Careening along National Highway 211 in the dust of western India’s Deccan plateau, I was quietly directing Anna when to let me die. “If I lose both hands,” I whispered, gripping the back-seat door handle. “If I’m paralyzed from the neck down. If I’m badly burned.”
“If I’m burned.” I was speaking low to spare our mad driver’s feelings. Despite the fact that he was apparently trying to kill us—or was, at best, indifferent to that outcome—I adjusted my volume to “culturally sensitive, non-judgmental,” a diplomatic decibel we liberal Americans try to effect while traveling–when in Rome, die like the Romans. My terror, however, had no dial and as he pulled right again and tore down the packed highway toward an oncoming truck, jerking left at the last second to avoid collision by cutting off a bus, then veered back into approaching traffic I gasped, “What about you?”
“When do you want me to pull the plug?” Not a question I’d ever considered asking my 20-year-old daughter, but as our driver sped down the road from Aurangabad to the Ellora Cave Temples, death—or worse—seemed imminent. A small, gay idol swung from the rearview mirror: Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, who seemed redundant the way our driver simply dived and wove among them.
“We’re not going to die, Mom.” That was youth; I knew better.
Anna and I had made the nearly snap decision to travel to India the previous summer when we were sitting in a coffee shop in East Lansing. She was home from college for a few days and we had just strolled by a poster in a travel agent’s window. “See India!” it cried, nudging us toward something we’d both been wanting to do. “What do you think?” I asked her, stirring honey into my tea. She thought yes, so clutching our paper cups, we walked back to the car, drove to the county health department, and took a little ticket with a number on it. Then we rolled up our sleeves for typhoid vaccines, which left us sore, but “Invincible!”—we laughed—with a hubris that would shrivel on a crowded Deccan road.
Despite the odds, we eventually pulled off the highway and jerked to a stop within sight of the caves. Our driver turned to us. “Don’t buy a brochure,” he ordered, suddenly concerned for our welfare, “they’re over-priced.” But I’d already rolled down the window and was pressing a wad of rupees into the palm of a skinny, middle-aged man who had, I supposed, a smaller house than I did. A little farther down the road, Anna and I climbed out into the shimmering air and approached our first temple which, like the rest in the complex, was carved into the side of a cliff.
The cave temples at Ellora, cut out of limestone and basalt and inhabited by Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu monks from 500 to 1100 AD, had lured us north from Mumbai to the high, dry interior of Rajasthan. We’d taken a night train—second class, air-conditioned—where we’d tried to sleep on top bunks suspended not nearly far enough from the train’s ceiling. Pressing my eyes shut, I tried not to claustrophobically picture us hurtling through Asia in a lipstick tube, a vision I also struggle against on all long flights. Below us two affable, middle-aged men slept soundly after eating their tiflin suppers on their bunks, Chicago-educated engineers from Hyderabad.
Slipping off our shoes in front of the first cave and pressing our soles to the smooth and radiant rock, we entered a broad chamber which was softly illuminated from without. Bodhisattvas—enlightened beings—carved from thick, rock pillars rose over and around us, and half-emerged from walls on three sides. In a shadowy sanctum at the back, a life-size Buddha sat in the meditation asana as he’d been sitting, in stony silence, for 1,500 years. Just a few days earlier, we’d made our way along a causeway to the Haji Ali Mosque, a shrine that rises out of the Arabian Sea and is accessible only at low tide when the ocean recedes and its concrete bridge to the mainland emerges from the water. And though we didn’t know it as we clambered through the caves at Ellora, running our hands over intricately sculpted scenes from The Mahabarata and climbing the giant Hindu temple of Kailas, carved from the top down and flanked on one side by a towering row of rock elephants, we would soon find ourselves peering inside the David Synagogue in Pune. Profoundly attenuated to the infinite, the Indian subcontinent is honeycombed with cells hollowed out for the holy.
Defaulting, as we moved through the caves, to the mundane diction we’d lugged along from the American Midwest, we gasped a series of breathy, “Oh my God!”s, but eventually sensing how little purchase language from ordinary time found on the rock, hearing how it skittered off like loose gravel, we lapsed into silence. Dim chambers revealed themselves as light angled through deeply hewn doors, throwing the deities into relief, and through craggy breaks where columns met the rough, unaltered mountain pressing down from above. Stepping over thresholds that opened sometimes into vast galleries but more often into shadowy vaults sheltering a single sculpted Buddha or god, Anna climbed onto porticos and knelt in corners with her sketchpad, scribbling images of images—a thinning echo of some truth glimpsed centuries before.
Like so many antiquities, the Ellora cave temples have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such are officially revered and protected. Because the impress of human history is writ large in rock here, it is easy to mistake the ancient complex, which runs for a couple of miles along the Charanadri escarpment, as permanent. Compared to the human ephemera crawling over and through it—several busloads of school children arrived to join our explorations, flickering along dim passages in their bright kurtas, like phosphorescent moths, and hamming it up in our photos—these temples do seem impervious to time. But that is maya— in Sanskrit, an illusion. “All compounded things decay,” the Buddha noted—rock, too. Still, I always feel a glimmer of infinity at ancient religious sites. Perhaps centuries of pilgrim-longing lingers