The Caves on Elephanta Island
Sunday mornings at The Institute begin with satsung, which means "to be in good company", essentially to collect as a community of yogis and share a performance depicting a particular topic. Seven month Teacher Training students prepare all week and go to great lengths to entertain a crowd of nearly 125 spectators. Dr. Jayadeva and Hansaji contribute philosophical views as well. The sidewalk leading to the Madhavadasaji Hall is adorned with chalk drawings, elaborate color arrangements of flowers, props are prepared and everyone is rested and dressed well. The floor is covered with a blanket of yoga mats and people crowd forward to witness the event. There is a lot of positive energy and everyone leaves cheerful.
The first Sunday after classes started, after satsung, I met with Melissa Malloy, Dr. Butera's student from PA. She is one of three American Students in the program. We decided to take a trip to see the caves on Elephanta Island.
The first adventure for me on this trip was buying a train ticket. In the fashion that I have been witnessing to be typical here in India, it was quite frantic and chaotic, at least from a western perspective. The station at Santacruz is a single room with three walls, feels more like a structure at a campground than a place to buy rail fare.
I'm most comfortable having a solid arms distance between myself and the general public, but it's not the way of India. In line, one gentleman interrupted Melissa and I saying "please" and making hand gestures for us to push forward. There was maybe 10 inches between myself and the woman ahead of me, and when she turned abruptly she'd whack me with her bag. Regardless, Melissa and I smiled and nudged forward. I thought of it like this...in karate we learn that the closer to the source of the force you get, the less force there is. So I stepped closer thinking the impact of the handbag would be less, which was my motivation. I heard that in India, it is known that 'foreigners' are not so comfortable with being close to strangers, so sometimes the children will touch foreigners as a game...and I thought they were just being friendly!
We got our tickets and heading to the platform, Melissa, via her own experiences and through the experiences of friends, rattled off a list of cautions, insights, and awareness to have while traveling here. One story was about a wandering band of transvestite beggars, who if you ignore or deny donation, they will place a curse on you! The closest to that experience that I've had was once in San Francisco, a beggar followed my band-mates and I about 10 blocks, free-style rapping, we had to throw him some cash, he was so entertaining!
It was time to board the train. We had 2nd class fare. There are 'male' and 'female' carts, but occasionally you will find women riding in the 'male' carts. Melissa and I decided to stick together. I don't own a time piece, and my cell phone is peacefully relaxing on my counter back home, so my concepts of time may be off, but just by a handful of seconds. The train ride felt like half an hour, from Santacruz to Churchgate. For the first 4 to 5 stops we stood because the cart was so full, after a while there was space to sit. It was loud, the fumes were noxious, but the conversation was pleasant. We arrived at the final stop, disembarked and hit the streets by foot. "The Gate of India" was within walking distance, so we walked. It was pretty easy to find. The driving traffic in India is like Britain so naturally people tend to walk on sidewalks in that manner. We were inclined to stay to the right, while Indians were inclined to stay to their left, so we were constantly walking at one another. It was yogic practice of awareness in itself, being conscious to stay left.
We found the Gate, overlooking the Sea. A massive stone structure welcoming the King of England. Must have been quite a sight when (if) he came. Melissa and I quickly snapped a photo and avoided getting too close; the sea of people was nearly as mighty as the sea itself. We, being very clearly 'tourists' were an immediate target and were instantly bombarded. Some men were selling maps, others photos of the monument, and others were offering more spiritual services. One man approached us offering us little candies. I declined politely, repeatedly. "A gift, a gift" he said, so I reluctantly put them in my pocket. He then drew a collection of threads from his basket and reached to tie them on my wrist. I drew back my arm saying "How much does this cost?" "Nothing, nothing, I'm a Holy man". "Ah" I said. "Ok, but no thanks." "Please sir, it's a blessing." He reached to tie them on my wrist again and began chanting... "No thanks, I'm ok without one" He responded "Please sir". I started to feel bad, thinking he felt that he was doing me a favor, so I figured what's the harm, and allowed it. He finished and as I looked down at the red threads with orange and yellow chalky dye, he said something while touching my "3rd eye". He performed the same ritual on Melissa then held out his hand. "Donation". He wasn't satisfied with the one rupee contribution I made, suggesting more, still holding out his hand. But I wasn't going to be conned into giving any more money to false idols. As we walked away he said "ok, when you get back".
There was very little direction, and finding where to catch the ferry was difficult. We eventually managed and climbed aboard. It wasn't a very big seacraft; I imagined Jaws would have little trouble capsizing it, but all in all, a good little vessel. The boat was divided into three compartments. We were toward the front. The gentleman steering was sitting on what looked to be a countertop, legs bent, knees near his chin, one hand on the wheel. The window he was peering through looked like frosted glass with all the dried salt caked to it. There were about 15 of us sitting hip to hip and everyone looked pleased as we were going to see some caves. The middle compartment of the ferry is where the engine was. It was open for all to see, so the fumes permeated from every facet. The back end was similar to the front, holding a dozen and a half passengers, lining the sides. The sea was choppy even muddy looking, not blue or gray, but almost tan. The ferry cruised past other ferries and dozens of oil tankers and very serious ocean vessels, towering like city blocks. We sailed for a hefty half hour, arriving finally at Elephanta Island.
In my mind, dreaming of Elephanta Island, I was thinking "King Kong". I was hoping to see mountain peaks hidden above clouds with a vast oasis of tropical life. Maybe there wouldn't be a giant ape, but I'd be happy to see a giant elephant. The reality is that this island use to be a kingdom and when the Portuguese arrived they saw a large sculpture of an Elephant greeting them. They tried to bring it back with them but their chains broke dropping it into the sea. Sometime later it was retrieved and exists in a museum. So we didn't have any elephants crossing our paths, but there were plenty of wild dogs and monkeys roaming around.
