Monday, July 14, 2014

Layover of the Pharaohs

Seeing the pyramids has been high on my bucket list since before I was old enough to know what a bucket list even was. By third grade I was hooked on all things Egyptian. Fact or fiction, the strange images of the hieroglyphics, the unique vision of the afterlife, the mummification process, the myths, legends, and curses, the reverence for cats, eight-year-old me soaked it up and longed to see the pyramids.

Almost twenty years later, my inner child was silently squealing with joy as we touched down in Cairo International Airport.

Let’s be blunt, our decision to extend our layover in Egypt from six hours to three days evoked some strong reactions. The 2011 Revolution, the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the continued travel advisories from the US State Department, none boded well in the eyes of family and friends. Emails and phone calls, when Egypt was mentioned, dripped with concern. But, to Cairo we went.

Egypt was immediately striking and unique, a city that runs abruptly into the pyramids and the desert, as though divided by invisible walls. From the strangely silent and solitary camel ride through the desert to the massive, warehouse-like feel of the Antiquities Museum, everything felt incredibly, well, Egyptian.

And then there was everyday Cairo. Revolutionary street art and the incredibly welcoming and warm Egyptians themselves.  A ubiquitous presence of stray cats. Savory kofta, falafel, lamb, and pita sandwiches available from street carts for next to nothing. Men, young and old, lounge about in sidewalk cafes, drinking tea, playing dominoes and smoking hookah.  

Smiles, conversation, and advice abounded. Hello. Welcome to Egypt. Ah, I love America. Close your eyes, pray Allah, and keep walking; it’s the only way to cross the street in Cairo. We were made to feel safe and welcome. Even the tanks parked outside of the museum felt nonthreatening, like slumbering giants, aware but not on guard. 

We had braced ourselves for the worst, for the possibility of having to stay holed up inside the airport should we have arrived to a Cairo in distress. Instead, we had an overwhelmingly positive experience. Thank goodness we listened to the Rachel of third grade instead of all the modern day Debbie downers.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rock Cut

Though often referred to as caves, the monuments of Ajanta and Ellora are manmade structures. Comprised of numerous monasteries, shrines, temples, and living quarters, each of these sites provides visitors with a unique glimpse into the extreme lengths to which man will go in the name of religion.

Ajanta’s structures, carved into a cliff wall encircling the U-bend in the Waghur River, are the oldest of India’s famous rock-cut caves. Dating from as early as 200 BCE, the site’s various enclaves are entirely Buddhist. Filled with stone carved scenes depicting the life and teachings of the Buddha, Ajanta served as a monastery for Buddhist monks for up to 800 years.

The staying power of Ajanta’s hand-carved statues and monasteries is not nearly as impressive as the fact that a handful of its numerous frescoes are fairly intact. It is absolutely amazing to see remnants of frescoes, which disintegrate in chunks of falling plaster, survive over 2,000 years of history.

Sometime during the 5th-7th centuries the style of rock cut cave monasteries began to be replicated some 100 kilometers away in Ellora, leading to the abandonment of the Ajanta Buddhist settlement.

The various structures at Ellora display primarily Hindu, but also Jain and Buddhist temples and monasteries. Historians believe that the coexistence of temples from all three religions in one single site demonstrates a unique time period of religious tolerance in Indian history.

Directly at the entrance to Ellora sits its main attraction. Marking  the height of the development of India’s rock cut temple architecture, the Kailasa Temple is the crown jewel of Ellora’s complex. Built over the course of multiple generations, carved from a single rock from the top down, Kailasa demonstrates an incredible ability to plan and execute a design.

Looking at the tool marks visible on the floors, walls, and ceilings of Ellora and Ajanta, it is nearly incomprehensible that human hands carved such buildings directly from the earth. Elaborate, beautiful, and impressive, the caves of Ellora and Ajanta are impeccable examples of the feats and determination of man. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jains: A Peaceful Bunch

Some of the holiest sites in India sit way off the well-worn path. Ranakpur, about three hours from the tourist center of Udaipur, is on the list of secluded locations.

Dedicated to Adinath, the first enlightened human according to Jain teachings, Ranakpur’s temple is one of the most sacred Jain sites in India. It is also among the more beautiful and intricately carved temples we encountered.

Constructed during the 15th century, the temple is widely considered to be one of the most spectacular Jain structures on earth. Inside one finds over 1,440 pillars, each of which is unique (including one pillar at an odd angle, which supposedly serves as a reminder of the futile nature of striving for perfection). The pillars, walls, statues, and ceilings are carved in such elegant detail that one scarcely knows where to look.

When they aren’t building lavish and incredible temples, the Jains tend to be a peaceful bunch. Not a particularly well-known religion, Jainism closely resembles the Western conception of Buddhism.

The primary path of Jainism is strict adherence to the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Not only does this include a vegetarian diet, but often also excludes onions, garlic, and other root vegetables, as living organisms may be harmed when the vegetables are pulled from the ground. In order to avoid inadvertently harming even the tiniest of insects many strict Jains sweep the ground ahead of them as they walk, rarely go out at night, and even go naked lest bugs get trapped in their clothing.

In addition to ahimsa, vows taken by Jains include satya (non-lying), asteya (non-stealing), bramachariya (celibacy), and aparigraha (non-attachment). Monks practice these vows in the strictest sense, while the common man is expected to adhere to them as much as is practical.

With 4.2 million followers Jainism is among the smallest of the major world religions, but they sure do know how to make some beautiful temples. Where spirituality and architecture meet, there one finds some of humanity’s most amazing structures.