We just returned from a 36-hour adventure in the Indian countryside. Our experience began yesterday at 5am when the Toyota SUV (complete with seat belts and AC) arrived to pick us up. It was driven by a mild-mannered Indian man named Uddi, who appeared to have minimal but sufficient English. Armed with snacks and supplies, our group of six hit the trail before dawn, speeding along the deserted outskirts of Pune toward our first stop, the Ajanta caves. I settled in near a window where I watched the world slowly come to life as dawn turned into day, stealing little scraps of people’s personal lives as our car sped along. The landscape morphed into long green rows of carefully planted fields, etched with lines of rich brown earth. Corn grew everywhere and in the midst of the fields were a variety of homes, from modest wooden structures to shacks, to open A-shaped tents made of miscellaneous fabric. People cooked on small fires anywhere they could, frequently on gravel lots littered with junk. I often saw larger structures erected with plastic like an open tent with no sides, and plastic tables and chairs beneath arranged like hasty restaurants and lit by bare bulbs. The countryside was frequently interrupted by small crowded villages where sleepy street vendors sold guava, mango, bananas, and other fruits in the hot sun. Small garage-type buildings offered shade and any number of services from mechanical help to medicine, as dogs, goats, cows, and chickens loomed here and there, paradoxically creating a scene of subdued chaos.
Six hours later, stiff, tired, and hungry we pull into the large dusty lot of Ajunta Caves. Still groggy from the road, doors open all around and we unfold ourselves from our confinement. You’re familiar with the expression, like flies on horse manure. That pretty much sums up what happened next. A band of Indian men collected around our vehicle as Uddi opened the trunk and handed out some items. Not thinking in the confusion, I grabbed my backpack full of heavy books and other useless items for caving, and struggled to make my way through the crowd while chatting politely to the man beside me who asked endless questions, making me wonder if this was some freakish karmic payback. Feeling like Jon Luc in an old episode of Star Trac, I try unsuccessfully to assimilate into this new world or at least not to humiliate anyone. My new “friend” tells me he knows “clean and good restaurant for you”. He explains that it’s called Maharashtra Government something, something… and it’s located at the end of the road. “Go there. Go there. Clean and good for you.” I thought the guy was legit, it’s amazing how quickly we develop attachments when confronted with the unknown.
I catch up to the group at a food stand where our Indian Entourage (IE) is quickly seating us around a table. I explain to our group what I’ve just been told and someone shows me the menu where is says at the top MGSS (Maharashtra Government Something…). Still suspicious, I sit down and a plate of food appears magically. It looks like many other meals I’ve eaten but it’s missing the steam, I poke around and nibble on the bread, suddenly thankful for that last minute trip to Denver for the Typhoid shot. As we leave for the bus to the cave entrance, the IE keep shouting numbers at us (of their souvenir stands) that we are to visit on the way out. They follow us in lock step and never let us out of their sight until we board the bus. At the ticket station there is a restaurant called Maharashtra Government Something, Something, (the real one my “friend” spoke of). Someone in our group comments on how cleaver of the Food Stand to use the same reassuring acronym to catch unsuspecting tourists like us. I buy my ticket, board the bus, and drop heavily into the warm seat feeling slightly spent.
The first thing we see as we leave the bus is a steep rock face cutting down into a large gorge where a river winds through lush green trees and foliage. It is truly stunning in scope, like standing on a mountain top and looking out toward the next mountain which seems so close and yet so far. As you gaze across the vast flat rock you could make out large statutes carved in relief into the side of the mountain. We begin at Cave 1, a Buddhist monastery, excavated in 500AD. After stumbling around in the dark (my headlamp safely in the car) we decide to hire a guide. Immediately the cave comes to life and we are happily on our way.
As a brief explanation, the caves were created by Buddhist monks between 200BC and 650AD. Generations of men painstakingly hammered and chiseled rock removing and creating the caves, fortifying them with columns and buttresses, and leaving them deep, dark, and solid. They chiseled the walls with statutes and reliefs and painted pictures on the walls and ceilings that tell stories of ancient life around the time of the Buddha. Getting light into the caves was a problem, to increase the light, reflection pools were created near the doors to collect water and reflect the sunlight inward, cleaver and perhaps an interesting metaphor for enlightenment. Of the thirty caves, only five are temples of worship, the remainder are monasteries where monks lived and congregated. The caves were hidden under dense forest growth until they were discovered by a British hunter in the 1800’s and their excavation began.
Many of the caves had a powerful and grounding energy about them, and many were acoustically favorable, leading our little group to begin chanting a round of OM in a small alcove. The sound of our voices was so full and rich, like angles singing in a cathedral, it inspired me for the voice lessons I am eager to being at home. Our tour continued through the main caves then our guide departed and we were on our own to explore. The final cave we visited was stunning with an enormous reclining Buddha preparing to enter nirvana. Scenes carved on the walls depict the temptation of Buddha by Mara (the devil) who attempts unsuccessfully to disrupt his meditation with worldly desires.
