There’s an indescribable feeling you get when standing over a cliff. It’s almost foreboding and tempting at the same time. The cliff in question overlooked the Ajanta caves. A short hike down, and the minuscule caves almost seemed to grow, until they towered above us.
Each of the 29 caves varied in size, from barren rooms no bigger than a closet to huge halls with pillars and statues and remnants of colorful paintings. Around the valley was a giant water reservoir, in the form of cascading pools. It seemed easy to picture the life that must have once populated this area, but it was actually hard; a second glance and the caves became as lonely and desolate as they had been before.
The statues depicted Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism. Each cave was calm and quiet, a refuge from the sun outside. It was unbelievably hot, walking between caves provided a mental argument about whether I should wear my shoes and take them off (29 times) or brave the scorching bricks instead. I’m no coward, but even I can acknowledge that some challenges just can’t be done.
As the temperature continued to ascend, I spent longer in each cave, on the pretext of looking around at the paintings and sculptures. Although they were faded, you could make out demons and battles and kingdoms; gods and goddesses and the Buddha himself on the path of enlightenment. It’s amazing to imagine how long the artisans would have taken, trekking through the wild and carving the statues and painting the stories, straight out of nothing. It’s even more amazing that their stories have survived for so long.
Our tour guide, was apparently made from far sterner stuff than we were. As the journey ended, I was dripping with sweat, while he was miles ahead, telling my family about the caves (It was actually incredible, what he knew and how he remembered details about every single cave). I’m not among the lucky few blessed with a photographic memory (an affliction that haunts me around exams each year) but I can remember common themes of the Bodhi tree- where Buddha attained enlightenment, several Bodhi- sattvas (people who have also attained enlightenment) and an eerie cave shaped like a church where voices echoed loudly.
As we trekked back up to the modern world, I could have thought about the beauty of the timeless caves, the countless hours they took to decorate and the monks who spent their lives here, devoting themselves to achieving nirvana but instead I thought about how grateful I was for the air-conditioning inside the car.