Travelling to understand : India (part III)

….third post on India….  Click on photos to enlarge/reduce….


The city lies on the bank of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh.  It is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism. Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India. Many of its temples were plundered and destroyed by Mohammad Ghauri in the 12th century. The temples and religious institutions in the city now were erected in the 18th century.

Varanasi is a spiritual place for many Indian and that special status is palpable when visiting it.  The visitor first impression is usually a sense of awe at the surreal sight of the Ghats.  The intense activities along the river bank are about life and death, about water and fire, motion and stillness.

Foreign visitors move carefully, look inquisitively and appear conscious of their presence intrusiveness.  One wishes nobody would notice that breathing is interrupted when holding arcane sights.   A few days in this city will give one back a sense of peace and calm that often was no longer thought possible.

The old city seems to organically emerge from the shore of the Ganges.  Rampart like buildings, high over the stepped Ghats, form an intricate, dense, block where narrow streets that have room only for pedestrian, bicycles and cows.  Beyond this thick block, a chaotic, noisy city opens up and the presence of modernity reassures us of the end of the time warp.

Varanasi can be reached by train, a luxury night ride on couch, from Delhi.

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Praying on the Kedar Ghat


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Offerings hanging from poles at ghat temples

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Purification rites

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The Manikarnika Ghat is the Mahasmasana (meaning: “great cremation ground”)

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Another view of the Manikarnika Ghat

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Quite morning at the ghat.

The second trip: Ajanta, Elephanta, Ellora, Hampi, Daulatabad and Aurangabad,  Kochin,  Goa  and  Mumbai

My second trip to India expanded the understanding of the country and its history through the visits to a series of sites located in the south west. From the Deccan plateau to the Western Ghats this fantastic trip offered archeological marvels on a grand scale and a scenic beauty hard to describe. This time, the usual and convenient travel by train and air was supplemented by car with driver, boats – on the backwaters – and scooter rental (a tourist bonus when visiting  large areas with countless interesting sights). One last note about this trip was the easy availability of good food, both Indian (hot!!) and other cuisines, even non Asian.


The Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad (Maharashtra) are 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave. They include paintings and sculptures which are masterpieces of Buddhist religious art and were built in two phases starting around the 2nd century BCE, with the second group of caves built around 400–650 CE.

Located on the wall of a river canyon, the sight of cave openings from afar is intriguing. Although the term “caves” correctly identifies the type of construction employed, the monumental structures replicate the interior of temples and monasteries, “carved” out of the native rocks. In a few cases the façade of the cave is also carved and decorated to represent the face of a temple. The cave interiors are simply spectacular; they are indeed architectural and artistic wonders.

The excavation work created large, regular spaces subdivided by rows of decorated columns and embellished by high relief carvings of decorative elements and of larger than life Buddhist religious icons. The whole cave inner space and columns (whose purpose is only aesthetic and not structural) were originally plastered and painted, as it can be seen in the few sections retaining old frescoes.

The cave ‘temples’ are carved to represent cathedral like spaces, where rows of columns raising to a vaulted ceiling surround a stupa (an altar like element), high reliefs of religious themes adorn the walls and more decorations are carved out in the columns and capitals.

Cave ‘monasteries’ are carved to create large, low ceiling, columned halls with numerous cells dug on the two opposing side walls and a large Buddha sculpture is located in an apse carved in the wall opposed to the entrance.  The magnificence of these structures and of the surviving  frescoes cannot be adequately described.


Panorama of the Ajanta Caves


A “monastery” cave, the refectory. 


“Excavating” a temple, from the top down.

DSC_2007The stupa in the oldest cave “temple”

DSC_2073A more ‘recent’ cave temple (~500 CE)

DSC_2051Architectural details of a temple

DSC_2032A beautiful cave fresco

DSC_2068An ornate, two stories, cave temple façade. 

