Ajanta and Ellora – Temples as Theme Parks of Learning

Architectural wonders' significance should not be lost when compared with structures whose benefit is seemingly much more palpable.

Ajanta and Ellora – Temples as Theme Parks of Learning

There has been much discussion recently regarding the need for national monuments and whether they serve any purpose when compared with structures that help the common man directly i.e. hospitals and schools. There have been questions regarding the need for temples, statues and new cities. A lot of these questions seem logical to the common man, after all, as a culture, we have always maintained that God resides in everyone and hence service to humanity can be considered as service to the Supreme Being. I was pretty conflicted regarding these questions until recently, primarily because although I understood the idea of service to humanity being service to the Supreme, the architecture enthusiast in me disagreed with the view that buildings of beauty must be discarded in favor of functional one-dimensional structures.  A recent trip to Ajanta and Ellora finally settled the debate brewing in my mind decisively in favour of those who argue that monuments of national and cultural importance are as necessary as any hospitals or schools that we might build.

If we walk into the exquisitely carved out Kailashnath Temple at Ellora, one thing that strikes any keen observer is the attention to detail that has been given to every aspect of the temple and the way each and every sculpture in the temple weaves seamlessly into a larger theme that the architect wants to elucidate on. The main sanctum of the temple is in the form of a chariot that is carried by a multitude of animals, signifying the importance of the civilization of beasts to human society. Then there is the ‘Garba Griha’ itself, decorated with the carving of a flower on the roof, signifying that the lingam is in the constant state of ‘archana’.  Just outside the Garba Griha are the carvings of goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, signifying that any devotee can enter the temple and cleanse themselves before having a darshan of Shiva.

The amount of thought that would have been put in by the architects to construct the temple in itself is an exercise in Bhakti as well as self-realisation. As I had written in an earlier piece, the process of internalizing (manana) (http://www.pragyata.com/mag/hridayaleeswarar-and-the-power-of-the-mind-448) that is essential to designing structures of such aesthetics and spiritual beauty really helps one grow as a person. It acts a perfect example of Karmayoga leading to spiritual enrichment of the individual as well as society.

The outer part of the temple contains a courtyard where there are numerous sculptures carved out to represent various stories of our civilization and each of these stories is a course in the application of Dharma (loosely translated to natural law). The first sculpture shows the petulant (or persistent, depending upon your interpretation) Ravana continuously cutting off his heads in his pursuit of Shiva to grant him the boon of immortality. The story can assume different meanings to different people; some may admire the persistence of Ravana while others may use his final downfall as a cautionary tale of greed leading to his ultimate downfall in spite of having attained tremendous power.

We also have a sculpture of Lord Shiva as the Agni Lingam teaching a lesson in humility to Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu. It is said that during an argument between Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma about who was greater, Lord Shiva appeared in the form of an endless Agni (fire) lingam and challenged Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu to find the beginning and end of the Lingam. Lord Vishnu set out to find the base of the lingam but after a long pursuit realized that the effort was futile, as the lingam was Anaadi (that with no beginning or end). Lord Brahma though found a flower falling from the Shikhar (top) of the Lingam and tried to use it as proof that he had found the Shikhar. He was duly penalised. These great Gods being subservient to the emotions of jealousy, dishonesty and hubris for the smallest durations teach the reader the importance of the qualities of honesty and humility. It tells us that we can become Anaadi if we overcome our faults.

The purpose of these sculptures was not to drive home any point about morals or lay down any commandments of behavior but act as case studies that the young generation could learn from and find ways of applying Dharma in complex situations in their life. A teacher just had to take his students to one of these sculptures each day and explain the various aspects of the sculpture to the students while allowing them to make their own conclusions regarding how they would apply Dharma. These sculptures and the temple, in general, acted as a theme park that facilitated learning, where art met philosophy and gave an insight into moral codes without being prescriptive. This was at the heart of the education system of the day and is sorely lacking in today’s education systems.

The emphasis on perceived efficiency at the cost of aesthetics has killed the diversity and creativity among students and reduced art to a leisure activity at best. The argument of not building temples and building more and more standardized schools and hospitals stems from this utter apathy towards the power of art to cultivate moral fiber in a society that can accelerate its growth. In the same breath, I must say that I am refuting the very real claim that our public facilities need a massive upgrade and I suggest that the budget allocated for those activities should be looked at and scaled up if found to be insufficient while removing inefficiencies. But the building of Temples, Monuments and Museums that combine art with philosophy to imbibe society with moral fiber shouldn’t be given up in favour of more hospitals and schools, as these monuments act as schools while also healing people of their stress and other ailments by their pure aesthetic beauty.

As highlighted by a recent article (http://www.pragyata.com/mag/reclaiming-saundarya-beauty-in-everyday-life-438), it is this element of Rasa (aesthetic beauty) that is sorely lacking in most things modern. And it is this aspect that connects our pursuits of excellence with the divine manifestation of aesthetic perfection. And the building of more such aesthetically pleasing monuments with emphasis on the underlying spiritual and moral fiber will act as a catalyst to education reform. But doing so would require significant advances in the arts and sciences and large scale collaboration and interconnection.

The aesthetic beauty in temples and monuments makes them centers of learning, as they encourage students to explore the techniques that were used to build such magnificent structures and act as pathways of attaining revelatory experiences that enhance their capabilities. This helps put them on the path of accelerated learning and in turn, helps build more such monuments which act not only as centers of learning but also as centers of tourism and economic activities. Thus the Rasa in these monuments give a boost to scientific, artistic, economic and spiritual progress and thus creating more Rasa.

This sustainable relationship is one of the elements that sustained ancient society and helped Bharat be an advanced civilization for more than 4000 years. And it is this aspect of Rasa that has been constantly targeted by our invaders, first by physically destroying structures and then by systematically dismantling the ecosystem that led to the synthesis of such Rasa. And it is that Rasa that will play a crucial role in rebuilding a sustainable, advanced Indic civilization in the future. So it is imperative that we build monuments that not only cater to tourism but also help in advancing education and act as the point where spirituality meets science and art. And hence a temple might just be as important to the development of individuals of a nation as hospitals or schools. So we should try to find a balance between structures that address our basic needs in the immediate future and institutions that can bring about large scale transformation in the long term.

About Author: Aarkesh Venkataramanan

Aarkesh is a BTech and MTech Dual Degree holder in the field of Mechanical Engineering. He loves to travel, engage with new people and read up on subjects such as history, physics and maths. He is enthusiast about the depth of Indic knowledge systems and has a special interest in Indian Architecture and Philosophy

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