The dock is made of stone and stretches hundreds of feet into the sea. There to greet you are markets offering water, soda, fruits, and grilled corn. There is a small train that you can ride, but walking is nicer. Eventually, you find yourself at the bottom of a set of stairs. The stairs are stone and sturdy, slanted 'down hill' to allow water to run off. The slanting can play a little trick on your spacial awareness. On both sides of the stairs there exists a wall, which has now been converted into... markets!
Every tenth step someone tries to encourage you that this carving of Ganesh is the finest in the land, and the cheapest, best price, just for you! The stair case is covered also, by a series of over-lapping tarps. The blue kind you see covering picnic tables at camp sites or covering grills for the winter in the North, nothing fancy. Because of the markets, tarps, and trees, standing at the bottom, you have no idea how high it goes. For all you know, you could march off a cliff. But we didn't worry about that, we silently ascended. If I dare to make any estimation of comparison, it would be 10-12 stories. But again, the markets and tarps made a tunnel with little place of actual reference.
At the top of the stairs the ground leveled out into a dry and dusty park. Here is where you pay to see the caves . . . that is if you have any money left after passing the markets. This attraction is like many attractions here in India, if you are Indian, you pay something like 10 rupees (around 25 cents) and if you are a 'foreigner', yes it actually states that, not something gentle like 'non-resident', you pay something like 250 rupees (around $5.50).
We made it through the gate and came upon the first cave. This was the biggest and most regal of the series. Carved out of the bedrock were stairs, pillars, reliefs of Buddhism, and small caves. It was stunning and magnificent. You feel tiny under these massive reliefs which tower approximately 20 feet. Some are still intact and others have crumbled and have become deformed. There is an eerie feeling standing and gazing up at these giants with half faces and missing arms. Despite the multitudes of people crowding the caves, there remains a feeling of solitude. It must have been amazing to practice in these caves before we, the tourists flooded them.
The first cave was the main attraction with its lofty architecture. There were a handful of other caves along a path stretching toward the back side of the main cave. Some of these appeared to be living quarters, smaller caves just big enough to sleep in were cut out of the bedrock. Other reliefs were found as well, though these were half the size. The last cave looked like a place of meeting. There was a stone structure situated in a position that looked like a focal point. Behind it was carved out of the wall what looked to be a shelf or alter, perhaps for candles or offerings. The floor was concave, dipping in the center and raising on the edges, ancient stadium seating. Here, likely the monks could have sat all together, conversing and meditating.
Sadly, like everywhere else I've seen so far in India, the trash was disheartening. Wrappers were everywhere, literally, along the stairs, on the paths and near the caves there were piles of garbage. The water wells in the caves were littered, the hillside was a giant pile of trash, it was unavoidable. It is a very severe problem here.
Melissa and I made our way back down merchant valley. Here she taught me bartering. It honestly hadn't occurred to me to try. So I watched her make a few attempts and get the 'best price for you' cut by a third. These merchants are tough, but in the end, they know you could buy the same thing, 10 steps down, so they flex a little. We traveled back to the dock and had a little difficulty locating our ferry. People kept insisting we climb upon the 1st class vessel for 40 more rupees, but we eventually spotted the little guy, nestled between two other ferries.
Elephant Island was a fun and exhilarating experience. The caves were majestic and amazing. I always wondered what it would be like to have monkeys running around everywhere.
The ferry back was nice, as the sun was beginning to lower behind the city as we approached by sea. I wondered if the 'holy man' was still waiting for a larger donation. The train ride back was more manageable to start because Church Gate is a starting point, so we easily found seats.
Melissa and I were talking when we were interrupted by a guy who was in a compartment behind us, poking his head through. 'Sir... Sir.....Sir...Sir....' I turned suspecting he was talking to me. "Where are you from"? I get asked this question almost daily. So I wasn't surprised. Sometimes people tell you where they've been in America, other times they want to shake your hand and tell you their name, and still others want a photograph taken with you. So I naturally replied "America". He looked at me a moment, and I at him, then I turned to continue talking with Melissa.
This guy threw me a curve-ball. "Your country wants to lock me up, put me away, in an insane asylum." I turned perplexed, mostly because I didn't want to have my back exposed to this guy any longer. He took it as interest. "My mother died, I know nothing about your banks, they want to lock me away" "I'm sorry" was all I could say, not wanting to engage him. Everyone was staring at us. I wondered what the repercussions would have been if I completely ignored him. Would the whole train of people be insulted, would I appear condescending? So I decided to defer his initiations by engaging as little as possible and showing lack of interest, politely. He gazed at me his head tilting to the side the way a puppy does when you ask it if it wants a cookie. He repeated himself, verbatim, adding something about his mother's assets being held. I again responded "I'm sorry to hear that." He looked at me awkwardly, as if unable to understand what I was saying. I could only imagine what he was trying to get from me, where he wanted this to go. His eyes were intense and wide, dilated, taking in everything. He pointed to his brow, which was painted red in the region of his 'third eye', and gazed at me. I turned to Melissa, "Do I have something here" pointing toward my '3rd eye'. She replied 'yeah, a little'... It was the holy man! He rubbed something on my forehead! That is why everyone looked at me so curiously all day, I was an imposter. The man seemed to grow bored and retreated back into his own compartment. I tried to wipe the smudge from my forehead.
We found Santacruz and made our way back to the Institute. It was a wonderful experience.