Written by Yasas Ratnayake, Pictures by Nuwan Attanayake and Yasas Ratnayake
Continued from Trekking in India: Part I
The 1st of June 2015 was another blistering hot day in Mumbai, India. The states of Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh were experiencing heat waves that were killing people by the thousands. Fortunately, the heat in Mumbai was not as bad (still scorching hot for our liking) when Project Angampora landed. Our team of 7, including photographer Reza Akram, Videographer Nuwan Attanayake, a group of 4 Angampora fighters, and yours truly, were going to cover more than 1,000kms in the great state of Maharashtra, and capture images never seen before.
“The City of Gates,” Aurangabad, was our first destination. Named after the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb, Aurangabad held 2 key archaeological sites that we had to cover for our research and photography. The ancient Buddhist cave complex of Ajanta was famous for its rock carvings and frescoes. The fabled caves of Ellora held statues and rock-hewn sculptures of King Ravana of Lanka. Both these places were invaluable for our research because never before has anyone in Sri Lanka gone to the lengths of connecting these fragmented parts of history to create a narrative about an art that used to thrive thousands of years ago.
Looking forward to the journey ahead, we set off from Mumbai on a 9 hour, 375km drive to Aurangabad in a rather small 8 seater Suzuki Avenza and Syed Bhai, our jovial driver who we spoke to with a combination of dreadful English, sign language, smiles, and money. The sun cast its scorching glare throughout the bone-dry landscape as we passed through the cities of Nashik, Nagpur, and and Shirdi, home to the famous Sai Baba of Shirdi. Hundreds of kilometers went by along with the hours. Cows roamed through the arid land and occasional stops at roadside chai-joints were a welcome respite for our first day in India.
The Painted Caves
Our research showed that the caves of Ajanta had ancient frescoes of Prince Vijaya’s arrival to Sri Lanka. These frescoes depicted a great battle scene that would give us invaluable clues of how artists recreated the sights they saw and the stories they learned. Our first task after reaching Aurangabad was to focus on locating this cave and taking as many pictures of the complex that aided our narrative. A two-hour drive from Aurangabad took us to Ajanta, where the summer sun beat down relentlessly on the parched countryside.
Locked away in the interior of the area just outside the small hamlet of Ajanta, was a cave complex that was a marvel of human achievement. The Ajanta Caves, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, is one of India’s most valuable cultural assets. Carved into a large horseshoe shaped rock-face, this complex of 28 caves used to be a grand Buddhist forest monastery, and hold remarkably crafted Buddhist rock sculptures in giant stone chambers whose walls are adorned by Ajanta’s famous frescoes. While most people come here to see the famed murals of Apsaras, or celestial nymphs, we were looking for something different.
We wanted to seek out paintings where fighters were depicted. Hidden away among the bigger and more famous paintings were smaller images of fighters and warriors engaged in battle. What we really wanted were pictures of a very special painting that adorned the walls of cave number 17. Inside this cave, a large painting on the chamber wall depicted the coming of King Vijaya to Sri Lanka. Possibly drawn by a group of Sri Lankan artist monks who lived in the cave during its formative years, this painting depicts Vijaya’s army battling the Yakkha tribe upon his arrival in Sri Lanka. This cave painting would form a crucial part of our book’s narrative, giving us evidence to show the ancient origins of Angampora. The painting is a valuable indication of an art of combat existing in our land prior to the arrival of Vijaya, and we captured it to ensure that the story of Angampora was well told.
Our Indian journey had only just begun. Shooting in the heat and traveling long distances was something we had to get used to, and the team was drained by the time we returned to Aurangabad to call it a day. After heartily consuming a well-deserved vegetarian dinner from one of Aurangabad’s plentiful vegetarian restaurants, we were back at our hotel, planning for the next 2 days of shooting in Ellora. We had learned that 2 caves in the vast complex, the Kailasanatha Temple and Dhumar Lena, held depictions of King Ravana of Lanka. These sculptures were quite possibly the best preserved statues of Ravana to be found in the world. We would also use Ellora as a backdrop to shoot some epic action pictures with our team of Angam fighters.
It was quite a sight to behold. Ellora was grander than we initially thought. Colossal sculptures surrounded a giant castle crafted in rock. Carved from a single rock, the Kailasanatha Temple, the most celebrated of Ellora’s 36 exquisite cave sites, was a marvelous creation that transported us to a world of exotic gods and a fabled history of myth and legend. Everywhere your eyes wandered, you would see one beautiful creation after another. The whole place was breathtaking, but we wanted to photograph some specific sculptures, so looking for them among the thousands of other figures wasn’t easy.
A large panel, high on the outer wall of the temple depicted what we wanted. It was a figure of Ravana with the Dandu-Monara, his legendary flying machine. Ravana held a graceful posture and the Dandu-Monara was depicted as a bird that resembled a peacock. Ravana’s legend holds a key part of Angampora’s history, and it was quite thrilling to capture these pictures for the very first time. An impressive 25 foot high sculpted wall displayed the legend of Rama’s war with Ravana; another invaluable piece of evidence we would use to bolster our story. Besides these, we took hundreds of other photographs, putting us in an editorial fix on choosing which photos to include in the book!
Our next location was the Dhumar Lena, a grand cave of large stone columns and giant sculptures. At the entrance, a 20 foot high wall carving of a wrathful, 10 armed Ravana stood imposingly. Facing it on the opposite wall 40 feet away was another massive wall carving of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati held up by Ravana’s hands. This massive cave chamber was an eye-opener of the importance given to Ravana by the Indian dynasties that built these caves nearly 2,000 years ago. Finding what we wanted in India for the book was a fantastic feeling, but we surprised ourselves by getting MORE than what we initially wanted.
We also shot action photographs of our team of Angam fighters, using Ellora as a backdrop. Its result was a stunning array of action photographs that could be simply described as groundbreaking. The photos hold a cinematic quality that will be unlike anything Sri Lankans have seen before, and it will give Angampora a connection to the history of Ravana for the first time ever. So needless to say, we were quite thrilled with all of what we captured. Wrapping up the Maharashtra phase of the trip, we traveled back to Mumbai again, bidding goodbye to Aurangabad and eagerly looking forward to shooting in Kerala.
To be continued in Part 3: Kerala