There can be no more apt metaphor to demonstrate the fundamental relationship of the Absolute with the world than a vision of the caves nestled within the mountain scarp at Ellora. If observed from afar, they appear to be small and dark, punctuating the vastness of the dominating hill. The columned entrance voids seem to be insignificant interruptions in the wide sloping plane of the hillside. The temples are lost within. The hills absorb the caves as the Absolute indraws the world. Men had laboured for centuries to section separate temples according to cult divisions to satisfy dynastic and priestly requirements. They created environments teeming with differentiated forms, as though born from the womb of mother earth. These lithic multiplicities represent the amalgamate expression of a great age of thousands of unskilled labourers and beasts of burden, of hundreds of craftsmen and several great master architects. But except for the Kailasa temple, in a view from sight. Neither the particular dynasty nor even the outpourings of creative genius, but only the mountain itself dominates. It encloses and absorbs all phenomenal activity.
A brief reference to ancient time, when these hills existed in primordial stillness, will serve to clarify the analogy. During vast stretches of time in prehistory, in face of external dangers from drought and flood, lightning, illness and hunger, from man and beast, an increasing awareness of the numinous developed, generated by fear, accompanied by awe and by that great and yawning gap existential separateness and isolation. The need for belief in a higher power intensified and deepened. While the surrounding sky is first conceived as the locus for the deity, it is a remote and unreachable deity. Not man began to seek salvation in the mountain which touched the sky, as the convexities and powerfully swelling contours encouraged expansive feelings. By virtue of its silence and impenetrability, it symbolized the eternal and was identified with the goddess who evolved I the imagination.
Nomadic hunters or pastoral tribes arrived from various converging trails; they halted at hillside crossways, which became established as sacred environments. Forests in the vast plains, abundant streams and underground sources of water and natural caverns provided refreshment and shelter. The goddess dwelled in the sacred mountain, and she was propitiated with sacrifices to satisfy her insatiable demands for vegetative offerings and for animal and human blood. Recent excavations have established definitely the existence ten thousand years ago of migratory tribes as well as settlements in Maharashtra. Numerous late Paleolithic tool finds here suggest that Ellora might well have been such a crossing of the ways in prehistoric times.
During subsequent millennia, sacrifice and hoary ritual continued unabated in the natural caves and at these sacred halting places, but this did not cure the sense of isolation and impotence in face of the perils of existence. In quest of release from inordinate loneliness, the search for physical shelter in natural caves symbolized the search for psychic shelter represented by the mountain.
As civilization advanced, structures of mud-brick and wood merely served as further reminder of human insignificance in the relationship with the universe. It was then that, in a valiant effort to reconnect with his source, the artist gained courage to initiate a breach of the outer surface of the mountain, in order to penetrate within, to achieve the longed-for reintegration and reunion with original matter. It was a return to the Absolute, represented by the adamantine, silent mountain, man began to conquer the unconquerable. The humble artist chose to challenge the hills; he commenced the task of imposing his will upon that which seemed impossible of approach. With this assertion of his individuality, he gained control and confidence. Thus extracted out of the unreachable heavens, the deity was now situated very much within human reach in the garbha-griha, the shrine within the mountain. In this more intimate location, identification with a less detached concept encouraged easier comprehension of the immanence of god and goddess. Where there had been separation, there was now a return to the house of the womb, into a situation which accords more genuinely with human experience. During the ritual, the deity is embraced, and the votary feels whole once again, as the identification has become a physical reality.
These artists established various systems by means of which the common worshipper might also gain courage for survival. Symbolic representations of all aspects of the internal psyche became familiar as a set of deities, and these were conceived as having supernatural powers for controlling events in the phenomenal world. A galaxy of differentiated imagery for ritualized interaction with all the gods was carved in vast rectangular temples within the mountain. Ultimately, however, a striving towards unification of the multiplicities led to the representation of one, single god, abiding within the sanctum; it served as metaphor for the totality of existence. This re-establishment of connection to combat illusory anthropo-morphicism solved the fundamental problem; for the adept, it now even became possible to shed all physical symbols, to be able finally to dwell in isolation, because god, within the Self, had been rediscovered.
Thus while the mountain itself is merely an infinitesimal slice of an unbounded universe, it has always served as symbol for an absolute, unchanging and ineffable, still Reality. While each temple is but an infinitesimal section of the great mountain, its symbolic centre, the sanctum is perpetually regenerative, if its functions are properly understood.
Entering the cave, the devotee is released from the tyranny of time. The experience of being in the cave is an exploratory adventure within a world hidden from the conventions of daily life, providing release from the sequential marking of events to which all are bound in temporal life. Within the shrine, as in the dream, there is no before, or now, or hereafter. The events in the life of the gods are outside chronology; unaffected by history, they exist and are active in a timeless context. The votary is bound to be greatly affected by this temporary deliverance from the bounds of consciousness. By participating in this process, one becomes free and is prepared to re-enter into and to operate within that society which, by its very insistence on repression, makes it possible to live a life with others.
