Studying the Undefined
Scattered Notes on the Way to and from Ellora, 2007
Stairwell carved inside Ellora rock
Thirty-nine years ago.
It was my first trip to India and I was staying in Belgaum in southern India with my wifeís, Sumanís, family. One day Krishna Kaka (Uncle Krishna), a tall boisterous man who played the harmonium and had a throaty singing voice, suggested we go to a Siva temple in the nearby hills. I was excited by the prospect. In fact, at that point in my life almost anything non-Christian would have intrigued me. But it wasnít just the idea of Hinduism as a religion that stirred my interest in visiting the temple, it was also the prospect of seeing the artwork there.
By the time we left, it was late afternoon. As we drove, a rainstorm started and lashed across the countryside. The roads quickly grew muddy and the roadside gulleys were flooded. As the car finally climbed the hill toward the temple, we passed through a village where a group of skinny children splashed playfully in a giant puddle. Finally we arrived at our destination: a ridge overlooking the valley below. Except for the clearing in which the temple was situated, the area was covered with foliage. The temple's entrance was near the ridge's cliff-like edge. The downpour continued, slashing through trees and blowing out over the valley. We went into the temple. It was shadowy and musty inside. Also, a smell of incense. No art of any significance. A short baldheaded priest led us to a room that contained the god's image: a small stone pillar, a lingam. The room was quiet. Krishna Kaka nudged me and said “See” as he pointed at the lingam. The priest, dressed in a white dhoti (a cloth wrapped around the waist and between the legs), looked on as I peered at the god. But in spite of my initial feeling of discovery as I stood there, in the end I felt more unsettled than inspired. The temple's dankness and lack of artistic decoration and the sound of the rain outside chilled my spirit. Just before leaving for the subcontinent I had finished reading Freudís Civilization and Its Discontents and now, as I exited the temple, I found myself feeling that the psychiatrist was right: human beings, always stuck in one oppressive communal system or another, constructed grand religious systems out of tangles of unconscious desires and impulses. I didn't find this realization thrilling.
Even after exiting the temple, my mood didnít improve. It was dusk. Krishna Kaka and I briefly stood at the ridge's edge in the rain, which had tapered to a drizzle. Below, in the village we'd passed through on the way to the temple, small lights flickered in the huts. The valley, lush and soaked, was a tantalizing dark green. But although the scene was beautiful, it had little effect on me.
Years later, looking back on that day, I feel a combination of nostalgia and resignation. Nostalgia because I was younger and more vigorous then, resignation because over the decades Iíve realized Iím not very good at experiencing a thing or event without imposing my own expectations on it. Yes, it was raining and the temple was damp and chilly that day, but the gloominess I momentarily felt while there had more to do with my own confusions. In spite of my hunger for new experiences at that point in my life, those very experiences, precisely because of their unfamiliarity and perceived strangeness, often undermined my sense of who I was.
To look at a work of art is to look at a fragment of history.
Of course, how we define fragment and history is iffy.
For some people, the very idea of art means that any work of art is, to one degree or another, a triumph over the under-appreciation and lack of focus characteristic of how we (i.e., society) usually look at the world.
From this perspective a work of art is a fragment of history in the sense that it represents a moment of highly lucid vision in the midst of a continuum of other moments which are characterized by a shabbier or lazier way of seeing the world. Throughout history different versions of this approach have contributed to the notion that art is transcendent, that is, an activity that rises above ordinary activity.
There are people, however, who view art in another way. For them, each individual artwork gains its greatest meaning through how it expresses the general culture of its time, not through its status as the unique product of an individual creator or individual group of creators.
From this perspective a work of art is a fragment of history in the sense that it represents a particular point in the trajectory of a particular culture. That point may be a so-called high one — i.e., a moment when a number of previously emerging techniques are fused together in what the experts consider a major creative breakthrough — or it may be a low one — i.e., a period of alleged decline when the art of the society in question is reproduced on the basis of formulas that copy, while for the most part adding nothing new, the accepted ways of the idolized masters.
