Thursday, December 25, 2008
After Khajuraho, with a renewed tenacity, we headed on to a less touristy part of India to see a slew of UNESCO World Heritage sites: prehistoric rock paintings, the oldest buddhist building in the world, gigantic sacred Ajanta and Ellora caves with sculptures and paintings of early Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, and the famous colonial train station in Mumbai. We got to our first hub, Bhopal, our base from which to explore the cave paintings and the oldest buddhist stupa. We had planned to spend several days here, relaxing for Christmas and seeing each of the sites on their own day, but these notions were reversed once we stepped from the train.
Shouting touts and half-witted beggars getting eerily close to our pockets with their wandering hands greeted us at the station exit. Checking out our hotel options, we found a few overpriced musty rooms and decided that Bhopal is not a place to linger. Deciding we would try to take a train to the Ajanta and Ellora caves tomorrow afternoon, we rushed that evening to see the fantastic rock paintings, hemmorghing money to bypass the public bus and go by taxi for time's sake.
We had an hour to see all fifteen caves, which made us feel rushed, but the wonder of seeing markings made by the humans of prehistory is immensely moving. These marks were etched in the stone twelve thousand years ago; before any seeds had ever been planted and cultivated, before any people took dominion over animals through domestication, before anyone lived in settled homes, before religion, wars, empires, industry, science. The graceful animals they scratched showed a study, a respect for the creatures that exist and sustained them. The most moving image for me was an outline of a hand, that opposable thumb and the part of our body that separates us from the animals, which this early person placed onto the rock and decided it needed to be remembered there.
Back to the madness, we went to the train station to reserve our train for the next day to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves and we come to find they were sold out! So, placing ourselves on the waiting lists we prayed we'd get a spot. We returned to our hotel room late, slept fitfully, and rose again in the early morning to see the buddhist monuments. Again loosening our pockets for speed, we arrived at the monument with less than an hour to spend. We saw the influence of the far-reaching ancient Greeks on this earliest of Buddhist monuments (from 250 BC), and enjoyed the artwork from before Buddha was depicted as the smiling fatty we know him as today; then he was the bodhi tree, the lotus flower, and the horse.
Returning to the chaos of the Indian city again, we picked up our bags and hoped we could get the hell out on the train. Which, of course, didn't happen. India, incredible! Being forced to either stay in this terrible city for an indefinite amount of days with nothing to do or skip the Ajanta and Ellora caves and head north to Rajasthan, we chose the latter. Here's hoping we have a shift of luck in this next leg of our journey.