I captured this image in 2002 at the Ajanta caves outside of Aurangabad, India. Helen and I were in the final three months of a year of traveling out of small backpacks and on $30/day between the two of us. It was a great trip – as Mark Twain once said, “adventure is discomfort misremembered.”
We landed in Bombay after a flight from Zanzibar (flights, SCUBA and safaris were outside of our daily $30 budget). And after five days in and around Bombay, our first challenge was to find our way to Aurangabad.
Enter our first experience with the Indian train system. For perspective, the Indian train system was once the single largest employer in the world and is still in the top ten (the US Defense Department is now the world’s largest employer). And consider that the Indian train system moves considerably more people than it employs. With this as a backdrop, Helen and I entered the central station in Bombay, successfully queued up and purchased two second class tickets to Aurangabad.
This, it turned out, was the easy part. Finding our way to the correct track and train, on the other hand, proved a nearly insurmountable challenge. All the signs pointing to different trains and tracks were written in Hindi script. I stopped a handful of people and asked them each in English if they could point me to the train to Aurangabad. English is not an official language in India, but it’s still there, lurking in the background among the educated class – a holdover from India’s days as a British colony.
Still, no luck. Everyone I asked just shook their head and flipped one hand, palm side up, in the universal Indian expression that roughly translates to “I have no idea what you’re saying.”
A bit anxious about missing our train and in a bit of desperation, I turned to the next well dressed Indian man I saw, embarrassingly adopted my best Indian accent and asked if he could direct us to the train to Aurangabad. To my delight and astonishment, my accent did the trick. We finally were pointed in a general direction and given a track number.
There wasn’t much to the town of Aurangabad. We stayed in a dusty hotel that sat right between the Ellora Temple and the Ajanta Caves. I’ll admit it, the Ellora Temple held me in sway. Helen and I had seen the rock-cut churches of Lalibella in Ethiopia several months earlier and the Ellora temple is India’s answer to that great Ethiopian treasure. Cut out of a single hillside of rock, the Ellora temple with it’s many floors, large elephant guardians and other intricate grandeur is truly a wonder of the world.
Helen and I spent a day exploring the Ellora Temple got a good night’s sleep and tackled the Ajanta caves the next morning. The caves date back to the 2nd century BCE and contain some of the oldest known Indian cave paintings. There are 28 caves in all, each representing a different Indian Monastery from the ancient era – and all the caves were consumed by the jungle and rediscovered by a British army officer during a hunting expedition in 1819.
The caves were each different, each amazing and many contained ancient drawings and carvings. That said, by the time we reached cave 20, I was feeling a bit worn out and tired of spending so much time indoors. As amazing as the Ajanta caves were, they paled in comparison to the grandeur of the Ellora Temple we had explored just the day before. Of course, having made the trek to Aurangabad, and being there in that amazing place, Helen and dutifully entered each open cave and in order – after all, we didn’t want to miss anything.
When we entered cave 26, we knew why we were there, at the caves, and walking in and exploring each of them. There, carved into the far wall near the entrance was this amazing reclining Buddha. The light shone in through the opening and cast an perfect waft of light across the Buddha from head to toe.
I pulled my camera to my eye and considered the light, my film speed and the composition. This was long before digital photography and back when the light limits of our cameras were defined by a combination of the aperture (lens opening) and film speed (ASA). You could push the film, essentially fake the film out and pretend you were shooting one that performed better in lower light. You’d then process the film differently in the lab. But the trade off was in the clarity of the image (it deteriorated the more you pushed the film) and the fact that the entire role of 36 frames would need to be shot and processed differently.
Bearing in mind that I carried 12-15 rolls of film with me at any given time, and considering that I would shoot perhaps six frames of this Buddha – at most – pushing the film was out of the question.
All told, given the light and the lens I had, I needed to shoot with the shutter open for a full second. Without a tripod. That’s an insane length of time to hold the camera steady. But seeing the Buddha and the light before me, I knew I had to try. To get this picture, I braced myself against the opposing wall, pressed the camera tight against my face, took a deep breath, held it, and slowly pressed the trigger – concentrating on the Buddha and trying to channel all the calm and inner peace that I could in that moment.
I’m very pleased with the result – and, of note, one of the limited edition prints of this image resides in the permanent collection at the San Jose Museum of Art.
To this day, every time I sit in the doctor’s office and get my blood pressure taken, I imagine I am in Ajanta, looking at this Buddha. I don’t hold my breath, but I focus on being calm, relaxed, and steady. And, in the moment, I am all of that.