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Petra, Jordan Is it an ancient Shiva Temple complex? (cont.)
By Bibhu Dev Misra (IIT, IIM)

There was also a westward flow of Eastern wisdom along the Silk Route. The effect that this had on the flowering of Greek philosophy and sciences during this period has been grossly underestimated by modern historians. In the Preface to the Vishnu Purana, the translator Horace Hayman Wilson writes:

“We know that there was an active communication between India and the Red sea in the early ages of the Christian era, and that doctrines, as well as articles of merchandise, were brought to Alexandria from the former. Epiphanius and Eusebius accuse Scythianus of having imported from India, in the second century, books on magic, and heretical notions leading to Manichæism; and it was at the same period that Ammonius instituted the sect of the new Platonists at Alexandria. The basis of his heresy was that true philosophy derived its origin from the eastern nations: his doctrine of the identity of God and the universe is that of the Vedas and Puráńas; and the practices he enjoined, as well as their object, were precisely those described in several of the Puráńas under the name of Yoga. His disciples were taught "to extenuate by mortification and contemplation the bodily restraints upon the immortal spirit, so that in this life they might enjoy communion with the Supreme Being, and ascend after death to the universal Parent." That these are Hindu tenets the following pages will testify; and by the admission of their Alexandrian teacher, they originated in India.”

It is, therefore, quite possible that the ancient faith of Shiva-Shakti may also have migrated westwards along these ancient trade routes during this time. Besides, the Nabataeans, who were essentially a nomadic tribe that got rich by controlling the trade along the Silk Route, could not have suddenly acquired and mastered the technological and architectural sophistication necessary to execute the rock-cut monuments of Petra. Achieving such a level of finesse and perfection in rock-cut architecture takes generations. Is it possible that, like the ancient cult of Shiva-Shakti, the technology for building these rock-cut monuments was also transferred along the Silk Route?

It may be no coincidence that around the same time that the rock-cut monuments of Petra were being executed, sometime during the 3rd – 2nd century BC, an incredible array of 31 rock-cut cave temples were being carved into the sheer vertical side of a gorge, near a waterfall-fed pool, located in the hills of the Sahyadri mountains in western India, at a place called Ajanta, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ajanta is located 100 kilometers from the medieval town of Aurangabad (‘City of Gates’), which is situated right on the ancient Silk Route, and was a flourishing commercial center since time immemorial. In the ancient times, however, Ajanta itself used to be on the Silk Route. Buddhist missionaries used to accompany traders on busy international trade routes through India and the merchants, in turn, funded or even commissioned elaborate cave temple complexes that also offered lodging for traveling traders. Some of the more sumptuous temples included pillars, arches, and elaborate facades. Like Petra, the Ajanta caves had fallen out of use, and remained lost for centuries until 1819, when they were re-discovered by a British officer who was hunting a tiger in the region.

Fig 13: Cave 9 at Ajanta, India. A Chaitya Gathering Hall meant for worship. [Source:]

While in Petra only the exterior façade was decorated with sculptures, the cave temples at Ajanta are elaborately decorated, both outside and inside, with sculptures, paintings and murals, which are considered to be masterpieces of Buddhist religious art, and represent the most sophisticated rock-cut architecture of this period anywhere in the world. They mostly depict the Jataka tales that are stories of the Buddha's life in former existences as Bodhisattva. Many mythic elements from Hinduism are also depicted. Moreover, the interiors were designed to be functional, providing housing, worship halls, and even dining halls for the monks who lived there.

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