Although there are many other ways of looking at art besides the two just mentioned, these two at least hint at an important fact: it isn’t always clear what is meant by art when someone mentions art.
A year ago I walked through the remains of an early 16th century south Indian Hindu temple. In the best preserved hall at the site, large stone pillars were covered with sculptures. Even though I had difficulty making out the sculptures’ contours because the area was dimly lit, I saw enough to be especially impressed by the ones depicting Vishnu’s various incarnations.
Interestingly, even the lack of adequate light was important artistically in that it helped to recreate the quality of light available in this very room 500 years ago. The temple was built in the city of Madura during a period dominated by the Vijaynagar dynasty, which came into power as part of a regional effort, led by Harihara I and his brother Bukka Raya I, to resist Muslim encroachment into southern India. The movement was inspired by Vidyaranya, a well-known Hindu thinker of the time, and it led to a flourishing of Hindu art.
All of this history is relevant to understanding the architecture and art of the temple I was visiting. Yet the history was also problematic, particularly given the temple’s unusual location. Instead of being where it was supposed to be, in Madura, India, it was on 26th Street in Philadelphia — in the Philadelphia Art Museum to be exact. The pieces were transported from India and reassembled for display in the museum’s Gallery 224.
According the museum’s literature, the Vijaynagar-period temple hall is part of the museum’s “rich collections of Indian art” and is the “only example of South Indian stone architecture to be found in an American museum.” The museum’s publicists further notify us that the stone ruins from which the temple hall was reassembled in the U.S. were given to the museum “by a Philadelphia family traveling in India in the early years of the twentieth century.”
This information complicates the issue of what exactly we’re looking at even more than do some of the issue posed in #2 above. Not only do we have to deal with the fact that art of developing countries frequently ends up in western museums whereas the reverse is almost never true, but we also must navigate another issue: that what we view as “art,” the Hindu views entirely differently — i.e., as a focus of religious consideration or as part of the history of Hindu claims that India possesses a basically Hindu character and not an Islamic, Buddhist, western, etc. one. In either of these instances, it’s not clear what a Hindu temple hall is doing in a U.S. art museum. Even if one accepts the argument put forward by some that the developing countries are better able financially and institutionally to care for art objects than are poorer ones, an essential question remains unanswered: who, and under what circumstances, decided that these pieces of carved subcontinent stone were art, as opposed to religious items belonging to a particular community, and therefore subject to relocation to allegedly more appreciative countries?
Like many people I was brought up in a household that had no tradition of so-called art appreciation.
The first time I saw an artwork in a museum was at age 19 when Joyce, my new girlfriend, took me to the Guggenheim in New York City.
Joyce was a gift. We both attended the same religious junior college and I was attracted to her because her personality was, from my perspective at least, an exotic combination of artistic and streetwise. She loved Toulouse-Lautrec and the idea of decadence, yet was simultaneously a practical young woman who knew how to talk in technical detail about things like elevator construction and motorcycles. Her father, a middle-European immigrant, worked as a super in an apartment building. It was this fact, I assumed, that enabled her to switch back and forth, with a store of knowledge that amazed me, between discussions of topics like fixing pipe leaks and the virtues of cubism.
At any rate, I knew nothing about art and so I was her student for the few years we remained off-and-on lovers.
In spite of my relative lack of world knowledge, I was drawn to nonconformity and bohemianism for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was my emotional makeup: sullen with a hair-trigger temper and a penchant for excess. Consequently, I saw Joyce as a natural resource I couldn’t afford not to exploit. Talking with her endlessly about art and literature and society’s contradictions, I was exposed to historical figures and events and ways of analysis that were entirely new to me. As a result, I felt like each day I took a new giant step away from my conservative religious background and toward something far more marvelous: immersion in a world of liberating sensations and knowledges that, though viewed suspiciously by those I grew up with, were revered by me. I didn’t want to be saved by Jesus. I wanted to save myself.
