All it took for us to leave India
Was three days of packing up our house
Four different applications for travel passes
And a day’s worth of rushed goodbyes.
We spent nine hours on that bus.
Then five hours sheltering in an airport hotel.
Another five hours standing in line at the airport.
Before finally leaving on our ten-hour flight to Paris.
Nine hours in the CdG ghost-town terminal on a layover.
And eight hours on the transatlantic flight to JFK.
Twenty minutes to get our bags
And three minutes on an empty train
To pick up a rental car
For the two hour drive, and,
Inexplicably, not a lick of rush hour traffic.
All along this rushed departure,
Which also took forever,
Was gripping fear that we’d be turned away at the
Karnataka border, or the anticipation of
humiliating stupidity that we’d
exposed ourselves unnecessarily.
In Seat 14G, I found Relief, followed by a heavy Fatigue.
Packed down deep was stammering sadness
Wrapped in unmet expectations
About how I wanted to graciously leave
the place where I came into the
Life I’d always wanted.
The long road to Bangalore from Chennai
passes through the
Relentlessness of India;
All that is great and distressing on display.
A strange farewell.
Fitting or not. Here it is.
And maybe always will be.
India’s familiar heat pushed up
On all the windows, reminding me
How lucky I am, for even in our uncertain departure
I don’t have to worry if my baby
Will make it through this heat.
As ever, there is a buffer for people like us.
This long bus ride gives plenty of space for
A mind to go to all that could go wrong.
When the distress fills me,
I peer underneath her covered car seat to
Glimpse her perfect sleeping face or
Toothless grin when her eyes catch mine.
I didn’t imagine when I arrived in this great place
Seven years ago
That the strangers along side me
Also spilling with curiosity
Would become my wife, my dear friends,
companions who would flee their homes together
Clutching each other for security.
It’s fitting that our beleaguered leaving happened with
Each other. The love that binds us
Grew amidst Incredible India.
Where everything is true.
Hartford, CT — High-level strategists will often ask “How do we screw this up?” as a way of evaluating problems with a new proposal. Upon compiling responses, the next step is to develop a scheme that effectively avoids the obstacles that are recognized. I’m thinking of this process for building sustainable, strategic plans to Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, who announced on June 25th that all public schools in Connecticut will fully reopen in the fall. His plan calls for impractical norms such as requiring students to keep masks on the entire school day, follow strict social distance rules, and prohibits things like gatherings in the cafeteria. This plan is stunning in its absurdity; it is as if the governor and his team answered “How do we screw this up?” but then stopped there and just made their thinking at that point the policy they shared with the public.
The governor is understandably in a tight spot — Connecticut schools are a linch-pin in the state’s economic recovery. Parents who are surrogate teachers at home during virtual learning cannot also engage in work (or looking for work if they have already been laid off), so keeping children at home limits economic recovery. At the same time, the primary responsibility in a school is safety — physical and emotional safety is paramount in a school, for without it learning is impossible. Federal officials have repeatedly failed to lead a national response to the pandemic, so Lamont and his advisors are on their own to cobble together a pandemic response plan. However, even when weighing all these factors, the plan to fully reopen schools is short-sighted, impractical, and unsafe.
This plan will effectively turn teachers into enforcers of rules, not educators. Real learning will not be possible as teachers harang students to wear their masks all day or to remain at least six feet away from each other (just pause for a moment to think about your own experience as a student and recall the number of times you were in a classroom where it was possible to be six feet away from every other person in that room). Even if additional teachers can be hired to reduce the size of groups of students, as the plan calls for, their daily tasks in this plan won’t be teaching and students won’t be learning with their masks up and separated from others. Teachers are often the last stop, the group who will sacrifice what is good for themselves in order not to let students get short shrift. This time, their collective selflessness can’t make up for a terrible policy decision.
It is likely that a significant factor in this decision was the 12 week virtual learning experiment that occurred from March to June. By most (all?) accounts, student engagement during online learning was disappointing at best. It may be easy for the governor and others in similar positions to conclude that virtual learning can’t work, so schools need to reopened this Fall, at all costs. This conclusion though reveals a lack of understanding about online learning. When the ratio of students to teachers is significantly reduced (i.e.: 5 to 1 rather than 30+:1 typical in many public school classes) and the teachers serve as instigators or guides who support thinking rather than just sources of information, online learning is very effective and a powerful tool in supporting critical thinking skills, developing curiosity, and transferring understanding from one so-called subject to another. Trying to execute 3 months of online learning with no preparation or insufficient infrastructure isn’t sustainable. There is no way this method of school could succeed, and it should not be the thing the Governor is thinking about when he chooses to re-open schools in the Fall.
