As I continued to observe the process of carnalization in Buddhist art against the good words of the Pali Canon, I began to suspect the influence of Hinduism in all this. The caves at Ellora proceeded to give an immediate answer to my burgeoning query, for after the twelfth one, they suddenly turned into Hindu temples. The contrast was astonishing: Gods and Goddesses were now in all shapes and forms, some with many arms (Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Kali), others with animal heads (Ganesha, Varaha), most of them amorously or violently entwined with one another. [Fig. 16-17] And they were all dynamically posed, as if they had been frozen in the midst of action. The erotic force of the body was at full swing.
At the same time, the continuity with the previous Buddhist temples was also apparent, as stylistic elements repeated themselves across the division of religion. In fact, historians believed that the two temples of the two religions carved next to one another had been constructed not only during the same period but by the same group of artisans. [Fig. 18 (compare with Fig. 13)]
The spectacular dynamism of Hindu temples reached its apex at the most famous cave of all: No.16, Kailasha. [Fig. 19] Carved out of one massive rock over a period of ten generations, this temple was deemed to be the largest sculpture in the world, and, like Jantar Mantar, it was also one which humans could go into. Once inside, a myriad of divine figures engaging in a variety of action, drama, and romance enveloped the visitors, assaulting their senses from all directions, covering the whole world with their extravagant stories and dancing bodies. [Fig. 20-21] After going through centuries of Buddhist art, Kailasha appeared to be the perfect rendition of a Giant Vehicle if ever there was one. Instead of being transcendent and inaccessible, it staged transcendence as a spectacle which was not only accessible but physically took hold of the passengers within. I was absorbed and mesmerized, perhaps not so different from my son watching a Marvel superhero movie in 3D.
A week later, after numerous visits to bookstores in search of some scholarship on the relation between Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, the owner of the store I dropped by that day told me the same thing that I had been told at all the other stores: there was no such book to his knowledge. But then, as I wandered into the back of the same store, I found a new book still wrapped in a plastic cover with the title Assimilation of Brahmanism into Buddhism. [Fig. 22] It looked very much like what I was looking for.
When I took it to the owner, he recalled that the book had just arrived a week ago and that it might be exactly what I was looking for. It indeed was. The author, Sampa Biswas, conducts a detailed comparative study of Hindu and Buddhist art set against the rise of the Giant Vehicle school. She explains how the latter was caused by the decline of the merchant class which had until then financially supported the Buddhist monks to pursue their individual path to salvation. Facing the loss of these wealthy patrons, Buddhism was forced to incorporate the common people who were concerned about being saved but not so much about the necessary sacrifices that had to be paid along the way. It didn’t take long for them to begin assimilating Brahmanism (later Hinduism), the most popular religion of the times whose allure and powers Gautama had devoted his whole life to overcome. As far as Biswas was concerned, Buddhism did not disappear from India as is commonly believed; instead, it simply became part of Hinduism. I believed that. What I could not believe was the luck of having encountered precisely what I was looking for. By this time, I had also arrived, through a long detour, at my final destination.
The strangeness of Varanasi struck me as soon as I started walking around the city. Built on the banks of the wide Ganges River, this 3000 years old settlement has long been known as the holiest of all holy cities among the Hindus. The vast number of pilgrims who come there mostly do so to die, as it is believed that if they are cremated at one of the ghats (embankments), and their ashes scattered into the sacred river, they will for once and all cancel the vicious cycle of reincarnation and karma, and attain salvation—just like Gautama did 2500 years ago, except through a very different route. There are more than 80 ghats, all connected to one another along the river, and two of them are used as cremation sites where bodies are burnt 24 hours every day. [Fig. 23-24]
But there was more to the city than just the stories and the beliefs, for I actually felt a very strange sensation of otherworldliness as I walked around the streets and along the ghat. At first, I did not know what to make of it, other than to blame it on the special kind of lassi that I had for lunch. It was a feeling that reminded me of only one other place I had been to, another famous holy site which was on the other side of the world: Chaco Canyon, the ancient ruins of the Anasazi people in New Mexico, USA. I had realized on my second visit there that the strange sensation was largely due to the fact that the ruins are located on a flat plain surrounded by equally flat yet much higher grounds called Mesas. This scenography had two significant effects: on the one hand, it created the impression of being inside a giant room, while on the other, it prevented the visitor from realizing that the flat plain they are standing on is itself on an elevated ground. Thus the feeling produced was akin to the awkward sensation of being on a gigantic rooftop of a high building without knowing so.