Then we began our descent into the dense green gorge to our final destination, the waterfall. At the bottom we walked toward the stone bank of the river where other visitors were clustered laughing loudly. The ruckus was caused by several monkeys that had perched on a wall begging for food. People gathered around feeding the wild animals the Indian equivalent of Cheetos. My Doctor’s words rang across the ocean, Just stay away from monkeys, so I kept a distance and tried for a quick picture. Suddenly, a cry rang out and there was mayhem as a large monkey sprung on a little boy who had been eating something. Startled, the boy screamed and began to run and cry, clearly petrified. The monkey pursued briefly and retreated. An army of monkeys arrived and it took on the feel of a Wizard Of Oz nightmare. Not keen to take on monkeys half my size, I turned on my heels and sprinted in the direction of the bridge wondering all the while about the return trip. The boy was unharmed and I remained vigilant. The waterfalls were lovely and the trip back to the bus required only one further encounter with the monkeys.
Mia and I were walking down the steps when a man nearby decided it would be fun to rally the monkeys for his children, so he threw a bag of Indian Cheetos and like magic a mob appeared. A large one lunged toward Mia’s flowing skirt catching it’s nails in the fabric and pulling. Luckily, Kevin, from our group, was behind us and had the good sense to loudly pop his empty water bottle which had the effect of a ball-pin hammer to the brain, disbursing the monkeys in every direction. We retired to the Government Approved restaurant, but not before a man approached again with the Ajanta & Ellora Guidebook he was selling.
By now it had become clear that the IE were in fact salesmen each with the instinct of a bloodhound and the persistence of starving mountain lion eyeing a baby doe. What I know about negotiation would fit in a thimble, and my husband has always said, Don’t negotiate with yourself, so I found it amusing when one man holding a small Buddha statute shouted at me, “Lady, 300 rupee, only 300 rupee.” Still civil at this point I walk by and say, no thank you. He pursues, “No, no, lady, 200 rupee, just 200”. I walk determinedly onward ignoring him. “100, 100, just 100 rupee”. Oh my God, I start to laugh out loud remembering Dan’s words, and I say to Kevin, Now I understand why you don’t negotiate with yourself, if we just keep walking he’ll throw it at us. It was a brief moment of levity, but tension was growing.
We left the restaurant pursued by the IE and one man in particular who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sadly, I had wanted the stupid Guide Book he was pushing but he was so persistent and in-my-face that my frustration became resistance and hardened into stubbornness. Every time I would think I had gotten rid of him, he would reappear like an old stain on your newly cleaned carpet. If it weren’t so frustrating it would have been funny. After leaning over me in the hot bus for several minutes berating me to buy the book, Kevin, the only man in our group, finally intervened and told him to leave me alone which he did. I was thankful and even further annoyed at the clearly sexist response. Now, I don’t have the book and he doesn’t have the money. Lose-lose.
The final attack was waged when we alighted from the bus and the original vultures descended upon our bulging pocketbooks. My “friend” was there pulling on my arm and talking non-stop about his gift stand, all the while leading me toward #48. I broke away from him several times to redirect myself toward Karen and each time he would reappear beside me and urge me to come with him. I’d never seen anything like it. Finally relenting just to shut him up, I follow him to his booth where I don’t have the slightest interest in anything. I literally pull my arm away and leave, outside I meet up with Karen and we take off in the direction of the parking lot, totally frustrated, and sick and tired of the obnoxious salesmen. Suddenly, an old man from #48 is beside me carrying a candlestick from the store and shouting, “Only for you 100 rupee”. Along with several other men they surround us shouting prices again. This goes on through the lot until we reach the car. And then I break…Turning to the old, toothless man I scream, LEAVE ME ALONE!! GET AWAY FROM ME, DON’T TOUCH ME AND DON’T SPEAK TO ME AGAIN!! LEAVE! I walk over and sit on a stump and he stands there staring at me like a wounded child, then he says, “Why are you so angry?” I think I’m going to kill him and spend the rest of my life in a decrepit Indian jail, weighing the decision in my mind I slowly start to laugh at the absurdity of it all. He moves in for the kill, but I cut him off at the knees, with my Socratic reply, Don’t you dare…
The Ellora Caves we visit the next morning are delightful in the cool morning air. Known mainly for their sculpture, we begin in the Jain Caves. I know very little about Jainism other than the cornerstone of their belief system is non-violence, we combine our group knowledge and figure out that Jain’s don’t kill or eat any living thing which leads to behaviors such as keeping one’s mouth shut, good advice for many of us, in an effort to avoid inadvertently eating something microscopic that might fly in. They don’t eat root vegetables such as onions and garlic since you would have to destroy the source of the plant to harvest it. The first cave proves to be a haven for bats and I move quickly on. The other caves are Hindu and Buddhist. The main attraction is Cave 16, The Kailasanatha Temple which is shaped like the Parthenon, and carved out of 85,000 meters of rock. It lives up to our expectations. Hindu Cave #21 proved most unusual as it contained exquisitely carved statutes of beautiful women and Lord Shiva with pictorial representations of lingam, a symbol of the masculine energy, and some say God, and yoni, the female creative energy, represented by the female goddess, Shakti. The union of lingam and yoni represent the two-into-oneness, male and female, passive space into active time from which all life originates. These caves have a different kind of energy that seems somewhat carnal indicating that I obviously don’t understand the underpinnings of such things as tantra, kundalini, or brahmacharya.
Our long journey home begins. The edges of life are soft now with the fading light. I watch as the sun sets behind a man walking a herd of goats down a long dirt road. I see the little fires of dinner springing to life in the night air, and I think about my goal of spending the second half of life outdoors.