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Temple Caves of India Offer Spiritual Insight

January 06, 1991|BEVERLY SHAVER | Shaver is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

BOMBAY, India — There is inevitably a point in the biorhythm of independent travel when exhilaration of discovery, joy in the marvelous otherness of scenes and lives, give way to an acute sense of being a stranger in a very foreign place.

Camus speaks of the moment when, far from our own country, we become dispirited, seized with a vague fear, overpowered by feelings of estrangement.

It was at such a moment after three weeks of bemused exploration in India that I fled from the clogged streets--the relentless humid heat and gritty air of Bombay, from the limp babies and their insistent mothers, the lepers, the lordly cows munching street garbage--to Aurangabad.

This ancient city, high and cool on the Deccan plain, was the gateway to the spectacular caves at Ajanta and Ellora. "No one of sensibility leaves India without seeing them," the woman in the Bombay Tourist Office had said. "The paintings and sculptures are one of the wonders of the world. The resident spirits will speak to your soul."

Now, after a breakfast of fresh toast, almond and honey jam and a pot of steaming masala tea served in my room by a businesslike 14-year-old in white dhoti and Gandhi cap, I waited in the hotel lobby for the tour bus.

Lal Singh, the suave Sikh manager, had advised that the conducted tour to Ajanta, a distance of about 65 miles, would depart the hotel at 9 a.m. I should be ready with camera, sun hat, "accommodating shoes" and a leak-proof bottle of mineral water that, alas, would not remain cold since "loose ice is so ephemeral."

An elegantly lettered poster above the reception desk heightened expectations of the day. On it was printed:

What held men there through time and change of faith

Hollowing out a mountain--ecstasies

of austere contemplation?--human hope

of ruthless help from powerful deities?--

or an artist's dream of half-outwitting death?

--R.N. Currey

Could one to whom mantras and mudras meant little hope to grasp the meanings, comprehend the message of the caves' saints, gods, demons, I wondered as I boarded the sleek Ashok Leyland bus that arrived a half-hour late belching a trail of hot brown fog. The driver apologized to the passengers at large for our tardiness.

"Well, time is eternal," murmured the Indian in the khaki Punjabi suit across from me. "What we don't succeed in doing today can be done well enough in the next life."

He flashed gold-tipped teeth in a discreet smile and handed me his card. "Purham Lal, Ltd. Himroo Textiles, Bombay," I read. His wife and three doe-eyed children seated in front of him regarded me inquiringly.

Where, oh where, was the male relative to escort and protect this lone foreign female, their gazes inquired. Most of the tour passengers were Indians, I noted with surprise, the only other Caucasians being two shrill young women whose T-shirts proclaimed them "Brisbane Birds."

The bus loudspeaker came on bleatingly. "I am Lafar Akhter, your guide for the day," said a young man speaking in the familiar elaborately inflected English. He was wearing a fashionably oversize sweat shirt bearing the Indo-Aryan swastika--for good luck, he later explained. "In each of the great civilizations of the world there are a few places where we may find, preserved and accessible, the essential heritage and spirit of that civilization. Just such a place where we go today is Ajanta."

Beginning in 200 BC, he told us, Buddhist monk-masons carved 30 caves into the granite-faced hillside. And there for the next 800 years, working by reflected sun and torchlight, they painted and sculpted the Buddha in a setting of folk tales and the everyday life of their own time. There they meditated, chanted prayers and taught students.

The two-hour journey took us through an arid landscape of sienna brown, broken occasionally by flashes of scarlet-flowered palas trees, through a succession of villages smoky with cow dung fires, where shops were opening and merchants sat cross-legged beside their wares. When the bus stopped for weary beasts crossing the road, chai wallahs appeared at our windows crying "Garam chai!" (hot tea).

As we neared the famed canyon, Lafar moved to the door of the bus with the calm, portentous air of a proctor about to launch a major examination. Then there came into view a sweeping rock crescent above a rocky defile, where the Waghora River formed a necklace of indigo pools. Rushing water in the river below filled the canyon with ceaseless, one-note sound.

In the 250-foot-high cliff face were five rock-hewn structures with cyclopean-eyed windows. Connecting these were rows of massive stone pillars, the entrances to the monasteries that had housed the temple keepers. A series of steep stone steps led up to a concrete terrace fronting the entire crescent.

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