But Varanasi was neither elevated nor flat. As I kept walking around, I gradually began to understand what was generating the peculiar sensation in this city. It also had to do with the particular way the city was planned and built. Behind all the ghats are long stairways which lead to a complex of maze-like narrow alleyways that extend and interconnect in various directions. [Fig. 25] For one thing, this constraint of access resulted in the total absence of vehicles in the ghats, itself a very unusual scenery in India. But more importantly, it choreographed people to walk through the disorienting alleyways for some time before reaching the sudden opening to a wide but secluded space with a giant river running across it. Similar to Chaco Canyon, the feeling it creates is that of being in a massive room, which is further augmented by the fact that there is nothing on the other side of the river. This is obviously deliberate: it is prohibited to build anything visible on the other side which is also the side the sun rises from. What results is a perfect scenography. [Fig. 26]
In short, Varanasi is carefully planned and built to stage both the other world as well as this world within a giant closure. The whole city consequently feels like its own miniature model—a virtual reality which has nevertheless been masterfully rendered into reality. Varanasi in this way replicates the effects of the Kailasha temple on a massive scale, creating a Giant Vehicle out of an entire metropolis. The inaccessible outside is built into the vehicle as if the world has turned into a movie. No wonder dying loses its weight.
To describe the Varanasi effect as being inside a movie connects it to a strange experience I had many times during this trip. Whenever I visited a tourist attraction, I would be asked by Indian tourists to take a selfie with them. I usually said yes, not knowing why I was being asked but not having any good reason to say no either. From one point on, however, I began asking if I could also take one with my phone. [Fig. 27]
It was not until I got to Aurangabad that I finally understood what was happening to me when the local taxi driver who was driving me to Ellora offered to explain. “Many of these tourists come from rural parts of India,” he said, “and in many cases, it’s their first time to travel outside their villages. The only foreigners they have seen before in their lives were all inside movies and TVs so when they see any real person who does not look Indian, they think that person is a celebrity. You are famous without knowing it!”
By traveling across distance, they had come to see a temple or a ruin or a palace, only to find themselves suddenly sharing the same space and time as people who they usually see only on screens, which is to say people who they only knew as representation. It was an encounter with a different level of reality—as if they had suddenly found themselves inside the movie they were watching. Their reaction of taking selfies recorded this traversal of realities, reframing the event as representation on yet another level of reality which they could take home to impress the other villagers.
But this made me reflect on my own doing. For I had also traveled across distance to visit the places I had only seen in pictures or heard in stories. The photographs I had been taking of Jantar Mantar or Kailasha or Varanasi were not different from the tourist selfies in this sense. They similarly documented the experience of traversing realities—which is to say, the experience of being on a trip—by turning it into a representation. I would then bring these photos back to my village (of Kaga) and use them to impress the other villagers—which is to say, “everybody” in the media artist’s parlance. I was not in any of the photos, but my presence was recorded in the very act of taking them which was recorded by their very existence. The only ones in which I did appear were these pseudo-tourist selfies that I began taking by copying what they were doing (without knowing why). But my pseudo-selfies worked in exactly the same way as theirs: a representation pertaining to one community which documents the encounter with another level of reality that took place far away from home—a nice souvenir.
What enabled this encounter was one vehicle or another, for the reality of trip lies in the movement between one reality and another, and some instrument of transport had to make that movement possible. Which is to say, the tourist selfies also aligned with other forms of vehicles I had encountered on this trip: Jantar Mantar, Ajanta and Ellora, the Buddha’s words in the Pali Canon, and the entire city of Varanasi (as well as that special lassi I was drinking everyday in Varanasi, for that matter) were all instruments of transport that bridged one level of reality to another. The only difference was that instead of moving themselves like ordinary vehicles, these made the passengers move. In other words, they all solved the problem of reaching other realities by dissolving the distance between, rather than physically traveling across them. They were vehicles only in the virtual sense which feigned movement by making otherwise impossible distances cease to matter.
