his followers. "Yes that's true," replies our mystical hobbit guide, "but there is an even deeper meaning. Buddha also refers to buddhi, your own higher mind. When aligned with your higher mind, you are able to recognize your life purpose and mission, your dharma, and embody it in all of your daily activities. As you embody your life purpose, you recognize your oneness with all beings, and all of creation, your true sangha."
~Joseph Le Page
Return to S-VYASA, Jan. 2015
Soukya International Holistic Healing Center, Jan. 2015