Many people do not know it, but India is one of the world's oldest civilisations. It has been the birthplace of many fundamentals recognised by today's society, in science and in the arts. After traveling tirelessly around India and immersing myself in its flavours and traditions, I wanted to bear witness to its incredibly rich cultural and spiritual heritage. If this website sparks a desire to pack your bags and set off for an Indian adventure, it will have achieved its purpose. Have a good trip around the website and pleasant wanderings in the sacred land of Bharat!
Although few foreign tourists come here, this peaceful village on the banks of the River Pampa is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus and is famous for its Krishna temple and the “snake-boat” race held every year during the Onam festival. Aranmula also has another unique claim to fame: sacred mirrors called kannadi are made there using a centuries-old technique whose secret is closely guarded.
The Parthasarathy temple, built in typical Keralan pagoda style, is one of the 108 revered Vishnuite divya desam temples and also one of Kerala’s Pancha Pandava temples. According to Hindu legend, these temples were each built by one of the five Pandava brothers.
The legend goes that after King Parikshit was crowned the Pandava brothers set off on a pilgrimage. They visited Kerala and each built a temple there. Yudishthira built one at Thrichittatt, Bhima at Puliyur, Arjuna at Aranmula, Nakula at Thiruvanvandoor and Sahadeva at Thrikodithanam.
It is said that Arjuna built the Parthasarathy temple at Nilakkal near Sabarimala, to atone for a sin. But Nilakkal was in dense forest, making it difficult to perform daily rituals there. The idol was therefore brought to Aranmula on a raft made of six bamboo poles – whence the name Aranmula, which means “six bamboo stems”.
Several “snake boats” or chundan vallams accompanied the procession across the River Pampa. The idol was installed in the temple on the day of Uthrattathi in the month of Chingam (August-September) according to the Malayalam calendar, Uthrattathi being Arjuna’s birthday. The village of Aranmula celebrates this event each year with a snake-boat regatta during the Onam festival.
The main idol in the temple is a statue of Lord Krishna as Parthasarathy, i.e. in his role as the charioteer who drove Arjuna into battle in the Kurukshetra war, as described in the Mahabharata epic.
The Aranmula Uthrattathi Vallamkali or snake-boat race is one of the year’s biggest festivities in the village of Aranmula and one of the oldest traditional races in Kerala.
It is linked to the Parthasarathy temple and takes place every year on Uthrattathy day in the month of Chingam in the Malayalam calendar (August-September), four days after Thiruvonam (the Onam festival).
People of all social classes and religions living in and around Aranmula get involved in the Vallamkali. It is organised by the Seva Sangam Palliyoda, an organisation made up of two members from each of the 48 villages or karas that possess a snake-boat.
The precious and mysterious kannadis of Aranmula are metal mirrors of a unique kind. They are made only in this village and are exported throughout the world.
The story goes that a few generations ago, eight families from Tirunelveli who specialised in temple art came to Aranmula at King Pandalam’s command to work on the building of the Parthasarathy Temple.
While working on the temple idol’s bronze crown the craftsmen discovered the exceptional reflective qualities of a particular alloy of tin and copper. But they were unable to reproduce the alloy until Parvathi Amma, a widow in their community, received the exact composition of the alloy in a dream. That composition is kept secret to this day by the few artisan families still transmitting the craft from generation to generation.
If you place a finger on an ordinary mirror, you will see a gap between the finger and its reflection. But if you place your finger on a kannadi mirror, there is no gap: the finger and its reflection meet, because there is no glass in between.
The kannadi of Aranmula have a distinct old-world charm. They are generally round or oval hand mirrors set in brass frames. These are stamped, as the mirrors are protected by an official Geographical Indication. They count among the eight auspicious objects or ashtamangalyam in a Kerala bride’s trousseau.
Mangaluru is a port city on the Arabian Sea. Much of India’s coffee output leaves from here. The town’s main attractions are its ancient temples, luxuriant vegetation and golden sands – a foretaste of neighbouring Kerala.
Udupi, 60km from Mangaluru, is best known for its famous temple devoted to Krishna, one of the incarnations of the hindu god Vishnu. It is an important pilgrimage place and it has also given its name to a renowned style of Indian cooking.
Halebid, or Halebidu, was the capital of the Hoysala empire in the 12th and 13th centuries. This dynasty has left a monument of unparalleled splendor, the temple of Hoysaleswara. The richness and finesse sculptural details are undoubtedly the most exquisite example of Hoysala architecture.