For me, works of art and the artists who created them weren’t so much objects of study and meditation as they were topics to talk about, linguistic acts of aggression against Lutheran blandness. Each mention of Van Gogh’ s bizarre ear-chopping, de Kooning’s drunkenness, Blake’s auditory hallucinations and so on became an integral part of my budding vocabulary of dissidence. Art didn’t so much inspire me to higher levels of insight as it supplied me with ammunition for my war against middle class values. Although this opportunism in terms of art made sense in terms of my need to extricate myself from the clutches of a way of life I felt was too constricting, its value in terms of deepening my sense of art appreciation remains to this day unclear to me.
As with most people, art lovers and the disinterested alike, my views about art reflect a variety of experiences and inclinations that have nothing to do with art.
Two months ago, more than 50 years after the events described in the previous
section, a cab driver maneuvered through a rundown area of the industrial city of Aurangabhad as Suman and I talked in the back seat. Glancing at a dog asleep in front of a paan-wallah’s stall, I saw a shirtless child approach the animal and try to protect it from flies by swinging a newspaper like a fan above its body. As I looked, Suman said something about wanting to see a particular mosque later. I said sure. Aurangabhad is, after all, a center of Islamic culture in India and therefore has a large Muslim population, befitting the fact that in the 17th century it was for a long time the home of Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor. After the decline of Mughal rule on the subcontinent and the rise of British colonialism, industrialization eventually led to Aurangabhad’s emergence as a textile center specializing in silks and cottons manufacture. When a changing India and the world market gradually undermined this industry, Aurangabhad developed into what it is now: a city with a more diversified, if troubled, manufacturing base that includes beer brewing and auto parts production.
The signs of this history were everywhere evident as our cab wended through Aurangabhad’s streets. At one spot a laughing girl sat on her father’s shoulders as smoke rose from a foundry that was part of a castings operation not far from a closed cotton mill. That was only minutes after driving under a famous arch constructed by Aurangzeb four centuries ago.
And so we headed out of the city toward the Ellora caves, known for their ancient sculptures (6th-10th century CE). This is why we had come to Aurangabhad. It was our base of operations for visiting the caves.
What is art and what isn’t art isn’t always clear. Which raises a question: how can you evaluate an artwork’s quality if the fact that it is an artwork isn’t beyond dispute?
As already pointed out, the Hindu temple hall in the Philadelphia Art Museum is one example of this problem. For one set of eyes, the hall’s pillar sculptures are works of art to be judged aesthetically. For another set of eyes, the sculptures are meditation objects intended to provoke a spiritual frame of mind. For a third set of eyes, the sculptures are merely the self-indulgent creations of adults who have had difficulty leaving their childhood dreaminess behind.
I personally choose to look at those sculptures as art, but I do so with a sense of fatalism, knowing as I do that my own history shows that one’s reasons for labeling a thing art or discussing art often are shaped by questionable impulses. I can still hear myself as a young man telling my mother that her favorite picture of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane was laughable because it was done sentimentally, without even a trace of pain on his healthy-looking face. And yet here I am decades later, claiming artistic status for sculptures that are, in some cases at least, the Buddhist and Hindu equivalents of my mother’s Jesus painting. That is, they are religious images designed not primarily as art but rather as psychological devices for producing a certain state of mind in the observer, a state which the dominant orthodoxy of the relevant religion approves as appropriately reverential.
So much for having a non-contradictory aesthetics. On top of this, examining the art of another culture often makes these contradictions even more glaring because of our tendency to either exoticize or trivialize objects when they are outside the realm of what is most familiar to us.
Clearly, the things we consider familiar play a significant role in defining self. Our comfort with them reflects our rootedness in a certain identity at a particular moment and place in time. No matter where we go or how far we go, there is no flight from the self.
After walking around at Ellora for a few hours, we sat on a bench outside one of the caves. Although it was late afternoon, the sun was still hot. We were already sweating from perusing the caves and, in those caves which contained a second or third storey, climbing the stone steps to see the upper levels. Although there were 34 caves altogether, so far we had managed to cover only a handful, the 12 Buddhist ones.