The artist's universality is shared with his counterpart, the worshipper. Intuitions concerning the gods and goddesses are transferable via the medium of art from person to person and from a person living in the epoch to a person living in another. During the time that one is in contact with the monuments, empathy with oneself and with the lives of others as well is achieved. From this identification comes release from the binding, imprisoning shackles of tormenting personalism; this functions to raise the votary out of the mundane personality, to be in compassionate interconnection with a community of other who, during countless centuries, have visited the caves before and have participated in a common mythology and life of form.
This was the way the shrine functioned to have its integrating effect upon the people whose lives some twelve hundred years ago were organized in rhythmic interrelation between their sacred and temporal existence. One aspect of life depended upon the other, and the movement in regulated sequence into and out of the shrine, guaranteed by custom and established by traditional precepts and obligatory and ordered rites, was automatic and unquestioned. All the components within this composite working system were combined to create a total personality, able to deal effectively with the external requirements of daily life and the satisfaction of the need for an inner spiritual existence as well.
In ancient India one did not enter the cave as an isolated individual but each as an integral element in the coordinated reality of the cave. Offering the physical self in ritual, the votary was expressing feelings of identification with an immanent god. Artists were in harmony with one another, and a common understanding as to what lay beneath or beyond the representation of god as anthropomorphic hero of the narrative of the myth and the forms of the architecture may be assumed. The inspired artist, who was at the same time a devotee, transmitted his meanings, formulating them by means of emphasis on the organic patterns of compositions, by creating interrelationships of all the forms and sculptural components. He accomplished this with such ingenuity and so happily that the worshipper responded without the necessity to conceptualize either mentally or verbally beyond the comprehension of the stories. The idea and the externalized concept played its healing role in the unconscious.
Today in India, the process has not been interrupted at the level of the masses of village people, whose connections with their local shrines instruct us about how their ancestors lived and worshipped. Thousands upon thousands of Indians who are educated in western ways still do experience the vitality of the living shrine as well. Science and technology have not undermined the religious personality. However, if they arrive as outsiders and observers, the contemporary visitors to the caves are less fortunate. An involvement in the shrine would require that layers of resistance to outright expression of religious feelings be neutralized; they no longer are equipped with the automatic responses so essential for the process of integration. Although this cannot be healed completely, it might be overcome to a certain extent. They may yet participate partially in the psychic life enjoyed by their predecessors. An approach which hopes for some of the same results must be double-pronged, as form and concept are irreducible elements working hand in hand.
A good method by which to study the architecture and sculpture, especially for the modern person who is accustomed to rely too heavily upon reason while initiating experiences, is to trust first to intuition, after which an attempt can be made to coordinate what has been observed with what the literature reveals. Visual and kinesthetic responses respected first will activate dormant archetypes. Sifted by the senses, images coordinate with already formulated constructs of the mind to illuminate concepts, but the effect is realized subliminally and non-verbally only. Following upon this concrete, personal confrontation, textual material may be usefully brought to bear upon the newly intuited ideas. This would be the preferable approach for those whose repression of internally generated projections has deprived them of religious orientation and expression, if they indeed seek access to those parts of the human psyche which consciousness doe not reach and which have defied verbal definitions by philosophers of three millennia. This pragmatic method, leading to a more primal comprehension of formal statements, will be more in congruence with the Indian mode, which admits that art is one of the multiple paths towards reaching the deity. Only after a long confrontation with the cave can a search to find metaphors in the traditions be initiated in order to formulate analogies between the plastic compositions and the metaphysical concepts to make an attempt to bridge them. At the very least this may aid further comprehension.
During the sixth to the ninth centuries CE, the fundamental beliefs of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains were symbolically concretized in the architectural and sculptural multiplicity of form life in the thirty-four rock-out temples at Ellora in India.
This volume is the first coordinative treatment of the ways in which the artists integrated concept, style narrative, emotional states and the aesthetic qualities of the imagery which are ultimately resolved into a grand, organic totality.
A new, original approach to Ellora organizes the cycle of stylistic transformations into a developmental system from classical back to archaic. Attention is directed to the starling dynamic interactions and mobile relationship of the myriad diverse forms and to the innovative, often revolutionary, compositions in the major sculptured panels.
Carmel Berkson's intensive photographic studies emphasize multifaceted views of the many unique masterpieces in their spatial settings.
Carmel Berkson is a sculptor and photographer. She has traveled extensively in India for the purpose of studying and documenting Indian temple art.
Her books about Elephanta, Aurangabad caves, Mahisamardini and form in Indian sculpture are widely read.
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