Luckily, state officials need not develop alternative models out of thin air. Organizations like Global Online Academy have created online learning options and well-designed tools that can be adapted quickly by teachers and districts. GOA, and other similar organizations, already have in place the architecture for online learning that can help students receive the engagement they desire and teachers the tools they need to connect with students through an uncertain time.
As the pandemic presents simultaneous economic, political, and emotional challenges that we have not encountered before, the pathway through these challenges cannot be based on business as usual. Governor Lamont’s plan does not demonstrate visionary leadership. Rather, it jeopardizes the health and safety of students and teachers by trying to return to a framework for education that is neither physically safe, logistically viable, nor pedagogically sound.
The Governor and his advisors would do well to postpone the start of the school year for up to several weeks to enable teachers and administrators the time to collectively study successful online learning models and develop the plans to successfully implement them. With a viable virtual learning model in place, Connecticut schools have a chance to serve students and families across the state. To continue with his plan as it was stated last week will only offer continued disruption in the short term; in the long term, it may be a textbook example in the future of how to make an unprecedented situation even more screwed up.
Seven months ago, Susannah and I spent a lot of time in Target in Columbia, South Carolina. I think we were in the store 3 or 4 different times within a week. We were there enough to notice the dramatic shift from the autumnal hues of deep orange, burnt umber, and spiced pumpkin which flowed through all the clothing sections near the store entrance to the over-the-top ugly Christmas sweaters that were featured in all departments for the winter displays. On the morning of Halloween it was all Fall, Fall, Fall, but November 1st was full-throttle Christmas to the nines. Clearly, the displays left an impression on me.
That’s the week I became a father. Susannah and I traveled from the other side of the earth to get to Columbia so that we could be there for the birth of our daughter, Julia. Today, seven months later, a court in the great state of South Carolina has decreed, hereby legally and forever, that we are her parents and our adoption of Julia is complete. With the decree comes a settling deep breath. All those trips to Target were runs to stock up on what new parents need and because we were so excited we couldn’t really think straight so we kept forgetting to get stuff. What I remember most of the period just before our daughter’s birth was the omnipresent feeling of anticipation. I couldn’t really catch my breath. While standing in the diaper aisle or picking out a car seat, we were just waiting, squirming with excitement. And forgetting everything.
And here we are now. Back in India, settled into routines, filling up our phones with photos of this and this and this — because, no offense everyone, she is by far the cutest baby to have ever been a baby — marveling at how many different people, both known and unknown to us, were involved in the two of us becoming a family of three.
COVID 19 is crushing spirits around the world. It’s a scary time with so much unpredictability. And still, the life right here in front of me is deeply satisfying. Getting the notice today of the court’s decision affirmed what I’ve known since the moment I met her: I’m her dad. I also can finally take a deep breath.
I listened to a podcast last week by a couple of basketball nuts who are missing the NBA games right now but won’t be deterred from talking about it fervently. With great excitement, they analyzed the 1996 NBA draft, and did a “redo” — they re-drafted the top 14 players based on how those players’ careers actually panned out. With the benefit of hindsight, the results are quite different. It’s fun to listen to stuff like this in this time as it doesn’t really matter, and there’s no doom-and-gloom. However, there’s something below the surface worth paying attention to as someone who cares about education.
The ‘96 draft was noteworthy because of how badly the general managers of NBA teams at the time misevaluated the skills and projected contributions of the players in it. The podcasters point to Kobe Bryant — drafted 13th by the Charlotte Hornets and immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers — as an indicator of this GM shortsightedness. Over the next twenty years, Bryant would become one of the top players who ever played the game. Many who mourned Bryant’s death in January described him as transcendent. The 13th pick is usually for the caliber of player who is a starter for 5-6 years on your team — not a flashy spot, but consistent. Letting Bryant fall this far means that most of the general managers didn’t recognize what was in front of them.