Actually, they weren’t caves. Not natural ones anyway. They were human constructs, carved out of a hillside’s volcanic rock. To appreciate what we are talking about here, the meaning of carved out must be fully understood. Not only a cave’s interior space, but also everything situated within or bordering that space, was hewn from the same piece of rock. Ceiling design, monastic cells and beds, columns, all sculptures of human or mythological figures, etc were carved from the same monolith. What we have at Ellora, therefore, isn’t sculpture as we usually know it, but rather a combined act of excavation/sculpture requiring a sense of engineering not necessarily associated with sculpture.
Of the Buddhist caves, all were viharas (monastic dwellings) except for one chaitya hall (worship places reputed to contain relics of the Buddha’s life). Even the smallest most austere of the caves, one of the viharas, is a marvel to behold. Its absence of sculpture, rather than being a distraction or disappointment, is the perfect prelude to the overall site precisely because it allows you to enter into something that precedes the sculptures for which Ellora is famous: the creation process itself. By creation process I don’t mean the mental process alone but rather what it leads to: a physical record of the hand movements, that is, of the motor coordination, required to translate a vision from mind to matter. In this sense, these walls prefigure the abstract expressionist’s sense of fulfillment in her/his hand movements’ embodiment in the streaks, splatterings and swirlings of paint on the canvas. Absent ornamentation of any kind, the only decoration, if you care to call it that, in the cave is what you see of the process of how hand, hammer and chisel meticulously worked the rock, leaving the tools’ marks (Fig. 1) in the stone as a text detailing the actual rhythm — and the repetitiveness/tediousness of focus — necessary for the creation of something that, far from being tedious when finally completed, is a celebration of making.
Along with its open space and ancient chiseled walls, the vihara possesses eight monastic cells with stone beds.
Figure 1, Ellora cave
Ironically , the point can be made that the artisanship and artwork of Ellora’s Buddhist caves are signs of the evolution of an Fig. 1 aesthetics that was itself an aspect of Buddhism’s philosophical decline into a shadow of its former self on the subcontinent.
By the 9th Century CE, a century after the last Buddhist chisel had been laid to Ellora stone, Buddhism was no longer a religious force on the subcontinent. It had migrated to other parts of Asia.
Much of Ellora’s art may have survived for more than a millennium, but that doesn’t make it immortal. Religious images intended for the use of a growing population of believers lose a significant part of their meaning when that population disappears. What remains is something less than the original. We sometimes call this “less” art. It is an interesting exercise in humility to do so. As a species, we like to think of our most inventive creations as somehow rising above history, entering a different realm of meaning. But they don’t. Even our most creative productions are finite, historical, durable for only as long as the materials they’re made of can last.
This, it seems, has to be enough for us.
But is it?
Religions, and the art that evokes them, explore the concept of the sacred by developing belief-systems that attempt to explain humankind’s relationship to the sacred — i.e., the transcendent, the ultimate, etc.
One common view of the sacred pertains to its remoteness. It is what we are not. It resides in a beyondness outside of ourselves.
The Buddha, or what he stood for (i.e., an enlightenment that freed him from the cycle of birth and death) was originally seen this way: as thoroughly other. One of the earliest Buddhist texts describes the Buddha’s nirvana experience as entailing a state
of being that transcends all philosophical discourse and indeed all language. “He who like the sun has gone to rest is comparable to nothing whatsoever. The notions through which his essence might be expressed are simply not to be found. All idea are nothing, as bearing upon him; hence all modes of speech are, with respect to him, unavailing.”
As a consequence of such a view, Buddhist art was initially anti-representational when it came to the Buddha, and stark and non-decorative in general. Symbols of the Buddha, not the Buddha himself, were depicted. A footprint, the wheel of the law, a stupa (burial mound) and other images substituted for the Buddha, hinting at him but not fully revealing him, since it was believed our only possible relationship to the so-called ultimate was one of permanent distance and relative inadequacy. According to such a view, we are by definition the not that when the that (i.e., Buddha) is what is to be aspired to.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the abstract never seems to survive unsullied for very long in the mess of the world. The alleged purity of earlier (Hinayana) Buddhism eventually gave way to a more immersed-in-the-world Buddhism (Mahayana). One result of this evolution was the emergence of a more image-based Buddhist art. Ellora’s Buddhist caves are an example of this change, one that didn’t originate at Ellora but centuries earlier in other locations.
