Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Aurangabad, Ajanta, and Ellora: bats, Buddhas, and “cutting chai”

     Two weekends after Holi, I set off for Aurangabad, a city in Maharashtra, with 5 other people.  Though we were basing ourselves in Aurangabad, our main reason for this trip was to see the world heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora.  The train ride was fun.  It was my first time in “Sleeper Class” which is non-AC, and a lot cheaper than the AC classes.  Before coming to India I had been told that sleeper class is sketchy, and to avoid it.  I now see that these warnings were quite stupid.  Though I’m sure that some sketchy people do take sleeper class, it’s mostly made up of families, pilgrims, and other travelers who don’t have quite enough money to pay for other classes.

     Anyway, we arrived the next morning at 4 am in Aurangabad.  We had taken advantage of our hotel’s free station pick up service, so we quickly got to the hotel and slept for a few hours.  After an unimpressive breakfast, the six of us set off for Ajanta caves in a big car with our driver, Rafik.

     It was about two hours to Ajanta from Aurangabad, but the drive was beautiful, so that was fine.  At one point, we made a short bathroom/chai stop at a cute little stand.  As we got out of the car, a group of older Israeli men stared at us, and started talking, continuing to shoot us looks.  Naturally, we were curious.  Fortunately, one of the members of our group, Tamar, speaks Hebrew fluently.  Apparently they had been talking about how we looked like five-year-olds, and really should not be traveling on our own.  Eventually, Tamar told them that she actually understood everything they had been saying.  They were a little embarrassed.

     The second we stepped out of the car at Ajanta, we were assaulted by hawkers.  “Madam, madam!  Rocks!  Crystals!  Picture postcards!”  We told them no, which prompted a chorus of “Maybe later?  Maybe later?  Genuine cashmere!  Hand-carved Ganesh!”  etc. etc.  We sort of managed to get away, although one of us ended up getting pushed down some stairs.

     Things got a lot more peaceful once we actually got to the Ajanta.  Ajanta is famous for its Buddhist cave temples, which were carved between 200 BCE and 650 CE, when they were abandoned until a British hunting party accidentally rediscovered them in 1819.  It is incredible how much work it must have been; each of the thirty temples had to be carved out of the rock cliff.

     Though the carving itself must have been a huge amount of work (not only did each temple have to be carved out of the sheer rock face, but there are also carved Buddhas and bodhisattvas inside most of them) the truly amazing things to be seen in Ajanta are the wall paintings.  Ajanta is actually nick-named the Louvre of central India (at least by Lonely Planet).  Though I, uninformed about art as I am, might describe these wall paintings as frescoes, it appears that they are technically not frescoes, as a “fresco” is a painting done on a wet surface that absorbs the color.  The Ajanta paintings are actually tempera: pigments mixed with animal glue and vegetable gum that are painted onto a dry surface.  The paintings were very beautiful; they included geometric designs, forest scenes, and scenes from the Buddha’s life.

     After a very good lunch, we headed back to Aurangabad with Rafik, who, it turns out, had a mini TV in his car.  We rocked out to Bollywood music videos all the way home, and it was great.  Most of us decided to rest before dinner, but two of us (Laura and I) decided to go on a walk.  We stumbled across a cute little park which had a playground, a small temple/shrine area, and a few trees and benches.  We went in and sat on a bench.  We were soon approached by some little boys who were quite possibly the most adorable children I have ever seen.  They were between the ages of 4 and 10, and their English was about five times better than mine.  They explained that they went to an English medium Catholic school in the area (I guess that’s where the flawless English came from).  They were very curious and asked a lot of questions.  They asked Laura if she was Christian, or Catholic.  I think they were a little confused by her response (“Jewish”), but it didn’t seem to bother them too much.  Laura was wearing an Indian kurta at the time, and they told her that her dress was very nice.  I was wearing my Haverford honor code tee-shirt.  They told me that my “dress” was very nice too, and that it looked like a football player’s jersey.  I think it was meant as a compliment, so I took it that way.  One of the boys even offered us a puppy, as his dog had just had a litter.  Sadly, we had to decline.

     For dinner, we walked out to the main road, and asked a random rickshaw-wallah what his favorite restaurant was.  He pointed at a restaurant, Hotel Tirupathi, so in we went.  It had a really really long menu (Maharashtra is one of the states that can’t quite decide if it’s North India or South India, so the food is some of everything).  The food was quite excellent, and the people were very nice.  We asked if they served breakfast, they said yes. 