The tourist selfies, in comparison, were produced by actual vehicles that physically moved passengers across space and over time. To be sure, the selfies themselves, like all these photos I have been showing, are destined to become another form of virtual vehicle when the traveler returns to the village, souvenirs to recall the distance once traversed and realities once merged. On the other hand, one could also say it was the non-moving virtual vehicles that allured the traveler to move in the first place, so there was some form of a trade-off there (one traversal of reality causing another).
These half-baked thoughts were germinating in my mind as I sat on a bench in one of the ghats watching the Ganges river on my last day in Varanasi. It was still a messy scheme but I felt that if I tweaked it around a bit, I could get somewhere with this theory of vehicles I had come across in India. Then I would have something to talk about in the meeting after I got back to Japan.
As I immersed myself in my thoughts (for I had drunk another cup of that special lassi for lunch) a little girl walked by and sat next to me. After a moment of hesitation, she said hi to me. She told me she was learning English and asked what I was doing in India, how long I had traveled, where I had been, what I had seen. When I replied, she wanted to know what I thought about her country. The girl was a bit older than my son Aevi who had just turned eight, and since I am in the habit of talking to him about whatever is on my mind, I soon began telling her about Jantar Mantar, Buddhism, Hinduism, Varanasi, and the kind of things I’ve been babbling here for some time now. The girl listened quietly, looking sort of curious and indifferent at the same time. When I finished talking, she looked at me and asked a question I had not anticipated: “so did you learn any Hindi?” I froze. Throughout the three weeks of my stay, I had only learned four or five words.
But her question pierced deeper than my immediate embarrassment. For it suddenly exposed all my observations and theorization about the different levels of reality and the various instruments of transport to traverse them as pertaining to just one level of reality. Wherever I went I was devouring what I saw as food for thought, finding connections and attaching concepts around them. I was experiencing what I wanted to experience, and when things didn’t go so well, I simply reframed them on another level. In short, I was acting like a tourist, engaging in a stereotypical form of cultural imperialism while being oblivious to what I could not consume. For all the speculations I had made about vehicles, I did not have much to say about the long waiting hours at suspicious-looking train stations, the never-ending bumpy rides on sleeper buses, or the awkward negotiations with horse cart drivers. It was not that I was ignoring happenstances; rather, I was selecting which accidents to turn into souvenirs, packaging only those I could bring home safely.
The root of the problem was clear: it was the very idea of “home” where I was returning and reporting to, a ground level reality in relation to which all the traversals of realities were framed only virtually through schematic manipulation of concepts and categories. Just like the Indian tourists who asked me to take selfies with them, it did not matter who the foreigner was as long as it was a foreigner in type. The specific reality behind a particular vehicle (or its driver) did not make a difference in my typology, because it did not make a difference in the place where I was returning to. The Great Vehicle of home, whether this be country or village, genre or discipline—art or science—often makes departure remain virtual even if one actually traveled great distances, just like the palm of the Buddha from which the Monkey King could not escape no matter how far he thought he went (a famous anecdote in the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West which “everyone” must know). But surely, one reason to go on a trip is to dismantle the workings of this Greatest Vehicle of them all.
“You are a very funny person,” the little girl told me after I shamefully revealed that I had only learned several words over the course of three weeks. “You say you are interested in India but you don’t care about learning our language.” And of course, she was right. Learning a new “language” is essential for transformation to occur. Ironically, it was a similar conviction that I had placed at the basis of my approach to Tudor, but I needed the girl to remind me, or more accurately, to enact the encounter between different levels of realities with her questions. “It’s not fair that it’s always me that has to speak in English,” she complained in her fluent English. I asked her to teach me some words in Hindi. She first tried her name, but no matter how slowly she spoke, it was too difficult for me to pronounce. After some time she gave up and left, and I never saw her again.
The best I can do is to let this serve as a parable of sorts. For in pursuing the connection between “art” and “science” at Kagakūkan, what I want to do is not so much to manipulate concepts and categories, but to learn a new language. Instead of coming back to the same old place, I would really like to go somewhere. And I hope the vehicle is large enough to carry more than just “everyone.”