Last week my friend Laura visited us in Bombay, giving us the awesome opportunity to indulge in every tourist urge. We started the week at Lonavla, a hill station about 90-km from home, and the site of Buddhist caves created about 2,000 years ago. This elephant guards the entrance to the main cave at Karla site. The architecture at Bhaja caves is seen in other cave temples around the country, and the arch is common to the Buddhist chaitya (meditation hall). Within the hall is housed a stupa, a symbolic representation of the enlightened Buddha or the complete perfection of enlightenment. According to legend, stupas originally contained relics of the Buddha’s body. Later in the week, Laura and I visited Elephanta Island, the site of caves created in the 5th century CE devoted to the HIndu god Shiva. While many Hindus attend primarily to one god, classical Hinduism supports the idea of three gods working together as one: Brahma (creator), Vishnu (sustainer), and Shiva (destroyer). This photo shows the three-headed (Trimurthy) Shiva, and throughout the cave are depictions of Shiva in his many forms and sometimes accompanied by his wife Parvati, the embodiment of universal energy or shakti. The caves are absolutely enthralling and magnificent to experience, as the sculptural details make the mythological stories seem real.
The spiritual significance of these majestic entrances is to create a separation between the sacred and the profane worlds, a delineation that is probably even more noticeable today than when the caves were crafted. In order to reach all of these sacred sites, we had to pass the gatekeepers (toll and ticket collectors) and a phalanx of vendors and hustlers selling everything from peanuts and roasted corn to statues of deities to pashima shawls. Numerous guides offered their services for “350 rupees only”, which we declined because Laura read in Lonely Planet that a guide is provided free of charge with the purchase of a deluxe ticket. Women balancing steel pots on their heads asked for photos (10 rupees), and we watched as the local monkeys snatched lunches from squealing picnickers.
One of the highlights of the week for me was undoubtedly our visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra. My fellow ex-pat friend Mary had organized the trip and kindly invited us to come along. When I first visited the Taj last year, I wept at the exquisite beauty of the architecture and decorative elements of the monument. Built as a tomb for Mumtaz, the beloved wife of Shah Jahan, the inner sanctuary houses the tombs of both spouses. Precious stones are inlaid in white marble and Islamic calligraphy adorns the walls and tombs. Words simply cannot begin to capture my sense of awe.