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.
Ajanta and Ellora Caves
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.