A Cave Story

Memories can be complicated. They are both boon and curse at the same time. They allow you to travel back in time just to be there for one more moment. It is as if you are accessing the archives of your life which have been submerged under almost everything that has been going on with you. They allow you to see things which you may have not seen in the first place. They allow you to dream. They allow you to travel to places with the closed eye being your boarding pass. The eyelid closes and a whole new world opens up. You are in a different place and time altogether without having to move an inch. Such is the power of memories. At the same time, they have the ability to haunt you. To question your decisions. To take you back to the places where you’d rather not go. To make you relive the horrible experiences which you are better off avoiding. But then again, everything comes at a cost.

It was in the summer of 2011. We were going to Aurangabad, Maharashtra to visit my father who was working there at that time. It was the first time for me going to Maharashtra and I was, admittedly, excited. A beautiful town it is. Honest, hardworking and warm people along with close vicinity to some of the incredible places makes the city a must-see place in Maharashtra. One such place was the Ajanta and Ellora caves. Till then I had only read about them in textbooks. It was just in mere words I knew the significance of the caves and it was about to be converted into a memorable experience.

We went to the Ellora caves early in the morning. Ellora was a fair spot. There were about 11 to 12 caves and all of them were covered with murals and cave paintings which happens to be one of the oldest known cave paintings in India. With no intention of discrediting the place, it didn’t excite me that much. Certainly not as much as Ajanta caves did which I realised later that day. We were done with it by noon and we started for the Ajanta. Little did I know how awestruck I was going to be in a couple of hours.

The geography of the Ajanta is extremely challenging. The caves are in an elevated plain which is accessible only after a 5-6 kilometre hike along the rocky hillocks. There were workers who would carry elderly people upon chairs made of cane and their services were acquired for my grandparents. My parents and I started hiking after buying the passes to enter all the caves. What was going on in my mind while I was climbing up the hill is lost to me. I, however, distinctively remember the first time I saw all the range though. Suddenly, I was in the calmest place on Earth.

Ajanta caves are in a U-shaped series with one cave next to the other. Most of the caves were praying and meditating centres for the Buddhist monks. All the caves had sculptures of Buddha in various postures (or asana’s / mudra’s). They were not mere stone sculptures. They were the beacon of Buddha’s teachings and principles radiating peace and serenity all around. You could feel the peace around you. It was almost as if there were two different climates in and out of the caves. Sun, with all his power, had failed to enter the caves.  The caves were enormous in size. The door would lead primarily to a big verandah and in the end of the massive hall, was the inner sanctum. The entire space was supported by the walls and walls alone. These walls were covered with murals of Buddhism, mainly teachings and important events of Buddha’s life. It was all exhilarating for me. I had never witnessed such tranquillity ever before in my life. The architecture there was beyond human understanding. It was almost impossible to believe that all of those, what we were seeing in front of our eyes, was the result of a mere chisel and a hammer. Every inch of the stone was hammered to perfection. It becomes supernatural when one thinks about the process which had led to the creation of the cave temples. The caves, clearly, were dug down from a mountain. We were on high ground which established the fact that the people who had built it descended from above. What one fails to observe is, if they had dug down from above, where did all the residual rock go? Where did all the extra soil and stones go? There are no deposits of them in the visible horizon and nothing has been built to store the materials. A mystery indeed. This commands our minds to come to the conclusion that it was not just human hands that built this but there was something beyond that.

We were visiting the caves one by one and it came to my notice that some caves in the end of the U-shaped curves were inaccessible to the public. The authorities claimed that it is unsafe to go inside them and they stated the reason as ‘structural vulnerability’. I dismissed that reason straight away. It was clear to me that there was more than what met the eye. Think about it, a structure which has been standing for thousands of years is vulnerable now? If it was vulnerable, why only those set of caves? Every other cave follows the same architectural design and planning. I didn’t dig deep though. Some part of me wanted to oblige by the rules and not to ask questions I didn’t need the answers to.

Each cave had a story to tell. It was not just rocks and paint which made them what they are. Each grain of sand reflected the hard work that went into the building of that place. Each ceiling looked at us and chuckled at the way we were astounded. Each wall mirrored the blood and sweat of the people who built it. The best part? Everything about the caves had a positive feeling about them. Though the caves were poorly lit, there wasn’t a hint of eerieness. Though sunlight didn’t penetrate inside, the walls were not moist. The caves were kept neat and clean by the authorities. Ironical it is that a cave, a closed structure with very little light and surrounded by rocks, projected the story of generations. Timelines were hidden inside those murals and it reached only the people who knew what they were looking for. To top it all, the Buddha sculptures gave us a feeling that he was right there in the room, immersed in deep rumination. It felt like a sin to talk loudly inside the caves. The air contained such power in it, it had conditioned our minds to surrender to the place. Even more so, we wanted to surrender to the place.

The was a river which was probably the cause of the U-shape which was dried out completely due to the intense heat of the summer. The map of the caves is given below for better understanding.

Image result for ajanta caves geography

The part where it says ‘Observatory’ is a small hill. I forced my Father to accompany me as I wanted to see what was on the top of the hill. There were well-constructed steps all along which made the ascent easier. On the top, there was nothing but plain land and quite frankly, I was a disappointed. All I could see was the dried river path which was piercing it way around the hill we were standing upon. I knew there was something which was calling me. The wind brought the message asking me to find something. I didn’t understand at first. I knew I had to go up there and I was pretty sure that I would get to see something. Anything. But all I could see was barren land. I was looking through the length of the dried river and then, abruptly, something caught my eye. It was a place right at the visible end of the river (probably around the place where it says ‘Waterfall’ in the image). I, instantaneously knew that was what lured me to come up to the hill. I was jumping with immense happiness that I found something beautiful to look at. I was happy that the ascent didn’t go waste. The place, for all I knew, could have been a dried up waterfall. But there was something magical about it. It was as if a portal from a fairy tale which would lead you to a whole new world with giant flowers and birds. I saw pools of water in the distance. Somehow water hadn’t dried up in that part of the river amidst all the heat an that made me want to go there even more. A flock of birds flew out of there and suddenly I felt I had found the pathway to a whole new world. My father insisted that we go down the hill and go back to our car and my protest was of no use. I too had realised that it would be physically impossible to go down the hill and follow the river just to find that place. I sadly agreed to go back. It was a very difficult moment up there on the hill. The water and the birds were calling me to go and embrace them and I was forced to turn my back towards them. It probably was just another piece of the river in the end, but for me, since I hadn’t seen what it was, it was the end of the rainbow with a pot of gold. It was the home of the angels who drank from the pools of eternity and rode on unicorns. The reality of that place was limited only by my imagination. For all I knew, that place, right there, was the Shangri-La of the south.

That place was all I could think about on our way back to the hotel. Disappointingly enough, I didn’t even take a picture of that place. Probably for the best because now it resides in my memory with such great detail even a camera could not achieve. If I think about it now, in a sense it was good that I didn’t go down that hill and go to explore that place. For that is the only reason which makes me want to go again to Ajanta. The sky, sometimes, is a reflection of those pools of sharp blue water I saw that day.  Just a piece of memory combined with a vivid imagination takes me to a place which lies in the perfect setting – right beneath the Ajanta. I say to myself that the next time I go there, I’ll make it a priority to along with the river and find that place and turn my imagination into reality.

And no, it was not a dream.

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