The context of that time matters. Bryant did not go to college and the year before, Kevin Garnett also made the leap from high school directly to the NBA. Basketball purists, which general managers typically are, were highly suspicious of Garnett and Bryant. To them, these young guys were “doing it wrong”: proper basketball players spent a few years in college to prove their worth before entering the NBA. Jumping straight to the NBA was shocking, even egotistical, and certainly disrespectful to the status quo.
These front office experts couldn’t see past this blind spot of asking “who did these guys think they were?” to evaluate their talent objectively. Before these two skipped college, it had been twenty years since Moses Malone went right to the NBA from high school, so, for the GMs in the 90s almost none had working memory of this model for success. (Garnett wasn’t transcendent, but he became a top player for over a decade. He quickly gave the Timberwolves the legitimacy it lacked in the six years since the team was formed as an expansion franchise).
In addition to not being able to evaluate Garnett and Bryant without bias, basketball officials at the time also couldn’t see that this was the start of a trend, not just a blip. In the time since, the NBA has been reshaped by a generation of younger, better prepared athletes who are ready to compete at the highest levels. We have the benefit of 24 years of examples to point to in order to recognize the gigantic shift in the league. Unfortunately, for those in positions of power in the NBA back then, the 12 GMs who didn’t select Kobe Bryant now look like total chumps.
There are parallels in education. COVID has monumentally disrupted teaching and learning around the world. This is no blip — the impact will be long-lasting. However obvious the disruption is, it is not clear what we will learn from it or how we will decide to shape the future of education. Just as there was no model to shape the basketball executives’ thinking, so too do we lack an obvious model for education post-COVID. Education around the world is positioned for a big shift following the drastic measures imposed on us by closing schools and going to emergency remote learning so abruptly.
Educators, students, schools are not just on a break from routines which we can all snap back into once we return to school houses around the world. Some of the true merits of learning together are emerging in ways that can’t be unseen. One of the widespread “aha” realizations is that learning is fundamentally social — we can’t expect to learn substantively without meaningful engagement and connection with one another. Similarly, there are parts of schooling that were strained before being expelled from our physical learning spaces. Some of what has been revealed: that grading virtual learning is quite different from previous forms of assessment, that solely focusing on content acquisition online isn’t sufficient if you want students to be engaged, that school rules which are purely about compliance quickly become obsolete. Additionally, questions about equity are visible in a new way, and they can’t be ignored.
Just as GMs needed a new perspective in the 1990s, our time requires those who can see and articulate a model of sustainable, equitable education. The stakes are much higher and the rewards are less glamorous than in hoops — can you imagine an educator being considered “transcendent” by the masses? Their internal motivation has to be strong enough to absorb the criticism that comes with attempting to go into uncharted space. There is no more important work though; our time craves those with the confidence to believe that they can make the leap away from what we once knew to be the status quo.
I’m wondering right now about what Ernest Shackleton might have been thinking in 1914 when his expedition to the South Pole became a disaster right in front of him. Fifteen years ago, I read “Endurance” the account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which he led. His mission was to lead his team to the South Pole and back, thereby becoming the first team in the world to achieve this feat. His ship, Endurance, became stuck in the ice before they made land. Slowly, the boat was crushed by the ice. Once Shackleton and his men escaped the destruction of the ship, he had a new mission: keep all his men alive.
I’m curious to know when he knew that his mission had changed. Obviously, he gave the abandon ship command knowing what that meant — I presume there’s quite a bit of training in the Navy about the danger this singular phrase connotes. He must have known before the day he uttered these words that he would have to make this declaration. I don’t have the book anymore, which cites his journal as a primary source, so I don’t remember if his thinking is revealed on this point. What must have been going through his mind? When did he know?
My mind is in this space as we are amidst a lockdown in India and my school has moved to virtual learning. Like the rest of the world, this is a huge shift — recreating the experiences that occur in a school online is daunting. In a community of expats, I and others like me are wondering what comes next. We’re fine now, but this situation is so uncertain. What if the risks rise quickly and our options narrow just as fast? Will I know when it is time to leave what I am doing behind and focus on a different line of action all together?