Elephanta Island

The Elephanta Caves are a network of sculpted caves located on Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour.  Two groups of caves can be seen—the first is a large group of five Hindu caves, the second, a smaller group of two Buddhist caves. The Hindu caves contain rock cut stone sculptures, representing the Shaiva Hindu sect, dedicated to the god Shiva. The rock cut architecture of the caves (hewn from solid basalt rock) has been dated to between the 5th and 8th centuries, although the identity of the original builders is still a subject of debate. All the caves were originally painted, but now only traces remain.

The one hour long boat ride from Mumbai harbour to Elephanta island was a real treat.

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The grand first cave at Elephanta

Described as a “masterpiece of Gupta-Chalukyan art”, the most important sculpture in the caves is the Trimurti. The image, 6.1 m in height, depicts a three-headed Shiva. The three heads are said to represent three essential aspects of Shiva — creation, protection, and destruction. The right half-face shows him as a young person with sensuous lips, embodying life and its vitality. The left half-face is that of a moustached young man, displaying anger. The central face, benign and meditative, resembles the preserver Vishnu.

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The three headed Shiva monolith.


The cave inner temple with the lingam.


Ellora is an archaeological site 35 km from Aurangabad; it stands as the epitome of Indian rock-cut architecture. The 34 “caves” – structures excavated out of the vertical face of the Charanandri hills – are Buddhist, Hindu and Jain rock-cut temples and monasteries built between the 5th century and 10th century. The twelve Buddhist (caves 1–12), seventeen Hindu (caves 13–29) and five Jain (caves 30–34) caves demonstrate the religious harmony prevalent during this period of Indian history.

While the Buddhist caves at Ellora are somewhat similar to those of nearby Ajanta, the Hindu structures take the architectural and artistic practice to new heights. These Hindu wonders are gigantic monolithic blocks, isolated from the mountain face, carved on the outside and the inside to represent “erected” structures.   The scale of these structures is comparable to that of large Hindu temples and, to further the likeness, they were intricately carved out, plastered and painted. The largest of these strucures, the Kailash temple, was painted mostly white to mimic the sacred mount Kailash in Tibet (the abode of Lord Shiva).

The Kailash temple, the largest monolith building in the world


Front view of the Kailash temple

Other graciously smaller free standing buildings are located amongst the other Hindu ‘caves’. One of the jewels is a building believed to be a musical prayer hall; in its interior, the reverberation of even a single chanting voice resonates in a wondrous manner.

A smaller monolith, the chanting room.


A three stories Buddhist monastery


A Buddhist cave inner sanctum



Buddhist Saints


a magnificent fresco in a buddhist cave


An Indu goddess


A precious frieze in a cave


In a Jain cave


Hampi is a village in northern Karnataka state, located within the ruins of Vijayanagara, the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire (1336 to 1565) until it was laid siege to by the Deccan Muslim confederacy. One of the biggest and richest, cities in the world in 1500 (approx. 500,000 peoples) its ruins attest to its economic and religious grandeur.

While Hampi’s Virupaksha Hindu temple predated the imperial city and survived, active, to the present, the vast majority of the buildings of the mediaeval city lay in ruins until recent archeological efforts started to uncover them.

Today Hampi is a large and fantastic archeological site located in an even more surreal landscape of gigantic granitic boulders, a gentle water river and luxuriant rice paddies.

Although in March the site was hot and dry – a typical Deccan plateau environment – the visitor resort area located across the river at the edge of green paddies, offered an hospitality that made the trip quite special.


Hampi’s Virupaksha Hindu temple




Hampi landscape, granite boulders forming the banks of the Tungabhadra river


Coracles used to fish in the Tungabhadra river


Vijayanagara temples


Vijayanagara: Royal City’s stepped stone tank


Structural detail of a city wall


The Queen’s Baths in the Royal City


The stone chariot at the Vittala complex


Low reliefs at the royal palace


Erotic sculpture on the wall of a building

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One of the few temple sculptures that preserved the cladding on the stonework


even a toothless cobra is impressive….




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