The Mahamayuri sculpture (Fig. 2), which is situated in the antechamber of one
of the caves, is as good a sign of this as any.
Figure 2, Mahamayuri sculpture
Mahamayuri, the goddess of learning, is an incorporation into the Buddhist pantheon of the Hindu goddess Laxshmi. Iconographically, the sculpture is reminiscent of a representational strain within Hindu art that presents the female figure as full-breasted and wide-hipped, suggestive of pre-Hindu fertility-goddess traditions. Although Mahamayuri’s posture is somewhat stiff, thereby negating at least a bit the sculpture’s sensuousness, the figure on the lower right with its more relaxed posture, offsets, if not eliminates, this problem.
Still, Ellora’s rock sculptures never completely leave behind a certain stark, burrowing quality. Inside the same cave with the Mahamayuri sculpture near the entranceway, a large open communal space dominates. In this space, two long benches (Fig. 3) carved from the floor run vertically from front to rear toward a shrine which houses a sculpture of the Buddha and other figures. On either side of the hall, a row of pillars is also positioned vertically from front to rear. On the far side of each of these rows is another hall, narrower than the main one. Each of these narrower halls has monastic cells carved into the wall rock. Surveying the entirety of this space, one is stunned by the sheer stone of it, by the fact that a habitable dwelling place with three halls, innumerable devotee cells and two giant benches has been excavated inside the earth with all the architectural integrity of an above-the-earth building. For all of Buddhism’s emphasis on the achievement of transcendence, i.e., nirvana, the very structure and location of this vihara suggests an alternate message: that there is no discovery of the so-called “above” without first digging into and setting up house in the below.
Figure 3, Bench in shrine
My approach to art is a plodding, self-questioning one. I don’t mean by this that I have no confidence in my judgments, only that I am suspicious of the foundations that artistic judgments, mine or anybody else’s, are made upon. There is too much talk about art and too little discussion of seeing. Too much blabber about aesthetics and too little understanding of focus. To me the issue is first of all seeing with clarity, of allowing the observed object (sculpture, painting, crevice, doorway) to live undefamed within its own isness. If one can accomplish this, eventually one can develop an aesthetics that expresses one’s method of seeing and the goals of that seeing
As a budding bohemian in the early 1960s, I talked about art with people long before I actually experienced art as something other than a subject that provided me with anecdotes and frames of references that I found helpful in freeing myself from my background.
A turning point came for me in 1968. I was in the army in Germany, far from New York City and its bohemian/beatnik influences. Suman and I met and were married during this period. A few months after the marriage, I got leave and we visited Florence for a few days. It was my first time in Dante’s city, although not Suman’s; it was her second.
While there, we visited as many churches and museums as possible. Suman was as energetic as I was, although I was more compulsive, feeling a melodramatic need to expose myself to each famous paintbrush stroke, sculpture and ornamental door produced by Italy's ancient artists. I wanted culture and sophistication, and I expected Florence to oblige by jolting me into a state of refined awareness.
Looking back on the trip now, I recall hardly anything of the many frescoes and various art objects we saw. I remember only one artwork in detail, an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo. It was in the same museum as his far more famous David. But it was the unfinished piece, part of a group of four, that provided me with my first truly visceral experience of an artwork. It depicted a large muscular human figure that, because of its uncompleted state, looked as if it had been frozen in the process of trying to twist free from its rock prison. Something about the sculpture's crude power — its suggestion of a stalled explosiveness, of an image forever falling short of its effort to come into existence — shocked me with its violent kineticism. I experienced it less like a work of art than like an internal event, a crude release of emotion that satisfied me in some deep almost taboo way. This experience provoked in me no splendid thoughts, just the feeling that this was art.
I have never forgotten that feeling, although I can’t say that I yet understand the full extent of its implications. I do know this, however: that “art” was probably too small a concept to describe what I experienced when I encountered that sculpture.
Of the Buddhist caves at Ellora, all are viharas except one, a two-storied chaitya hall or temple.
