While enrolled at THINK Global School, students are encouraged to be creative during the course of their studies and travels. When the students document these thoughts, we are often delighted with the results. In “Defining the indefinable,” 11th grade student Emma D. recounts her experiences at the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Aurangabad, India, and how the trip helped her understand that the beauty in many of the destinations that travelers visit lies in the smaller details; things that we often cannot comprehend.
We drove up to the caves on a sunny, yet cool morning (well, “cool” being a relative term when it comes to India), but yes, for India, it was cool.
The sun glinted off of our bus’ blue, shining armor as we hopped out into “cool” and breezy air that tickled our overtired faces. There, above us, was a temple.
“Temple” was the initial word that popped into my head. A large, old and beautiful building with intricate carvings and statues every which way you look at it. What I knew of it before, and remembered a little later, was that this was actually a cave. A type of cave that I have never seen or experienced before because this cave looked like a temple.
Carved, so as to be a building, into a large rock on the side of a hill, the cave loomed above us, grand and intimidating in its closeness. As I look back on my notes, I referred to this structure as a temple throughout the morning. To my foreign, unknowing brain and eyes, I had connected this building/cave/structure to what I thought a temple looked like. What I knew came into play to define and justify what I was seeing in my mind, so that it made sense to me. But, this definition was wrong; or incorrect; or inaccurate. I could not make sense of the TRUE definition of the temple/cave.
I could not define it, really, because I did not understand it.
This was the start; just a taste and a small section of all that I did not truly comprehend inside of these “un-cave-like” caves.
The first culture that embraced us was Jainism. The Jain cave had a small door guarded by two huge statues of elephant-humans, who stared down aggressively at all that dared to enter. Once passing through the tiny doorway, the cave opened up into a spacious enclosure of rock. The light sprinkled over the edge of the open courtyard and shone in dedicated rays upon certain areas. The shrine-like building in the center of this area was illuminated in a golden glow; a holy aura that exuded serenity.
As the light entered into my eyes, the smell of urine leaked into my nose, bringing me back to reality and real-life thought. The contrast between what I was seeing and what I was smelling was clear and pronounced, and I was reminded that this ancient building was no longer a ‘cave’ of great religious importance, just a fascinating tourist destination at which pink nosed, sweaty tourists ogle at the wonders of the Jain statues and pretend to interpret a message that was not meant for them.
After my initial wonder-filled look at the cave, we moved through it quickly, stopping at only certain “important” elements which seemed to consist mainly of the most impressive parts which the tour guide believed we wanted to see. I could no longer summon up the awe that I had felt when first entering the cave. Yes, the carvings were stunningly beautiful, and the surviving paintings were incredible, and the statues were of a design that I had never really seen before, but a constant feeling of something being missing followed me around like a homeless dog. I could not shake the feeling that so many small details were being lost on us.
We got the basic layout of the culture: Jainism was a culture that arose as opposition to the strict and conservative rules of the Brahmans. They worshipped Kauvalya, who was depicted very similarly to the statues we had seen of Buddha, except for being carved in a more relaxed and seated position. They fiercely opposed violence. Jains believed that it was impossible to live a non-violent life, as the mere act of survival required you to consume other living things. Extremist Jains refused to eat the roots (potatoes, leeks) of any type of plant, as it would result in the death of that creature, and some wore masks so as not to disturb flying bugs.
This was all made known to us, and it was fascinating; however, it made me feel even further away from grasping the essence of the culture. I felt in that moment as if the Jains who had lived thousands of years before us were the furthest things from human beings. Their strict rules and sense of self-blame seemed unconnected to my life at all.
Little details like the designed lotus flowers etched with leaves that sprinkled the middle of each ceiling were pointed out to us, and the mango trees that framed the curves of the bodies of each God depicted in the “cave” were out of reach to my mind. I could not connect the smaller things to the distant, ancient religion that was explained to us. There was a gap that my brain could not breach, and I was reminded of a similar feeling that had occurred to me the previous day.
I recalled the stale, hot shade of the Ajanta caves and the surprise at my feet touching warm concrete that should have been cold. The smell of foot thick in the air had me batting at my face and gasping as sweaty figures pushed themselves against my body, their foreign mouths competing to make the most amount of noise. I strained my ears to catch a small fraction of the tour guides rolling accent.
“This part of the world has been touched by other parts of the world for thousands and thousands of years,” he shouted. “We cannot even begin to imagine the messages written in these paintings, hidden from those who they are not relevant to.” He continued speaking for a while about the Buddhist monks, who thousands of years ago would have come into this very cave and understood every symbol that was etched or painted onto the rock walls. Every single brush stroke or hammer chip would have had an effect on the story told. We cannot see it now, but to them, it was all apparent and important.
A small carving of a fat man was pointed out to us. He was situated beneath a strong-looking stone pillar that supported the structure. The thick arms of the man were straining upwards, pushing against the roof, and he squatted on a ledge using his bent knees as support. Effort was clear on his meticulous face. He held up the roof.
“Everything serves a purpose and everything is connected.” This pillar proved that. The effort that was placed into the construction of the small man and a seemingly insignificant pillar reminds one of the essentiality of the pillar. Though we may forget about them, the little things are what count. They are the reason we have any “big things” at all.
It makes one think about all the little things that we are missing. We might be getting a sense of the larger feel of the religion or culture that we are observing when visiting places like the grand Ajanta and Ellora caves; however, the smaller things that we do not understand may serve a purpose just as big, maybe bigger.
Though it is interesting to explore the history and beauty around attractions like the cave, it is vital that we remember what we do not understand. It is vital that we do not change things that we cannot comprehend, just so that we can comprehend them. It is vital that we remember how much we don’t know and how much we still have to learn.
Above all, it is vital that we do not try to define the indefinable.