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Rock-cut Realities

The Indian Express - 24 March 2013

A visit to Ajanta Ellora leaves one overwhelmed for many reasons.

Stressed out by recent happenings, I thought a retreat into the past would bring some calm and balm. That's how last weekend found me at Ajanta Ellora. It wasn't all calm and balm though. In fact it was overwhelming to see what people did thousands of years ago in supposed pre-modern times, and to see that Indians did have the ideas, the planning, the patience, the team work and the money to do things that were at the cutting-edge the world over. I felt wrung out each evening from the déjà vu that hits you hard at such places. The same gods, the same stories, Mahabharata on stone instead of on TV! I once saw lots of gold jewellery on display at the British Museum from the Oxus treasures, dating to the 4th and 5th century BC, and there wasn't a single piece, the equivalent of which I couldn't have found or got made in the present day. I have often wondered how make-up hasn't changed from 1340 BC, the days of Nefertiti's bust, the same lipstick, the same eyeliner. Who cares if our buildings look different or we have rockets nowadays, as far as I am concerned, we haven't made much progress on the important things.

Our guide Ijaaz showed us magical details that delighted us which we would have missed on our own. The effect created in stone of a transparent curtain and the stone sculpture of the tree under which the Buddha meditated, which had birds woven into it. The sinew of the muscles Ravana was flexing when he lifted Mount Kailasha were all visible — in stone! The usual slant of the pot and long rod used to churn dahi and the posture of the woman working — it was captured exactly in stone. When we stood before a sculpture depicting a cheating Shiva and an annoyed Parvati playing dice, we could sense her irritation and his laughter. We were also made to notice how the stone statue had captured perfectly the details of her bodily movements and the depression in the mattress hinted that she was readying to get up and walk out on him. "The sculptures of Ellora speak," Ijaaz would say every now and then, and indeed they did.

I happily drooled over the rich variety of ornamental hairstyles in the paintings at Ajanta. Ijaaz made us observe how minutely the artists had observed human beings and how precisely they portrayed the emotions of fear, surprise and sorrow in the subjects' eyes or the way the necklace hung towards the back as a woman ran away in fear.

"There is my favourite sculpture," said Ijaaz, "nobody can leave my tour without looking at it". It was the sculpture of Shiva and Parvati at their wedding, and, of course, you don't need to look twice to know that it is a wedding picture. It is exactly like the flash of gut recognition that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book Blink. We saw how unlike the usual panigrahan ceremony, where the bride's hand is put into the groom's hand, here it was the reverse. Another flash of recognition: of course, it was she who did penance day and night to get him to agree to be a householder and not a hermit! And as he placed his hand on her shoulder, probably for the first time, you could feel her shy awkwardness from her bowed head and downcast eyes, and from the position of her shuffling feet, the toes of one slanted on top of the other. She had one anklet on and the other off, maybe she forgot in her eager hurry, or could it be symbolic of more?

Ijaaz said that if we stopped referring to these as caves, and called them rock-cut temples in the mountains, it would attract many more tourists. The penny dropped in my head about why I had always put off going to Ajanta Ellora. I had imagined musty caves and dimness and claustrophobia! But my other favourite heart-warming scene from the trip was seeing hordes of schoolchildren across the social spectrum, being brought on school trips. At one point there were four langurs in the garden, one with a small baby, and suddenly the children gathered around to watch their antics while the teacher was yelling herself hoarse that they should proceed to the temple complex. That tableau is probably another thing that hasn't changed over the millennia!