The first image that comes to mind when I think of Mysore is its incredible palace, sparkling with thousands of lights. But this city of Maharajas has far more to offer: its famous flower market, its Indo-Saracenic architecture (legacy of the British Raj) and its open-air Nandi sanctuary on Chamundi Hill. Together these have made it one of the most visited towns in Karnataka.
Grishneshwar is located near the Ellora caves, in a small village called Verul in the state of Maharashtra. There stands one of the 12 Jyotir Lingams or “Lingams of light”. It is believed to be the last Jyotir Lingam, where the pilgrimage round the Jyotir Lingams ends.
Ajanta, the long-hidden caves carved in the cliffs above a meander in the Waghora river now unveil their secrets to visitors. Inside, the life story and legends of the Buddha are told in magnificent frescoes and rock carvings, masterpieces of religious art whose impact once reached far beyond India’s borders.
The Ajanta caves, now a World Heritage site, were carved out in two distinct periods: in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE and in the 5th and 6th centuries CE under the Gupta dynasty, when Buddhism was at its peak in India. The later, more elaborate caves are a stunning testimony to the development of Indian art and the decisive impact on it of India’s Buddhist community at that time.
These 29 sumptuous Buddhist caves were hollowed out of the volcanic rock of a cliff on the south side of a U-shaped wooded gorge. Five of them were temples and 24 were monasteries. It is reckoned that some 200 monks would have lived there. The caves were later abandoned and forgotten until 1819 when they were accidentally rediscovered by British officers on a tiger hunting party.
The technical skill and delicacy of the Ajanta wall paintings represent a high point in Buddhist art and had a major influence on Buddhist temple art throughout India and in Southeast Asia (Java) for the next thousand years.
In the 7th century the caves were abandoned in favour of those at Ellora.
N.B: Some caves in Ajanta are closed or under restoration or are of little interest, I have kept, in this article, only the most elaborate. My favorite is cave 29, what is yours? 😉
Cave 1, a vihara (monastery), is surely one of the most beautiful on the site. It has elaborate carved facades with scenes from the life of the Buddha as well as a number of decorative motifs.
The mineral-based paintings harmoniously cover the walls and ceilings of the cave. The scenes depicted are mainly Jataka* stories and the life of Gautama Buddha. The two most famous images of Ajanta are found in this cave: they are those of the bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani painted on each side of the entrance to the sanctuary. Padmapani is the main form of Avalokiteshvara, one of the most revered bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism, while Vajrapani is an emanation of Vajradhara Buddha, its function is to destroy our delusions. * Popular and didactic account of the previous lives of the Buddha.
Cave 2, adjacent to cave 1, is also one of the most interesting of Ajanta with paintings in very good state of conservation.
There are a large number of women represented on these frescoes; note that of Hariti-Panchik, a scene of motherhood. The sanctuary contains a Buddha flanked by celestial nymphs and bodhisattvas.
Cave 4 is the largest vihara in the group (35m × 28m), but has never been completed. It houses an image of the Buddha as a teacher, flanked by bodhisattvas and celestial nymphs hovering above. The door jamb and lintel are beautifully decorated with Buddha figures and the anteroom walls are decorated with six standing Buddhas, two of which are unfinished.
Cave 6 is the only two-story monastery on the Ajanta site. Both shrines present a Buddha in the posture of instructor. The frames of the sanctuary doors are finely carved with makaras and asparas as well as other mythical creatures.
Cave 7 is also a monastery, but on one level with an eight-pillar veranda. This vihara consists of a sanctuary with a statue of the Buddha in the posture of instructor, a room with octagonal pillars and eight small rooms for the monks. Numerous finely carved panels relating various Buddhist themes such as the Naga Muchalinda, the story of the serpent (naga) who saved the Buddha from a flood during his long meditation in Bodhgaya, the Buddha’s place of awakening. All around the door of the sanctuary, we will also notice a scene with a multitude of Buddhas carved in various postures and facial expressions.
Cave 9 is an apse-shaped chaitya-griha (worship hall) from the 2nd century BCE belonging to the Hinayana phase of Buddhism. The front door is particularly neat with a horseshoe opening and two side windows. The nave is flanked by side aisles (pradakshina) separated by a row of 23 pillars and a stupa, object of worship. Above the pillars and also behind the stupa are colorful paintings of the Buddha and on the walls of the friezes of Jataka tales.