As a sculpture, the chaitya hall is both a new creation and a transmitter/ reformulator of the traditions that led up to it.
The Ellora chaitya is traditional in the sense that it contains a stupa, or imitation burial mound, and a space for ritualistically circumambulating it. But traditional though this chaitya may be, the type of stupa contained in the chaitya — and the chaitya itself — are far from what their original counterparts were.
Stupas were originally dirt or stone mounds signifying a burial spot. In early Buddhism following the Buddha’s death, 10 stupas were created by his followers in different locations. Of these 10 stupas, 8 contained portions of his aches and two contained relics associated with his enlightenment. Already with these stupas the basic stupa idea had evolved from a mere mound identifying a burial site to a repository for objects connected to the dead one’s life. Eventually this new version of the stupa evolved even further, to the point where the stupa changed from a burial site marker and a repository into an object to be venerated because of what it symbolized: the Buddha’s passage from this life into a state of enlightenment.
As part of this development of Buddhist imagery, the stupa and chaitya hall became mutually dependent as chaityas evolved from meeting or gathering places for devotees into more formal places of worship that contained stupas that themselves contained items of importance to the Buddhist tradition. The original stupa-holding chaityas were constructed of wood but later other materials, including rock, were employed n an effort to give the chaityas greater permanence.
Ellora’s chaitya cave, also known as the Vishvakarma or heavenly carpenter cave, is a rock-carved extension of this tradition. A Buddha, 15 feet in height and attended by figures from Buddhist mythology with a bodhi tree above his head, sits in a teaching posture in front of a stupa which is situated in the rear center of the cave.
Figure 4, Vishvakarma cave
The cave as a whole has been sculpted into a replica of an early chaitya hall. It is exquisitely detailed with pillars and a ribbed ceiling in imitation of the wood supports that would have been necessary to gird a wooden chaitya’s roof. Above the entranceway, a single window (Fig. 5) allows light into the space, just as it once allowed the worship hall’s creators, at the start the hall’s creation, to literally enter into the rock. As with this cave, so with many of Ellora’s other caves: often the carving of such windows provided the initial point of access through which artisans and sculptors chiseled their way in so they could reinvent the rock’s interior.
Figure 5, Light in window above chaitya entrance
Such sculpture-as-geological-reinvention isn’t without its parallels in the modern world. Land artists like Michael Heizer (Fig. 6) and Robert Smithson (Fig. 7), for instance, have reorganized sections of the planet’s surface to construct artworks that retain the works’ organic links to the land while simultaneously rearranging it. Not only that, but other artists, including photographers like Mark Ludak, have even discovered new artistic constructs in the relationship of natural landscapes to time’s erosion of the human structures built upon them. *(See as an example photos no. 8 and no. 1 from his Asbury series.)
The Vishvakarma cave also has a second storey which can be accessed via a stairwell from the ground floor. This upper area is an elaborately carved space with a variety of sculpted scenes, worship niches and monastic cells as well as an outer balcony and an inner gallery.
But it is the ground floor Buddha that impressed me most strongly. Feet flat on the stone, hands in the teaching pose (mudra), the figure possesses an unignorable in-charge quality that anchors the stupa behind it and forces, it seems, the roof above it to curve downward in an architectural gesture of subservience to it. There is a power and simplicity to this image that, coupled with my knowledge of how the whole chaitya and everything inside it has been cut from a single piece of rock, makes me feel in awe not of the sculptors’ capacity to create an immortal work of art, but of the sheer willfulness of the effort. For this wasn’t a project completed in a single generation but one that because of its scope required more time than that. Such an act of multigenerational creation, although fueled by a sense of reverence and beauty, can only be sustained by a stoicism that might ordinarily seem at odds with the religious or artistic temperament. Yet it is precisely such stoicism that adds a special gravity to this cave.
It is this chaitya’s Buddha that I think of when remembering these words from the Dhammapada, a Buddhist text:
Like boulder unmoved by the wind, an aware person is not seduced by praise or blame.
