the painted and sculpted caves of ajanta

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If you were ever of the opinion that Buddhist art was all about asceticism and restraint, think again. The caves at Ajanta, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, are a lavish statement to the contrary as I discovered earlier this month on a five-day trip exploring the region in and around Aurangabad. But then, isn’t that what travel is meant to do? Break perceptions. 🙂

Imbued with sensuality borrowed from its sibling, Hinduism, ancient Buddhist art in its parent country is filled with nudes performing graceful mudras, figures wrapped in erotic embraces, and faces marked with raw emotion. Interspersed in this human carnival are serene, silent, meditating Buddhas, perfectly at peace in their company.

The mix of spiritual with secular, ordinary with sublime are common traits in Indian aesthetics. Why then should Buddhist art have been any different! Continue reading

mumbai’s ancient rock-cut cave temples

“Let’s explore the rock-cut cave temples of Mumbai this Sunday,” a friend suggests excitedly.

“Caves? I have been to Elephanta and Kanheri. Even written about them! Read my post. 🙂 ”

“Hey, there are more, a lot more in the city itself.”

More? I am confused. Where can there possibly be caves in Mumbai. The city is packed with concrete and people, with little space to walk, least of all millennia old caves to have survived. I am wrong.

Hidden within the crevices of Mumbai’s urban jungle is a pulsating vein of its ancient past. A series of rock-cut temples, connected to each other with tunnels and hidden passageways, lace the city’s basalt bed rock. Continue reading

laos 3: sacred chants and harmony in luang prabang

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Luang Prabang resonates with sacred chants and harmony. The various layers of life in this charming, medieval, religious town blend seamlessly into each other to create a complete whole. From the saffron robed monks going about their daily tasks to the local Lao whose lives revolve around the wats; from the night market which sells indigenous handicrafts to the thronging tourists, to the tourists themselves, mature and sensitive to the spirit of Luang Prabang. Nothing jars here. Nothing irks. Every aspect of this palm fringed, sleepy, former royal capital by the Mekong is in peace with itself. Continue reading

tibet 6: the rest of lhasa … drepung, sera, norbulingka

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Drepung Monastery, the ‘Rice Heap’

Drepung monastery, the largest and richest monastery in Tibet, was built in 1416 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Yellow Hat sect, under the patronage of a noble family, and enlarged by the 5th Dalai Lama later. Its name means ‘Rice Heap’ in Tibetan. The monastery covers an area of more than 200,000 square meters. At its peak, it had over 10,000 monks. Continue reading

tibet 4: jokhang temple in lhasa, the spiritual center of tibet

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In the 7th Century, Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd Yarlung king of Tibet, united the scattered tribes of Tibet and moved his capital from Tsedang to Lhasa. He was one of the first kings to be recognized as an incarnation of Avalokiteshwara, the boddhisattva of compassion. During his reign he had a group of 16 children sent to India to study Sanskrit. Only one child survived the journey and went on to live in India for seven years. His name was Tumi Sambhota. This child later became a prominent Minister in Songtsen’s court and was responsible for standardizing and forming the Tibetan script that is still in use today. He contributed immensely to the translation of the Buddhist Sanskrit scriptures as well, making them understandable to the many devout and faithful followers in the kingdom. Continue reading

tibet 3: tashilhunpo monastery, shigatse—tibet’s heap of glory

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Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama

Tashilhunpo Monastery, meaning ‘Heap of Glory’, is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important spiritual leader of Tibet and was commissioned in 1447 by His Holiness the 1st Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendun Drup. The abbots of Tashilhunpo came to be known as Panchen, because of their scholarly reputation. The title Panchen derives from the Sanskrit word Pandita, which means ‘scholar’, and the Tibetan term Chen Po, which means ‘great’. Continue reading