Shackleton knew that putting his team on the ice increased their challenges immediately, so he kept them on the boat as long as possible. He had to get the timing just right — stay on the boat just a moment too long and they might go down with it. He could neither leave the boat too early or stay on it too long. He got it just right, and then they suffered immensely as they fought to survive everything hurled at them. I really hope that’s not what lies ahead of us.
I hope it is obvious when it is time for us to change course.
My earliest memories of answering “What do you want to be when you grow up?” involved moving vehicles. Train Conductors were always getting off train cars just before they stopped or just after they started moving again, which I thought was so cool. The Garbage Man had such a great job: he hung off the back of the truck with one hand, then got to smash all that stuff into little bits by pulling on that little lever. I imagined Firefighters, especially those who held onto the back of the engine, were always having the greatest time on their rides.
Memories of these dream jobs came back to me last week as I stood in the open doorway of a local bus in route 1 outside of Chiang Rai, Thailand. This green machine, perhaps 40 years old and at eight-fifths capacity, had no other sitting or standing room for passengers. I held onto the back of the seat in front of me with my right hand, the handle on the outside of the bus door with my left hand, and hugged the retracted according glass door, lashed open with bungee cords. I peeked my head out of doorway as we motored down the highway, taking in the unique and the ordinary along the side of the road. It was thrilling.
My grandparents had an RV camping trailer that they used on their road trips (I love, by the way, that my grandparents, who were both born before 1920, crushed the #camplife meme two generations before Instagram made it hip). They parked the 30 foot trailer in their driveway, and I spent hours playing on the step outside one of the doors. There was a retractable metal step, which when extended into the locked step position, felt a lot like the moveable stairs that the Amtrak conductors unfurled when coming to a station. My grandfather also owned a conductors metal step stool, which was legendary by itself (his father had been an actual Union Pacific Conductor in Wyoming and Utah in the early 1900s). I had my routine for approaching the imaginary station set: I opened the door to the trailer, pulled the steel step out, and, holding onto the handle on the outside of the door frame, leaned away from my train car and towards the platform in that iconic conductor pose. I practiced grabbing the step stool from inside and smoothly putting it into position below the step on the ground. After my imaginary passengers boarded, I gave an “all aboard” call and reversed the process.
These memories were visceral — a few minutes standing in the open doorway of an old bus and I was right back in that driveway.
Last week, I saw cave drawings that are 14,000 years old. This is the Tarascon Basin in southern France, not so far from the border with Spain. Bison, ibex, horses, and cave lion images on the gallery walls in the Niaux Caves offer an alternate experience to the typical French gallery visit one might expect in a country with so many art displays.
Seeing these cave paintings was nothing short of thrilling. These are the oldest forms of human art or writing I’ve ever laid my eyes on, and the place where they occur is spectacular — these figures appear more than 800 meters from the entrance to a cave network that’s more that 2 kilometers in length; the darkness in the deep subterranean caverns is darker than pitch black. These ancient and anonymous artists did not live in these caves; they walked, with torches as their light source, all the way into this particular place to create, to pay homage to these animals.
I’m pumped about the backstory here: the bison, the ibex, and the horse were all common animals in Europe 14,000 years ago, but not in the caves, mountains or valleys in this part of what’s called France today. The animals resided in the plains, which are relatively far from this narrow valley. These folks would have been semi-nomadic, which means that they were likely in contact with these species in flat-lands at some part of the year, then they retreated to this area for a different time of year. While they resided in huts or tents that were easily constructed, they plunged deep into this cave network to create this art. Of course, this means they had to find this cave network, explore it, then decide that this chamber was the place for their masterpieces. I love imagining what they must have been thinking when they decided that this was the place.
The drawings are made from charcoal, which means the organic matter can be carbon tested — that’s how experts know that most of the drawings are 14,000 years old (there’s another set of drawings that were created 1,000 years later). The images are literal, not abstract, but show a sophisticated range of stylistic techniques. For example, natural contours of the rock were used to give some of the bison two-dimensional features, and in other places the horns of some of the animals are stylized in a wispy sort of way; additionally, some of the bison images are layered on top of each other. There is no abstraction and little change in the portrayal of the bison from 14,000 years ago and the bison drawn 13,000 years ago. Thinking of the art that we bring home to our parents to put on the refrigerator when we’re kids, I wonder what these artists’ mothers thought of this display. They must have been proud.