Figure 6 - Michael Heizer’s “Water Spider,” part of his Effigy Tumuli.
Click photo for more information.
Figure 7 - Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty extends
into the Great Salt Lake.
It is made of local dirt and basalt rocks,
and its total length is 1500 feet with a width of 15 feet.
Click photo for more information.
I write in order to express a few small insights. But even as I express them, I feel them swallowed by the insights of other authors who have written about India. How will any reader be able to judge accurately whose analysis is right and whose is wrong or how best to evaluate the gradations in between?
I’ve just finished rereading Paul Theroux’s travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1975). He portrays India by presenting his readers with provocative pictures of subcontinent life. Riding trains from one end of the land to the other, he positions himself as a trafficker in a special kind of dope: exotic images with a coke-like power to make your mind fly. As a touring westerner with eyes aching for the unusual, he employs his novelist’s skills to sketch well-defined pictures of Indian oddities that are guaranteed to titillate and amaze his western readers, most of whom have been culturally conditioned to expect nothing less than bizarre or chaotic behavior from the Third World.
Theroux, a skilled word-technician, obviously relishes his job. After visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a Sikh holy place, he buoyantly describes his experience there. In an amusing tone he tells us that, since shoes are prohibited in the temple, he barefootedly “hopped down the hot marble causeway, doing a kind of fire-walker’s tango.” After this lighthearted beginning, he informs us that, once inside the temple compound, he sees some Sikh pilgrims — “leonine figures stripped to their holy drawers” — bathing in, and taking sips from, a temple tank that is filled with “green water.” The pilgrims’ drinking of the water provokes Theroux to sum up the scene with a clever one-liner; he describes the bathers as “swallowing grace and dysentery in the same mouthful.” (Ibid., p. 91-92)
This last phrase exhibits Theroux’s ability to seduce his western audience on the basis of something he thinks he shares with them: a belief in the other’s inferiority. By adopting the bemused tone of an “objective” observer fascinated by the foolish behavior of the uncivilized, Theroux suggests to his readers something they already “know” in their hearts: that the devoted Sikh pilgrims are too dimwitted to realize that, by swallowing the tank’s stagnant waters, they are ingesting not only a primitive illusion (i.e., “grace,” or the idea that the holy waters possess a special sin-cleansing power) but also bacteria that cause a very real disease (i.e., dysentery). Theroux’s earlier use of the phrase “holy drawers” further adds to the cartoon-like quality of his portrayal of the Sikh pilgrims’ activities. No western reader could ask for a more “entertaining” depiction of India’s exotic backwardness.
But Theroux’s purpose isn’t just to entertain his readers with clever images. As he piles image on top of image, his humorous lilt disappears and we’re left with a picture of a bleak country inhabited by unfathomable people incapable of controlling their own — or their nation’s — destiny. An example: Jaipur, “a pink princely city of marvels,” is ruined, Theroux tells us, “by the vandalism and ignorance of those who live in it.” In other words, the Indian masses are their country’s greatest enemy. Such a declaration is in keeping with an assumption Theroux exploits for comic effect throughout the book — that the Indian public is superstitious, politically chaotic, unsanitary and they produce too many children.
Such a view of Indians as destroyers of their own culture isn’t new. One can see evidence of it, for instance, in the history of the west’s imperial attitude toward the architecture and art of India. This attitude has resulted in the fact that European and
U.S. museums are loaded with the loot (as in the Philadelphia Museum of Art example given above) of our cultural mission to “preserve” the artistic creations of ancient India. These creations, although invariably brought to the west under the auspices of respected organizations, were more frequently than not robbed from the subcontinent in the same way British industry took control of Indian textiles during the colonial period, thereby depriving India of one of its sources of wealth. The assumption that western colonizers were intellectually better equipped to care for India’s ancient artistic creations than were the Indians themselves reveals the extent of the west’s megalomania. Theroux’s comment about the degradation of an architecturally intriguing Indian city (i.e., Jaipur) by that city’s “ignorant” inhabitants is an example of exactly that same attitude — i.e., the westerner’s disdain for the supposedly uncultured denizens of the third world.