     We then headed back to the hotel, where some members of the group tried unsuccessfully to get hookah.  I didn’t really care, but others were sad.  Unfortunately, the chai situation was almost as bad.  Labeled on the menu as “cutting chai,” it tasted at first like someone had pureed a gingerbread man.  The aftertaste was somewhat like novacaine.  It was quite interesting.

     The next morning we went back to Hotel Tirupathi for breakfast, and found that the owner had reserved a table for us.  It was very nice.  After breakfast, we headed off to Ellora caves, about 45 minutes away.  The Ellora caves, like Ajanta, are a complex of rock-cut cave temples.  They are, however, far more extensive and intricate.  We were excited, as Ajanta had already amazed us.  While the Ajanta caves are all Buddhist temples, Ellora has 12 Buddhist caves, 17 Hindu caves, and five Jain caves.  We went first to the Buddhist caves, which were much like the Ajanta caves, except the paintings were not quite as well preserved.  We didn’t fully make it to all the Buddhist caves though, as a swarm of bees had formed in front of one of them, and the whole area was blocked off.  In order to escape the bees, we had to walk back to the first cave, and climb the fence so that we could reach the road and walk back around to the park entrance. 

     After this excitement, we visited the Hindu caves.  The first “cave” that we visited was cave 16, better known as the Kailasa temple.  It was really much, much more than just a cave.  It’s actually a rock-cut temple that covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens, and is one and a half times as high.  It’s initial shape was created by cutting trenches into the cliff face.  Once these trenches got deep enough, the excess rock (200,000 tons of it!) was released with tools.  Then the work on the sculptures began.  The result is an enormous temple complex, several stories high filled with huge sculptures.  We climbed all over, and said hi to all the bats that live in there.  It was a lot of fun. 

     After looking at all the other Hindu caves (none of them quite lived up to Kailasa) and eating lunch, we headed off to the Jain caves.  Being Jain temples, they were not quite as ornate or enormous as the Hindu temples, but the carvings that they did have (mostly peaceful looking enlightened people standing in place) were very detailed, each with its own defining characteristics.

     Once we were done at Ellora, we headed back to Aurangabad.  Once there, four of us stopped off at the Bibi-qa-Maqbara, also known as the “poor man’s Taj,” also known as the “mini Taj,” also known as the “Taj Daccan.”  It was built by the son of the man who built the actual Taj in Agra.  This son actually imprisoned his father on account of his extravagance, so I guess it makes sense that the one in Agra is bigger.  Still, the mini Taj was pretty impressive and beautiful.

     After seeing the Taj, we saw a very disappointing water wheel and went back to the hotel.  After dinner we were pretty tired.  Full day!

     The next morning we had breakfast at Hotel Tirupathi again, and said goodbye and thank you to the owner.  We then went to Daulatabad to check out the huge ruined fort there.  The Daulatabad fort is surrounded by 5km of walls.  It is built on a 200m high hill.  The land was originally Hindu, and was called Devagiri, or Hill of the Gods.  In the 14th century, Sultan Mohammed Tughlaq waltzed in and renamed it Daulatabad, or City of Fortune.  This Sultan apparently had the brilliant idea of moving India’s capital to Daulatabad.  Not so far-fetched, I suppose.  However, his way of ensuring that the city was populated enough to be a capital was to march the entire population of Delhi 1100km south to Daulatabad.  It didn’t work out so well.  The fort is magnificent though, and we all climbed to the summit.  We had to pass through dungeons, towers, and bat-filled tunnels.  We passed by minarets, towers, and temples, under numerous arches, and over water-filled moats.  It was a great hike, and I made sure to climb up onto some of the higher ramparts, towers, and archways.  

     The train-ride home was pretty eventful.  Not too long into the trip, we noticed a huge amount of smoke billowing outside of our window.  Slowly, the train slowed to a stop.  We thought maybe there was an engine problem as this is quite common.  We discovered eventually that the train had hit a car crossing the tracks.  The four people in the car had died.  A huge crowd had gathered around the front of the train.  People were doing everything conceivable: praying, gawking, yelling into their cellphones, hysterically crying, chattering excitedly…  It seemed surprising that so many people were either nonchalant or excited.  People have explained over and over to me that life is cheap in India; people die everyday, everywhere, and no one really thinks about it the way they do in the west.  I think some of this has to do with the fact that there are so very many people crammed into every city in India.  When a country clearly does not have the resources to support the population it has, another death is almost a relief.  Also, it’s very possible that the belief in reincarnation makes the idea of dying easier to take.  Still, it seems that people here do fear death, and do mourn those who die, particularly when the dead are family members or loved ones.  I guess that’s just human.  Still though, a nonchalant attitude would definitely help one to cope with death in a place where it is so in your face and omnipresent.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