I used to teach ancient history to 9th graders. My class content included examining some of the reasons for the Neolithic Revolution, the time when humans transitioned from nomadic lifestyles to living in settled communities. The catalyst for this event — perhaps the biggest shift in human history — was development of technology that enabled humans to control the environment and create permanent living spaces. There are a couple of theories for what caused humans to settle down where they did. The most common theory is that humans settled in places where they could consistently create agricultural harvests. Examples abound: settlements in the Nile River Valley, the Yangtze River, Mesopotamia. There’s another theory that has fewer advocates, but is intriguing; humans settled in places where it was easiest to have access to the materials needed to express their beliefs of the afterlife. In other words, they lived in places that made it easier to worship. I first read about this theory in this Smithsonian article about the village in Catalhoyuk, modern-day Turkey.
In the mountainous part of southern France, villages, hamlets, towns, and small cities spread through the valleys, and are perched on top of craggy hillsides. The Pyrenees Mountains begin in earnest very close to here, and these population centers have long histories as basecamps for people who were preparing to cross the mountains. Human settlements in this area might be small in size, but they too have a long history, and perhaps it should not be a surprise that the earliest denizens of this region left behind artistic expressions of their lives. Clearly, the bison and ibex (the most common subjects) were important to these people. The images they look just like the animals they represent. I take this to mean that the observers knew their subjects well. Think about this: the ideas and the technique to depict them were so strong that the artists held them in their minds all the way from the plains to this mountain region, and all the way into the deep darkness of this cave network. Maybe it should not be a surprise, yet I stood there in amazement — at the articulation of the figures, by the location, by the age of the drawings.
In the week that has passed, I’ve been into six medieval churches (and stood outside five others), all of which commanded devotion and inspired belief with the size and grandeur of the building. The architects intended on impressing those who walked in the doors of these enormous piles of stone, brick, mortar, wood, and glass. To the casual tourist and even the non-believer of today, walking into the holy sanctuaries of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth centuries provokes a deep breath at least, and often something closer to awe. The architects of the medieval churches designed structures to honor what they believed was the most important element in their lives. Their ancient ancestors knew something similar: that the animals of the plains were so critical to their existence that they were the only thing drawn on these dark walls, so deep in the ground, so far from the lands where the animals roamed. I saw this with my eyes, and I still have a hard time imagining their thinking.
One of the calmest spots I can remember visiting is in Amritsar, India. Finding calm anywhere might be a challenge, even more so in India. Whether you visit or live in this country, one common experience is the unrelenting assault on the senses — the smells are too strong, the colors are so bright, it’s always hotter or colder than it feels like it should be, everything tastes stronger than expected. In my experience, coping with the sensory overload is key to figuring out how to live here because it is unrelenting. Getting on the right side of that makes India enjoyable; not figuring it out results in torment. Occasionally, a calm emerges on its own that is completely surprising. I have had two of these surprises so far in 2018. The first came while hiking to the top of a 500 year old fortress near Pondicherry, where, along the hike, a gateway along the mountain path provided some shade from the sun, and just the right amount of distance from the town and road in the valley that the only sound was the deafening ringing of silence in a very gentle breeze. The calm threw me — it was the quietest experience I’d had in India.
The second moment of true calm I felt came sitting in the inner courtyard at the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, India. I wanted to visit Amritsar almost the moment I first heard someone describe it, but it is not easy to get to from Chennai. Transportation there and back is inconvenient, and a visit doesn’t quite fit into a long weekend. Amritsar is in the state of Punjab, far in the north of the country; Punjab was once a larger semi-autonomous region but was split in two when Pakistan was formed during the 1947 Partition. About a million people live in the city, most of whom are Sikhs. For Sikhs, this city is home to one of the holiest shrines: the Golden Temple.
Amritsar feels like it’s a long way from Chennai. It’s a smaller city than Chennai is, and it feels grittier, more dense, like a mountain town where streets are narrower and people feel somehow closer to one other. In the oldest part of the city, streets are so narrow that it feels like they were intended only for walking, yet all kinds of two and three wheel vehicles run the gauntlets. In my brief introduction to the city, fewer denizens spoke English as in Chennai. Like every Indian city I’ve visited, colors explode. The saris women wear throughout India typically are the harbingers of color; however, in Amritsar, the men are just as much a part of the vibrant color display as the women.
