Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.
– Kurt Vonnegut
If you keep your senses on high alert as you wind in and out of far-reaching villages in India, you’ll see what a large role religion plays in molding what the masses do and how they live their lives. And it is easy to extrapolate this to the whole world, after all humans are far more similar than they would like to believe in their misty dreams of being unique.
B and I don’t dig religion but I have smart ass theories anyway. I believe religion arose for three main reasons.
- Gratitude: There was a deep human need to say thank you to a higher power, because the early people knew they didn’t invent the forces that kept them alive, like other living things, plants, water and air. No, they didn’t know evolution.
- Fear: When natural calamities struck, it was easy to assume that there was a larger anger at work – from sounds and sights to how a disaster felt, early people feared a higher force that might wipe them out. There was a need to fear this force and appease it to keep it calm and happy.
- Focus: There was something to be thanked and something to fear, but what was it? It needed a form that a human could focus on, because the mind has a mind of its own and wanders merrily if there is nothing to focus on while saying thank you and sorry (just try mindfulness meditation and you’ll know). And hence was born idol worship.
B added another angle – once nomads started settling down into societies and “leaders” began to emerge, religion was one way to keep the entire flock in check – by whatever means they could think of during their era. Mythology, ritual, and other aspects began to take shape.
The coolest, coolest thing to come out of this need for a higher power is classical art. All over the world, no exceptions. Pretty paintings, towering sculptures, eloquent literature and deep philosophical thought stemmed from this sheer faith with (mostly) nothing expected in return. People toiled in difficult circumstances with limited tools to tell stories they deeply believed in, some of which echo eerily even today.
Welcome to one such ode to the Almighty – Ajanta and Ellora Caves. Our minds spun as we walked through dark cliff-side caves that housed towering sculptures and delicate paintings from close to 2000 years ago, still narrating eloquent stories today. Ajanta is home to beautiful Buddhist paintings spanning the Satavahana dynasty rule in 200BC, all the way to the Gupta dynasty in 700AD. Little dim spotlights dwarfed in the cavernous spaces danced merrily on snatches of color in the faded paintings, as massive Buddha statues and stupas looked on. I could sit for hours at the feet of those 20ft Buddha status – HOW did they manage to get that peaceful expression to be exactly the same across millennia and geography?! Beats me! The Buddha followed us to Ellora, where he was joined by the Hindu and Jain pantheon – a newer set of caves yet more dilapidated. Ellora’s claim to fame is the world’s largest monolith temple – the Kailasnath – carved from ONE imposing isolated rock. I could wander endlessly round and round that temple complex ogling at the larger-than-life sculptures which left not an inch of stone uncovered. Tucked away at the boundaries of this area were multi-storied caves, still more lofty sculptures and dark caves with few tourists and resident bats. Stunning for 1500 years ago, stunning now.
Imagine these jewels taking shape on the soft volcanic cliffs of the Sahyadris 2000 years ago under the able hands of talented artists. In lamp light and with ancient implements. All for nothing but the love of God!
Footnote: We thought of this trip, planned it and left home in exactly two hours on a Friday afternoon. That’s a first. There is fascinating reading material that goes into the details of early Buddhist art and how a British hunter finally discovered these caves in the 1800s. Unesco is a great place to start if you’re interested.