The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
During the Diwali holidays, I arranged a three-day, two-night journey with another teacher Mary Reilly from Michigan to Ellora and Ajanta Caves. Both are on UNESCO World Heritage List and have been significant sources for historians, archaeologists and spiritual seekers such as myself. The car ride to Ellora was long: 255km, 5-6 hours from Pune, and another two hours to Ajanta from Ellora. Traveling in India is always exciting and seeing rural India makes me appreciate the diversity and resilience of Indian people.
Ellora site contains more than 100 caves featuring Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves and artwork, dating from 600-1000 C.E. The most renown monuments include the world’s largest single monolithic rock, the Kailasha Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, early Buddhist architecture in the Kanheri Caves with idols, goddesses and Bodhisattva-related iconography of Vajrayana Buddhism, the Vishvakarma Cave with the rock carved in resemblance of wooden beams, and some of the earliest Samavasarana images in the Jain Caves. (In Jainism, Samavasarana is the divine preaching hall of the Tirthankara, the spiritual teacher of the dharma.)
Ajanta site contains approximately thirty rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments dating from the 2nd B.C.E. to 5th century C.E. These caves were ancient monasteries and worship places carved into a 250-feet wall of rock on the north side of a U-shaped gorge in the Deccan Plateau. Like Ellora Caves, these caves served a monsoon retreat for monks and resting sites for merchants and pilgrims. The frescos and friezes depicting themes and details of ancient and medieval Indian culture and traditions, scenes of international trade and proliferation of Buddhism. The ancient spiritual seekers set up this idea of a “retreat” into the mountain rock to remove themselves for inner exploration.
Reclining Buddha (Ajanta Cave #26)
We also visited and made flower offerings at Ghrishmeshwar Jyotirlinga Temple just outside Ellora. No camera was allowed and we were the only foreigners present. The procession toward the yoni shrine included various rituals including gathering offerings outside the temple, proper attire if required, chanting, make more offerings and touching the yoni shrine and Nandi statute. Other smaller alters are scattered around the main temple including one for Ganesha. No prasad was provided at today’s service but we both left with a renewed state of consciousness despite of being a bit awkward following simply by observing and following others. The locals were included us as locals and helped us participate.
In the Trimurti cosmology, Shiva is considered as the “destroyer and the transformer.” Shiva is also regarded as the Supreme Being who creates, protects and transforms the universe. Instead of seeing this as a deity in another religion, I imagine Shiva’s energies within me and the ritualistic gestures are means to connect with the inner potentials to purify, transform and create. What am I ready to be destroyed? What needs to be destroyed? Visualizing and physically being in the caves where early spiritual seekers walked their paths are incredibly purifying. The so-called reality in which we often trap ourselves seems increasingly porous. As a powerful prop, these murals and statutes help navigate in our imagination of a connected whole. The caves, are within us.