In my experience, men in all parts of the country wear solid color pants or traditional dhoti or lungi. Their shirts sometimes have patterns, but they’re softer tones than what women usually wear. The same is true in Amritsar for the pants and shirts that most men wear, but Sikh men also wear turbans, and these elaborate head wrappings are luscious with color. Yellow, pink, lavender, indigo, violet, bright red — you imagine the bright color, and it’s there. Because the color is on their heads, it punctuates all space differently than I’m used to, and I loved it. This is a tourist destination, so the crushes of people are wild with their turban and sari colors.
The Golden Temple sits in the center of the old city. The surrounding streets are a surprising display of urban planning: updated store fronts, pedestrian malls, and tourist trinkets geared toward the 100,000 visitors the Golden Temple hosts each day. This temple is revered because it contains the holy scriptures for Sikhism. There are many here who come everyday, as well as those who travel from very far afield to worship in this space. The temple is as organized as any tourist destination I’ve seen, and It’s staggering to think of how many people visit here. One man told me 10 million visitors come to the Golden Temple a year. The Hindustan Times reported that more people visit the Golden Temple than the Taj Mahal each year. The daily total is roughly double number of visitors than Disneyland in Anaheim, California hosts in a single day. This happens every day.
The temple complex has an outer entrance area and an inner sanctuary. The inner sanctuary is a simple courtyard design and large in scale: the temple, covered in actual gold, sits in a large “water tank” — a ceremonial pool that’s larger than an a American football field. A wide walkway runs the perimeter of the tank thus creating the courtyard feel, and every surface that isn’t gold or water is white marble. Visitors — pilgrims and tourists alike, leave their shoes outside, cover their heads, and silently circumnavigate the tank and temple. There are men and women who do ritual bathing on one side of the pool — this is a holy site afterall. Others sit along the walkway, saying prayers or sleeping depending of the time of day. Gentle kirtan music is performed by musicians who are sitting inside the Golden Temple; stadium concert sized speakers in the corners of the courtyard amplify the gentle harmonium, tabla drums, and melodic chanting. Usually the rule in India is loud is great. Here, the music volume is just soft enough to make you feel like the music is only in your head.
Our first visit was for sunrise, which came around 5:30am. We found that many devotees had arrived nearly two hours before (hence the sleeping by some) for the opening prayers when the Holy Book is put on display. We found a small piece of marble to sit down and watched for over an hour as people, nearly all Sikhs, wandered by us. Some were alone, most were with family or friends. Again, the colors, even in the pre-dawn light, were vibrant: the white marble, the black water, the Golden Temple, and the pastels of the turbans and saris filled every direction. The kirtan music was just audible enough to push away any sounds of the soft talking. It felt like silence even with so much activity.
The transition from dark to light was meditative as if it were designed by this place. Crowds swelled after sun-up, and we left for the day, returning again in the evening for the opposite transition, from sunlight to darkness. The hour we spent in the morning, and the other hour in the evening were among the most tranquil experiences I’ve had here. Amidst all the movement was just the right level of calm.
There’s a famous food kitchen attached to the Golden Temple complex. It’s well known to some because it feeds all patrons the same meal — three different forms of dal and roti bread — for free. All people are welcome, and nearly all of the labor and service is provided by volunteers. Tens of thousands eat here each day (reports I’ve read vary from 30,000 to 100,000). When we went, we sat on the floor with everyone else in a large hall; I think there are seven more halls like this one where food is served. By my estimation, there might have been two thousand people sitting on the floor in our hall. Each person puts his or her metal tray on the floor in front of them, and servers come by with big buckets of the different types of dal. They ladle it out quickly to each person, and within minutes the whole room has been served. Sitting like this, everyone just the same, is a powerful communal experience, even if it lasts for 20 minutes. One of our friends brought her family here over a year ago and loved it because her two young boys were sitting at the same level as all the other children — literally they made eye contact with each other and in spite of language barriers, were afforded interactions that aren’t possible in other parts of life here. My experience was similar — lots of eye contact and not a lot of words. It’s a surprisingly intimate experience in a room with 2,000 people.