Cave 10 looks like cave 9, it is a large prayer hall or Chaitya which is dated from around the 1st century BCE. It is one of the oldest along with Cave 12. It was also the first to be discovered in April 1819, by British army officer John Smith.
The cave consists of a large central apse hall with a row of 39 octagonal pillars leading to a stupa. The paintings are numerous and of two periods, many telling the tales of Jataka including that of Shyama Jataka:
Shyama, the Buddha in a previous life, was the only son of a hermit and his wife, both blind, who therefore depended entirely on him. Shyama responded to their needs with great devotion and was a perfect example of filial piety. One day, while Syama was going to draw water from the river, he was wounded by an arrow shot by the king of Benares who was hunting. Due to the king’s penance and the grief of Shyama’s parents, Indra (the king of all gods) intervened and allowed Shyama to be healed and he restored his sight to his parents.
Cave 11 is a monastery from the end of the 5th century AD, the sanctuary of this cave is among the last structures built in Ajanta. The veranda ceiling shows traces of floral patterns and eroded reliefs. Inside, the cave consists of a hall with a long stone bench opening onto six rooms. Another pillared veranda ends with a sanctuary with a Buddha seated against an unfinished stupa.
We enter cave 16 by a flight of steps flanked by two elephants. This Mahayana monastery, occupies a privileged position, roughly in the middle of the site and was sponsored by Varahadeva, Minister of King Vakataka Harishena (475 – 500 CE). His wish was that “the whole world should enter a peaceful and noble state without grief or illness”. This cave would have influenced the architecture of the entire site.
There are many paintings in cave 16, there are various Jataka tales and several frescoes on the life of the Buddha, including one that illustrates the conversion of Nanda, the brother of the Buddha, into a Buddhist monk. While Nanda wanted to lead a sensual life with the woman he had just married, the Buddha took him to paradise and later to hell to show the spiritual dangers of a sensual life.
Cave 17, another vihara of Ajanta, was sponsored by King Upendragupta and, in a long inscription on one of the walls of the cave, he explains ‘modestly’ that he spent a lot of money in order to build this vihara, bringing much of satisfaction to the devotees’. In total, Upendragupta is known to have sponsored at least five Ajanta caves.
This monastery houses paintings, which are the best preserved of all the caves on the site. There are some thirty major frescoes representing the Buddha in various forms and postures, several tales of Jataka, but also scenes from everyday life such as a princess putting on makeup or a lovingly seated couple.
Cave 19 is a worship hall (chaitya griha) dating from the 5th century AD. It is one of the most beautiful specimens of Buddhist art. The colonnaded entrance particularly attracts attention with its horseshoe window and its rich sculptures.
The worship hall is apse, 15 pillars divide it into two aisles with a nave that lead to a standing Buddha. The round pillars have floral reliefs and are topped with finely carved capitals.
And, I saved the best for last! The cave 26, which is a chaitya griha from the end of the 5th century AD, is for me the most beautiful cave on the Ajanta site; it includes much more elaborate sculptures than the others.
The cave consists of an apse hall with side aisles for the circumambulation, which are covered with magnificent panels carved with Buddhist legends. The two major works include the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha (reclining Buddha) on the wall, followed by the legend called the ‘temptations of Mara’.
Mara is, in Buddhism, the evil and tempting spirit who tried to prevent Siddhartha Gautama from reaching enlightenment when he meditated under the Bodhi tree.
On the fresco known as ‘the temptations’, we see the girls of Mara (standing below the Buddha) trying to seduce him with light outfits and seductive postures. On each side of the Buddha there are the armies of Mara who try to distract him by threatening him. In the upper right corner you can see the image of a Mara man who looks frustrated as he was not able to interrupt the meditation of the Buddha.
In the center of the apse, there is a stupa carved in the rock with an image of the preaching Buddha surmounted by a torana (arch) on three levels and apsaras are carved on the ‘stupa anda’ (the hemispherical part of the stupa, in egg shape). At the top of the Stupa is a harmika (a small platform with a balustrade located at the very top of a stupa) with nine levels, symbol of samsara, the nine heavens of Mahayana cosmology.
If you liked Ajanta’s site, you will be blown away by Ellora’s! Click on this link to visit the other wonders of Maharashtra state!VISIT ELLORA CAVES