Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ajanta Caves: Spirituality & Sexuality

Do westerners and easterners have different ideas about spirituality and sexuality? William Darlymple, who has written a number of books about India, argues that they do in this fascinating story for BBC News Magazine called "A Point of View: The sacred and sensuous in Indian art."  He considers the caves of Ajanta to prove his argument.

Considered one of the ancient wonders of India, the caves at Ajanta are famous for their colorful murals which tell Jataka stories of the lives of the Buddha.  They date from the 2nd century BCE and, according to William Darlymple, who wrote about them in a recent BBC News Magazine, "Ajanta represents the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world and the most comprehensive depiction of civilised classical life that we have." 

Darlymple tweeted recently  that he finds the murals so interesting that he's considering writing a book about them.

Smart History (now part of Khan Academy) has a great history of the caves which are also a UNESCO World Heritage site.   You can also watch the short clip below which explains the  importance of the caves.

The paintings line the walls of 31 caves dug into solid rock and form an amphitheater as the picture below shows.  The darkness of the caves allowed the paintings to survive.

For Darylmple, the paintings and the carvings challenge western ideas "of the relationship between spirituality and sexuality."  That's because many of the murals show women and dancing girls some of whom are nude. Only in the western world, Darylmple suggests, do such sensual images tend to generate irreverent thoughts. 

And that is why, he says, "that the monasteries of Ajanta were filled with images of beautiful women - because in the eyes of the monks this was completely appropriate decoration."

Noting that in the Christian world Lent is all about self discipline and self deprivation but in the Ajanta caves, which were the center of ancient monastic activity, monks made a "deliberate decision to cover the walls of its religious buildings with images of attractively voluptuous women."

Christianity, he says, " in contrast, has always seen the human body as essentially sinful, lustful and shameful, the tainted vehicle of the perishable soul,..."

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