Friday, February 5, 2010

Caves and Monkeys




It’s very hard for me to find the language to talk about today’s pilgrimage to the Kanheri Caves carved high up into the cliffs by Buddhist monks three thousand years ago as a resting, dwelling, and meditation space. “Viharas”, they are called. Abodes. I hope to return with my son Henry when he is old enough. He asked me if I would some day take him to India. I was stunned --- awe-stunned?---by the profound and sublime experience of sitting on a rock bed in a cell carved by monks three thousand years ago. I lay down on the cools rock in the dark recess and thought, “Somebody slept here two thousand years ago”. What a gift it would be to bring him here and share this.

I was accompanied by a sensitive, kind and wise a professional guide suggested to me by a young woman I met at the conference. Thank you Hema for negotiating the complicated arrangements of transportation into the Sanjay Gandhi Park. They take security seriously here, restricting automobile access to only approved drivers and vehicles. Our driver brought us to the gate and handed us over to the driver inside the gates who drove us a short way to the gates of a Jain temple. After removing shoes we climbed the cool marble steps to a plaza leading to three towering figures central to Jain worship. We sat for a bit on a stone bench lining the plaza (is that the right term?) I need to research the religion and practices and terminology to understand more of what I saw. I didn’t want to take notes as Hema was talking to me. First, because I knew I wouldn’t let her get past a sentence without me breaking in to ask her repeat a term, spell and explaining it. Second, I enjoyed sitting next to her and just listening and trying to comprehend. She provided some basic orientation to the religion, which sparked me to understand more about this tradition which shares many fundamental aspects (although perhaps with varying attitudes) with Buddhism: the precepts, non-harming, samsara, karma, non-harming. I warmed to her subtlety (and wit) when she offered both historical and personal perspective. She led us through the loggia (what else would you call an open hallway?) lining the courtyard, past a couple of worshipers decorating a shrine at the entrance with marigold petals and a coconut the man cracked open with a vigorous slam on the edge of a step.

We rejoined our driver and continued a few km past small clusters of homes: aboriginal tribes were allowed to maintain their existence inside the boundaries of the park. On the way out I stopped to take pictures of the paintings on the exterior of one home. This is posted on my flickr page along with images of the caves.
The Indian government moved to protect the caves—109 in all—placing the site under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India. This protects the site but it also allowed them to install such tourist accommodations as a paved walkway, entrance fee both, concession stand, toilets, benches…etc. Monkeys picked bugs off of each other on the low wall lining the paved path up to the gate, looking at me menacing if I got too close with me camera. Hema and I marveled at the newborn suckling its mother. Then another female jumped up and put her arms over the baby, nibbling on the little pink almost-hairless belly. Hema thought it might be a grandma. I thought another nurturing woman for this newborn. I thought of my own baby. Maybe another reason why I felt a strong desire to return some day with Henry.

We climbed the steps up into the first cave. Buddha statues lined the walls surrounding a round structure, the name of which I need to research. Hema used this term several times, but I didn’t write it down. On one side a pattern of carved Buddhas told the story of samsara (the endless cycle of birth and re-birth). I climbed up the ramp under an overhang from a recess carved perhaps 15 feet deep and forty feet wide. Inside this recess were several rooms, maybe ten by five feet, with a stone platform bed just wide enough for me to lie comfortably, with a little extra room at my head and feet. Hema patiently waited for me outside. I heard her phone ring. “Oh good,” I thought, “She won’t mind if I stay here a few minutes more. I would have stayed as long as I could until my bones hurt if I weren’t self-conscious about someone waiting outside for me, as much as she seemed comfortable with whatever I needed to do. I would say I fret needlessly about how I’m impacting others.

We climbed up to other caves. I left Hema to climb up to another level of caves. The carved stair just kept climbing from one small cluster or caves to another. I didn’t want to stray to far. The rock was slippery. We continued on to a huge cavernous meditation chamber with a barrel vaulted ceiling thirty feet over our heads. We tried to chant into the space to hear the powerful acoustics but couldn’t compete with boisterous groups of kids, posing for pictures and shouting. We had one quick opportunity. Hema led, I followed her chant as out two voices echoed. “There needs to be many more” she noted. I tired to imagine the space filled with voices chanting in unison. Two thousand years ago. What did they look like? What did they wear?
Who were these people? Are they somehow with us now?

I’m like to post this and get a good night sleep and outside my window the raucous fair outside my window continues. Were the monks this exuberant? This vibrant?

Vibrations. A lot of today has been about that. When I called home, Henry played some cello for me over the phone. Then we listened to YoYo Ma playing a Bach piece together. Music on Don's laptop. My calling from Skype to the other side of the planet. Isn't that bizarre?

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