     The Wednesday of the week we got back from Mysore happened to be Holi.  I’m not sure what you all know about it, but we definitely all came in with our preconceived notions.  We knew it was the “color festival,” and we knew that people threw colors at one another.  We also knew that it could get really sketchy in certain cities, as people tend to pass out drinks liberally laced with bhang (that’s marijuana) or alcohol.  Also, sometimes gangs will use Holi as an excuse to throw things like rotten tomatoes, garbage, eggs, and even diesel oil on one another.  We’d also been told that the colored powders, particularly certain specific varieties, were very bad for your skin.  But that was about all we knew about the holiday.  Apparently when it first began, Holi was a kind of “opposite day,” when the highest ranking Brahmin rode backwards around town on a donkey, and the poorest man was king for a day.  Nowadays though, it’s more of a community thing.  The idea is that all the colors of the world are beautiful and worth celebrating (and apparently worth getting all over yourself?).  We were all pretty excited.  When the time came, we put on some clothes we didn’t care about, armed ourselves with colored powder and water guns, and set out.

     As I think I’ve said, Tagore International house is about 2 kilometers from the rest of campus, so it was a bit of a trek to Gop’s, the student center area where Holi was happening.  On our way down we slowly acquired some color as we got hit by some drive-bys on motorbikes, some little boys from one of the construction sites, and some guys in front of one of the hostels.  This was nothing compared to what was going on at Gop’s though.  Some of the other American students had already been there a while, and were almost completely unrecognizable.  Colored powder was flying everywhere, as was water.  A few unlucky people even got hit by eggs.

     Maybe I should explain a little bit about the color fights first.  Before I’d actually experienced Holi, I had been a little confused as to how the color fights actually worked.  We’d been given powder and turkey baster-like water gun things.  Were we supposed to mix the powders into water?  You could if you wanted to apparently, but that’s not the best way.  What you do is either throw powder at people (risky, as you might miss), or sprinkle/dump it onto them, or (this is the most effective and popular way) take a handful and grind it into your victim’s face, arms, or really anywhere at all.  (Many guys came away with handprints on their chests.)  Basically, it was tons of fun, and also pretty wild and crazy, complete with tribal-looking dancing.  Also, most guys lost their shirts by the end.  What happens is that a bunch of guys will grab another guys shirt and pull at it, and basically swing their friend around until his shirt rips off of him.  This gives a whole new blank canvas.   

     When Gop’s got a little crazy, I went with a few girls to the ladies hostels, where all-girls Holi was going on.  A lot of guys use Holi as an excuse to grope, so I guess that’s why they decided to have an all girls Holi.  There was a very stern guard manning the gates of the ladies hostel.  It was funny, as he never once cracked a smile, and probably would have been really intimidating.  However, he was smeared with color, and I couldn’t really take him seriously.  Anyway, the ladies hostels were really fun; all girls Holi does not mean sissy Holi.  As they were in their dorm area, they had ready access to water and were not afraid to use it!  Also, a girl from one of my classes found me and said “Abby, this is Holi.  You’re supposed to be colored all over your body.”  With this statement she poured powder down my back and down the front of my shirt.  Mission accomplished!

     When things started dying down, we headed back up to Tagore for lunch.  But the adventure wasn’t over yet.  We still had to shower.  I got back later than a lot of people, so by the time I got into the shower, it was quite pink.  No matter how much I scrubbed, I couldn’t get all the color off of me.  Eventually I gave up and went down to lunch, still quite purple in the face.  It took about a week to fully get clean.  I was a little jealous of the blonds though.  The pink stayed in their hair for a really long time, and actually looked pretty good for some of them!         

     I really think Holi is the best holiday ever, and everyone should have it.  First of all, it’s about celebrating the beauty of all the colors of the world, and we really do need to work on appreciating all different colors.  Also, it kind of makes you become friends with everyone; you can’t avoid or be shy around someone you’re slinging colored powder at.  What was also great was that, after a while, you stopped being able to tell people apart.  We no longer stuck out as white people.  Everyone was just their own special mix of Holi.  Clearly, skin color is a very stupid way of differentiating between people.