After barely 30 years in print, Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar is already a travel classic. I comfort myself with the idea that although I’ve written no classics, at least I strain for accuracy.
A child of Ellora’s burrowers, I try to get beneath the surface of things.
Of Ellora’s 34 caves, the 12 Buddhist ones are not the most spectacular. In fact, in terms of spectacular, one cave is the uncontested standout, the Kailas temple dedicated to Lord Siva. I will not write about it here other than to give an idea of the magnitude of the effort that went into creating it over a period of more than 100 years. During this time, artisans and sculptors, using simple chisels and hammers, dug down vertically for over 100 feet into pure rock, carving as they went a full-sized two-storey temple, a surrounding courtyard, side shrines and priest cells, a mass of sculptures including life-sized elephants. In the course of accomplishing this feat, it is estimated that those
Figure 8 - Wall showing depth of Kailas’ excavation
working at the project removed over 200,000 tons or 2-3 million cubic feet of rock from the site. In the end, the planet’s largest monolithic sculpture had been created. The space required for the courtyard and temple alone is 266 feet long and 154 feet wide. Looking up from the courtyard at the towering stone wall that encircles the excavation, there is no avoiding the fact that one is not only gazing at the end-product of a gargantuan religious/artistic project, but that one is literally engulfed by it, creating an experience of immersion rivaling anything that virtual reality technologies (with their sensory databases, head-mounted 3-D displays, gloves equipped with special tactile sensors, etc.) can create.
But as mesmerizing as the temple compound is artistically, there’s something more than merely sculptural depiction at work here. Inevitably, historical changes and humankind’s evolution add new knowledges and angles of perception to our methods of analyzing the past and its objects and consequently they are never exactly the same things for us as they were for the people of that time. Therefore, as much I focus on the Kailas’ temple’s creative details, and as much as I try to honor the intentions of Kailas’ creators when I interpret their buildings and sculptures, I nonetheless see something in those creators’ efforts that none of the historical records suggest was part of their own vision. What I see has to do with the Kailas work process itself.
Figure 9 - Rear of Kailas temple
The fact that the builders of this temple complex literally entered into the earth in order to create a spiritual/philosophical space there suggests a nesting or inhabitation process that in turn suggests an impulse to be at one with, or at home in, the earth as opposed to longing to triumph over it.
Although I know that like other religions Hinduism and Buddhism possess strong world-renunciation streaks that are evident at Ellora as elsewhere, I can’t help thinking, given centuries of our inability to live in more philosophical harmony with nature, that the process of burrowing down into rock/earth insinuates something more nuanced than simple world-renunciation, something more totalistic. The Indian sculpture/excavation process that reached its peak of development at Ellora hints at a relationship to the world that should be of great significance to us — i.e., that only by embracing the planet, by accepting that one is a part of its ecology of interconnections, can one properly revere things that seem (but maybe aren’t ultimately) disconnected from the world, from matter.
This is a different approach than the currently dominant one. The idea that spiritual or scientific advancement always entails rising above a lower state of development has thoroughly colonized the way so-called civilized cultures look at the world. Those things we designate as worthy of our veneration are always pictured as in the ascendant, as in a state of rising above nature, and therefore we visualize our own development as a flight away from that which is lower (i.e., the current world) toward something that is higher or transcendent (e.g., a superior spiritual plane, a more futuristic level of human development, etc.). Architecturally, this urge to transcend has been expressed in the religious realm through devices like gothic steeples, gopurams, etc., whereas on the secular level skyscrapers, towers and so on symbolize our scientific/ technological efforts to rise above the planet’s surface in order to freely pursue human progress.
I prefer the approach of Ellora’s burrowers. The only transcendence that means anything leaves dirt under the fingernails as we dig downward into what we are, not upward away from ourselves.
Whatever else is true, the Dhammapada is right about the need for clarity:
As a fish that is removed from water and then thrown on dry
ground flops this way and that, so the unfocused mind
convulses, trying to flee awareness of death.
Note: Interested readers will find additional photos of the cave sites by clicking on Ellora & Ajanta 2007.