The photos that you can take in Amritsar are fantastic — it’s hard to take a bad one. What isn’t captured, however, is that the beauty in Amritsar is more fully felt than seen. The contrasts of the gritty, grimy streets in the city and the sparkling marble and impossibly bright turbans, the glimmering temple are magical in real life, but get dulled in the camera. The music feels like a warm hug. Eating with thousands of others at the same time feels connected, calming, and unexpectedly still.
A little less than three months ago, Susannah and I visited one of the hidden gems of India: the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. These are two different locations outside of the dusty city of Aurangabad, where Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain devotees carved dozens and dozens of temples into cliffs of solid rock. These man-made religious sanctuaries are centuries old, and are simply awesome.
I first heard about these caves within a few months of moving here; I noticed that those who had been here talked about their experience with similar awe about their experience. They also in no way captured what it was like to actually be there for what you feel being there is far more profound that what can be imagined. Getting to Aurangabad from Chennai is logistically challenging, so we had to commit part of our spring break trip to make the flights work. I think because it can’t be easily visited in a weekend fewer people visiting India see the miracles carved into the side of the cliffs. There are two separate locations — Ajanta is one, Ellora is the other — each with a network of temples that stretch along separate rivers. For the geologists among us, the rock in both locations is solid basalt, which was formed during at least one massive volcanic eruption more than 70 million years ago.
At Ajanta, a cliff was formed when a river wore it’s way between softer rock surfaces: the cave temples follow the river in a horseshoe contour that stretches out over close to a mile. Along this stretch, 30 caves are lined up next to each other. From the outside, the entrances are similar — they each have a large rectangular entrance along with massive rectilinear windows to allow in light.
Inside each of these caves is sight of wonders. In Ajanta, the caves are all temples, carved into the solid rock, all honoring Buddha. The ceiling in many of them is more than 10 feet high, there are commanding pillars with different levels of ornamental carving, and a giant Buddha statue in what later architects would call the apse. In the first few, the walls are painted with murals of buddhas and bodhisatvas and lay people. There a several temples which are narrower, perhaps three times as tall and feature large stupas along with sitting buddha sculptures. One has a sleeping Buddha, similar in style although much shorter than the famous one in Bangkok. Stone columns have some remnants of painting, and in the tall ceilings, ribbed patterns on the ceiling look like wooden support beams — the looks are deceiving as all of this is stone. Construction on these cave temples began more than 2000 years ago. Some took hundreds of years to complete.
The Ellora caves are nearby and follow a similar story — temples carved into basalt, construction began around the same time on the oldest temples although more recent ones were started only 1000 years ago. There are more than 100 caves in Ellora, spanning a greater range of sizes than Ajanta, and the caves fall into three categories — Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain. There are single-chamber caves, there are monasteries which have multiple floors with balcony windows, and there is one temple that was carved not from the side of the cliff, moving into the center of the rock, but rather construction was started at the top, and the carving went down into the basalt. This is Cave 16, Kailasha Temple to Shiva, which is renown for being a monolithic sculpture where 3 million cubic feet of rock were excavated in its construction. For me, I kept saying to myself, aloud: “negative space!” This single-rock-carved temple was built by making the negative space in this cliff visible.
These temples are wondrous. They’re beautiful in their own right. Mystical, too. The story around the caves in both locations are hard to imagine — some of these temples took hundreds of years to complete, and then they were “lost” for centuries. In the 19th century a British man stumbled upon them while hunting tigers. The last known reference scholars can piece together about these caves comes from the Mughal empire.
I remember being in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, where the tomb for King Tut is, as well as the tombs for 61 other pharaohs. Those tombs are multi-chambered subterranean mausoleums, created to be hidden from grave robbers (it was unsuccessful — a community of bedouin homes nearby is commonly called the “valley of the thieves”). I was struck when I was there by the complex mapping of the underground construction — some of those caves had chambers that came very close to the chambers of the neighboring tombs. I wondered how the engineers knew how not to crash into the adjoining chambers.
The caves at Ajanta and Ellora aren’t as close in proximity, nor are they underground, but there’s a similar vision and craftsmanship displayed in each location that is worthy of our awe. I wondered here how the designers of these temples decided when to stop building one temple, and when to start on another. I wonder why they chose so many that are both different from each other and yet were quite similar. We often think of the people in the ancient world as just struggling to survive the elements or hostile neighbors, but places like this weren’t built to survive a bad storm or invasion. These miraculous caves should remind us of the indubitable human desire for artistic articulation and expression of faith.
