2002 Student-Faculty Fellows: Lake Forest College

Treasures of Ellora and Khuldabad, India:
Music and Ritual at Hindu and Sufi Shrines

Mentor: Cathy Benton, Asian Studies and Religion
Students: Christa Rutt; Tiffany Martinez; Maryam Vahedi


Group Picture
Group Picture

Our group of three LFC students [Christa Rutt, Tiffany Martinez, and Maryam Vahedi] and a faculty mentor, Cathy Benton, reached Ellora, India, in the state of Maharashtra and the district of Aurangabad by the morning of December 29th, 2002. The air was crisp and clear and cool as we reached the 3000 foot elevation of India’s mountain range called the Western Ghats. As we drove from the Aurangabad airport up the Ghat to the plateau where Ellora and Khuladabad are located, we passed sweeper women cleaning the streets, water buffaloes sauntering down the road, brightly decorated lorries (trucks) spewing their diesel fuel exhaust and blasting their jarring horns to warn anyone nearby of their moving presence, men on bicycles, women carrying silver metal water pots on their heads, children playing with sticks and balls, and dogs sleeping in the midst of the activity.With the help of friends and colleagues in Ellora, Pune, and the U.S., we immediately established connections with several people at the Sufi Dargah in Khuladabad, the shrine of a saint called Zar Zari Zar Baksh, and at two Hindu Temples, a grand Shaivite temple called Ghrishneshwar and a small family temple to the elephant-faced god, Ganapathy. Within two days of our arrival, we had set up interviews with people at these religious sites, and had made plans for guided tours through a Jain Temple, the Ajanta Buddhist Caves dating to the 2nd century BCE, and the Hindu Kailash Cave Temple. For the first four mornings, we also worked with Professor Brahmanand Deshpande from Marath Wada University in Aurangabad who provided lectures on the history and culture of this specific region.This opportunity afforded by the ASIANetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Fellows program provided an invaluable way for us to immerse ourselves in the everyday religious realities of Hindus and Muslims in one small community in India. No class in the U.S. could begin to offer the depth of experience and possibility for insight that such an in-country project created for my students, and through them, for me. Sharing our work with colleagues and students through this website, I express my gratitude for the gift of this opportunity.

Maryam Vahedi

Maryam (left) with flower seller.
Maryam (left) with flower seller.

In every history class at Delhi Public School we repeated this mantra, ‘India has a rich cultural heritage.’ It was in December that I realized the weight of these words. This was the first time that I had ever visited the caves and Ellora and Ajanta and I was spellbound.

Walking through the caves, I could see that the carvings were so detailed and well thought-out that it was like a story carved in stone. The important nuances were well captured and centuries later, the carvings continued to tell the same story. The vegetable colors were still visible and we could get a glimpse of the past splendor of the caves. Visiting the caves was the most striking feature of this trip for me. The size of cave number 16, Kailas Cave Temple, was astounding. A visiting professor mentioned that if the caves had been publicized previously, they would definitely have been included as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Tiffany Martinez

Tiffany Martinez outside her cottage at Hotel Kailash
Tiffany Martinez outside her cottage at Hotel Kailash

No amount of looking at pictures, reading National Geographic or the Lonely Planet travel guide, or researching women’s roles in Hindu rituals could have given me the smallest idea of the experiences I would have and how much I would learn about myself in the three weeks we spent in Maharashtra.

It all seemed very surreal at first. Even shopping was something that I had to learn from square one; bargaining for prices and having the merchant pull out every color of sari and salwar kameez before I could decide which beautiful pattern struck my fancy. The melodic tunes that you won’t find emanating from car, bus, or truck horns in the United States . . . were things I always enjoyed.

Christa Rutt

Christa at the Khuldabad Darga with Tiffany on right.
Christa at the
Khuldabad Darga with Tiffany on right.

My first morning in Ellora, India I awoke at four thirty in the morning with the alertness of one who is jetlagged. As I lay in bed, wide awake in my dark room, I could only hear the sound of silence that blanked the village. After over an hour, a voice that sounded neither near nor far away pierced the silence. As the sun quickly moved into the Indian sky, this and other voices and instruments seemed at once to be praising gods and calling to people that another day has begun. While I initially wondered at this ritual, it quickly became a familiar part of life. I accepted it as normal and necessary, as everyone did. That is not to say I did not want to stop and listen every dawn and dusk when I heard the praises; I simply missed it and the morning seemed wrong in some way when I did not hear it. After the praises finished, I heard the sounds of the first buses and trucks rumbling down the street, as well as people calling to each other as they opened their small shops for the day.

The contrasts are so great. You can easily find some of the fastest internet connections in the world and a yogi living in a cave on the same day. It is amazing to be in a country that is forever grasping at the past as it stretches into the future.