india’s classical masterpiece: the ellora caves

Be prepared to be bowled over.

No matter how many incredible photographs or videos you may have seen or paragraphs of eloquent text in guide books and articles you may have read, the real thing will.still.take.your.breath.away.

The Ellora caves are grander and more magnificent, yet full of intricate detailing, than you may ever have imagined.

Three ancient Indian religions are housed here. Three arts converge here. The site, spread over a two-kilometre long basalt massif, is one of the world’s largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes with more than a hundred caves. And if that were not enough, these ‘caves’ were excavated out of living rock over a millennium ago, between 550 and 950 AD to be exact, with chisel and hammer, to create ethereal art and architecture in its wake.

Come, let me take you on a virtual tour of India’s Classical masterpiece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. And in the process, inspire you to also make the journey to the Ellora caves in person. For what is life, but moments which take our breath away. 🙂 Continue reading

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

rajgir, the ancient capital of magadha

To find a place not steeped in history, heritage or culture in India would be an anomaly. After living for eight years in the country I should be used to the cultural avalanche that typifies most things Indian by now.

After all, we are talking about 2 million years, 29 states, 7 union territories, and 9 practiced religions. But nope. Every time I come across a place, either firmly established as the country’s top sights or obscure and unknown on the road-less-travelled, I am overwhelmed. 🙂

Take for instance my recent travels to Bodh Gaya. On doing my travel research one specific name kept popping up—Rajgir. It came highly recommended. Unsure of what exactly to expect, I added it to my itinerary with an overnight stay, but alas, I wish I had stayed longer.

Known in ancient times as Rajagriha, which translates to “house of king” or “royal house,” Rajgir, located between Bodh Gaya and Nalanda, was the first capital of ancient Magadha up until the 5th Century BC. But what was Magadha? Continue reading

buddha’s bodh gaya: the sacred hidden treasures of mahabodhi temple complex

“Is there some festival or special event taking place here today?” I whisper to the Buddhist monk seated next to me.

I am confused, and overwhelmed.

The entire Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya, in the Indian State of Bihar, is draped with marigolds, lotuses, and roses. Hundreds of ochre and red-robed shaven-headed Buddhist monks and nuns prostrate in prayer in the grounds, and around the main temple. A handful of tourists quietly join the circumambulations around the main temple. I see pilgrims from Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Tibet, and Sri Lanka in deep prayer. Most are dressed in their traditional attires. I see a few pilgrims from the West as well, no less in the purity of their faith. Groups chant with micro precision around me, not one voice out of sync, their mantras punctuated with the crescendo beats of rattle drums.

“No. Nothing special. It is like this every day all winter.” And he goes back to his meditation.

Nothing special. Just the extraordinary experience of being part of, and witnessing Buddhists from all corners of the world come and pay homage to the place where Buddha received enlightenment. 🙂 Continue reading

global travel shot: nalanda, the world’s first residential international university

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When writing the title of this post, I found myself in a bit of a quandary. Should I call it a global travel shot or an Indian travel shot? The former won.

The above image is of the red brick ruins of the world’s first residential international university—Nalanda Mahavihara—built in the Indian state of Bihar in the 5th Century AD. To be more specific, it is an image of the stupa marking the nirvana of Sariputra, Buddha’s famed disciple, within the university. A Sanskrit name, Nalanda means giver of lotus stalks; mahavihara translates to great monastery.

For 800 years, Nalanda, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracted the brightest brains from all over the ancient world, from as far afield as Central Asia, China, and Korea. Hungry for knowledge, these scholars flocked to Nalanda’s doors to be met by a rigorous oral examination by its gatekeepers. Only those who passed were allowed to study inside the coveted walls. Many were turned away. Continue reading

36 hours in essaouira, where europe meets africa

The year is 1765. The place: A windy bay in Western Morocco. Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah, Morocco’s Sultan, has come up with the idea of building a fortified port-city by the sea to strengthen trade ties with Europe and the New World.

But with a difference. He decides to commission a Frenchman, Theodore Cornut to build it, using French military architectural elements. The city is populated with Africans, Amazighs, Arabs, and Europeans. A colony of Moroccan Jews are especially brought in to carry out the trade. And, thus, Essaouira meaning “the beautifully designed” is born. Continue reading