It’s been 58 months since I moved to India. I visited the Taj Mahal for the first time two weeks ago. All this time, I was waiting for the right opportunity to visit. I noticed among the small expat circle to which I’m connected that those who do not see themselves living in India for very long tend to go to the Taj Mahal not long after moving here. There are others who wait until a special occasion, like when a loved one comes to visit, to make the trek there from Chennai. I had plans to visit with distinguished guests, but there’s a lot to see in India, and it just never came together until now. I had actually begun to wonder if it would ever happen — there were always other places to go. As a way of justifying not having been yet, I said to myself that it’s a lot schlepping to see a single building. Two of Susannah’s dear friends from way back planned a trip to see us and to travel to some other parts of the country, finishing with a rendezvous in Delhi and then together we’d move on to Agra.
The Taj is one of those places that I had seen so often in photographs. I wondered if it could live up to the hype (a friend who has visited often even suggested the day before we left that I lower my expectations). The closer we got to the trip, I also had a surfacing memory of loss related to the Taj Mahal: a friend I’d known from high school was killed when she was in college as the bus she was riding in crashed on the road from Delhi to Agra. Those memories were in the background as we planned for and started off on our visit.
The Taj Mahal website says that as many as 8 million people visit the site each year (with only 800,000 coming from overseas!). I also read that the number of daily visitors is capped at 40,000 — which is Disneyland-level numbers. There aren’t a lot of other reasons to visit Agra — it looks and feels like a relatively small town, even village, that as tens of thousands of people arriving and departing every day. In a country where extremes are the norm, Agra stands apart for its dichotomous daily routines.
We lucked out in our planning as it enabled us to enter the grounds just after sunrise. It was cool, fewer people were there, and the light slowly shifted over the time we were there. The area around the grounds and mausuleom are designed so that the Taj is not visible until you get right up to it. Most people see it for the first time as they walk through a wide door in a tall gate — the antechamber entrance is dark; gradually the people in front of you filter forward and suddenly the source of the brightness coming at you is the light gleaming off of the white dome, towers, and walls of the Taj straight ahead of you. It’s a fun first impression.
I think I walked around the grounds with my mouth open with wonder for the first half an hour after arriving. The photos over the years — and how many have I seen of the Taj Mahal, hundreds, perhaps? — don’t do the place justice. Those images felt like they were as accurate as the shadows on the wall in Plato’s Cave. Once I could speak again, I think I said more than once that I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. Everyone around me was taking photos, which was no surprise. Thinking about it now, I wonder how many photos get taken there each day — could it be a million photos a day? That would only be 25 photos per person if 40,000 people actually visit in a day. Whatever the number, I can’t imagine that looking at all of those images taken on a single day would come close to capturing the experience of standing there.
The story behind the Taj Mahal is well known. A Mughal ruler, Shah Jahal, commissioned and built this place as a mausoleum to honor his favorite wife, Mumtaz, who died in childbirth. The details of the backstory didn’t sink in for me until I saw it in person — this is a testament to the Shah’s grief. He’s buried here, too, but I wonder if he felt any significant relief from his loss once it was finished. I did not expect to make the connection to my friend’s death from 22 years ago, but I had many memories of her in the week before our visit here. I was surprised that I remembered the moments that reemerged; I was also aware that in spite of the time that had passed, those memories felt like no time had passed at all. I image that the Shah’s sadness could not have been dulled by this massive monument. I wonder if that’s what he wanted.
When you enter the mausoleum itself, no photos are allowed. It’s dim and quiet, but not solemn as you make your way around the loop surrounding the faux-crypt inside (I read that the actual tombs to Mumtaz and the Shah rest below the area where tourists are permitted). As we circumnavigated inside, I found myself humming the tune of “Dear Prudence” — the Beatles’ song. Earlier this year, I read that John Lennon wrote this song at the transcendental meditation center in Rishikesh, India, as Prudence Farrow (Mia Farrow’s sister) was in the middle of a meditation session in her room that lasted two full days.
I wondered, which is the greater honor — to have this magnificent building constructed in honor of your life, or to be the inspiration for a Beatles song?