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January 15, 2019, India

Sacred treasures

Alan Yuen explores ancient cave paintings and holy sites in India

Alan Yuen

To the uninitiated, India’s centuries-old history can seem impenetrable. Look up any ancient or holy site online and you are likely to find information on its complex history with a lengthy cast of historical figures.

However, as I experienced on my recent visit to several sites, a little patience and effort to read up about each destination goes a long way. More than making sure whatever my guide did not fly over my head, it brought each place to life, opening up portals to the fascinating worlds of bygone eras.

Ajanta: Lost and found
For more than a thousand years, the Ajanta Caves were lost to history before they were discovered in 1819. The caves date from around 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD, and are situated in the mountainous region of Maharashtra, 400 km from Mumbai.

Today, the Unesco World Heritage Site, which comprises 30 caves filled with sculptures, wall murals, and ceiling paintings, is considered an iconic work of ancient art and architecture.

After hiking up over a hundred steps or more, I finally reached the caves. It would have been an easier climb if it was not such a humid afternoon. But the effort was worth it, for the reward was a panoramic view of the cave entrances along a 550m horseshoe shaped rock face.

Jutting out from an undulating hillside with dense foliage, it was not difficult to imagine how the caves were lost to the world for millennia. Although there was some sunlight streaming in through the entrance of the caves, it was pitch dark deeper inside. Armed with a torchlight, I ventured further in to explore the vast space within.

The cave consisted of an ornately carved veranda, hall, prayer cells and sanctuary — an architectural feat given that they were cut from rock with only a hammer and chisel.

More impressive were the sensuous paintings of opulent court life, animals, palaces and the Buddha, brought to life by masterful use of perspective, shading and vibrant colours.

My guide shared the ancient stories depicted on the murals on the walls as we passed them.

He pointed out the Bodhisattva Padmapani located at Cave 1, the most famous and iconic of the Ajanta artworks. It depicts a bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, also known as Guanyin to Asian Buddhists.

Peace at Bodh Gaya
Outside the Mahabodhi Mahavihara temple complex, traffic is gridlocked. Tour buses, tuktuks and motorbikes jostle to occupy openings and honk on their way up the narrow stretch of road leading to its entrance.

Once I got inside the complex, the hectic atmosphere faded quickly away in the calm and quiet environment. Monks from all around the world — identified by the colour of their robes from ochre, bright orange to pristine white — lay prostrate in deep prayer.

Others recited mantras, keeping count using prayer beads.

Even camera-toting tourists observed the scene with hushed reverence. And understandably so.

This tiny town in the north-eastern state of Bihar is one of the most holy sites in Buddhism. It was said to be where Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment beneath a bodhi tree and became a Buddha more than 2,600 years ago.

In fact, the bodhi tree — believed to be a direct descendant of the one Buddha sat under — still stands. The massive tree can be found at the western side of the 52m-tall grand temple, one of the oldest remaining Buddhist structures built entirely in brick from 5th century Gupta period.

Mysterious Sarnath
On the tourist map, Sarnath has always played second fiddle to its more popular cousin, the holy city of Varanasi.

Located 10km away, the latter lays claim to be one of the oldest cities in the world. It is common to see people bathing in the sacred Ganges River — holy waters that they believe will cleanse away their sins.

Not that Sarnath’s history is anything to sneer at. Buddha came to Sarnath after attaining enlightenment to deliver his famous fi rst sermon. Emperor Ashoka later built stupas and monasteries in the 3rd century BC. At its height, Sarnath was home to 1,500 monks living in monasteries and a 91m-tall stupa.

However, most of the place was destroyed in the 12th century by Mughal invaders, relegating the city to obscurity until it was “rediscovered” in 1835 by British archaeologists.

One of the rare structures that survived is the 12m-tall Dhamekh Stupa, an enormous structure built to mark the spot where Buddha gave his sermon. The Dharmarajika Stupa nearby was not as lucky. Reduced to rubble, the stupa was tragically demolished in the 18th century so that its bricks could be used to construct a bazaar.

Still, I witnessed a monk circumambulating the demolished stupa. The monk rhythmically made rounds with an unhurried pace, over and over, impervious to the heat.

In any other context the act would seem torturously mundane. But observing the monk, the act had a transcendent quality. He was a conduit to the distant past, where countless pilgrims travelled from around the world, making long journeys for a brief stay in a spiritual home.

■ I flew to Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi via Air India. The closest airport to the Ajanta caves is Aurangabad, a two hour flight from Delhi.

For the Mahabodhi Mahavihara temple, Bodh Gaya is also a two-hour flight away. Factor in plenty of time for car transfers as traffic can be slow. Hire a car to get around for convenience.

■ Set aside four hours to fully explore the Ajanta caves. If you have an extra day, head to the nearby Ellora Caves, another world heritage site. The best time to visit is in winter, from December to February, where cool weather will make exploring the caves more pleasant.

Be sure to wear shoes that you can slip in and out of easily — you will have to take them off before entering the caves.

■ You cannot bring mobile phones into the Mahabodhi Mahavihara temple complex. If you intend to take photos, you may have to pay a nominal fee to bring in a camera.


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