Worth a Million Words: The Cave Temples of Ellora

Worth a Million Words: The Cave Temples of Ellora

Today was a success, a culmination, a joy. And, possibly, the beginning of a new tradition.

Together, Alison and I returned to the Cave Temples of Ellora.

And we took a picture.

It’s the third in a series. When I took the first in the series I was incapable of imagining the possibility of more than one photograph.

I captured the first photo late in 1994, and very late in my first marriage. I was traveling India alone, coming to terms with what would soon be true legally.

I regret I cannot show that photo here, because it is some of my best photography: a self portrait as raw as I felt, my face half in the light—the revealing, bright light of Indian discovery—and the other half in the hideous shadow of loneliness. A microcosm of the great Kailasa Temple is a backdrop to my forlorn division.

I cannot show it to you because I don’t own a digital copy.

But I did include that very snapshot—I was being as honest as I knew how—in my very first letter to Alison in the fall of 1995.

We took the second snapshot in the series in the summer of 2004. When our around the world trip became a year-long honeymoon, when I had regained enough trust to wed again, one of my foremost desires was to return to Ellora and take a very different portrait in exactly the same place.

Alison was more than a little sick that day: she started running a fever in Mumbai; she was off her food; sleep was the one thing she craved.

But she knew how much that second portrait meant to me. She pulled on her clothes—her traveller’s best—and we made our way to the Aurangabad bus stand. She jostled, dozed, and bumped the hot and humid, sometimes hairpin 30 km road to Ellora.

(Ellora. How I love the two parallel lines in that name. How I love that caves are an important theme in our second honeymoon.)

We tried to make a tourist day of it, walking down to the Buddhist caves. Ellora attracts Indian tourists, many from places that don’t see a lot of westerners, and they were excited to have their picture taken with Alison. She was gracious, but it quickly sapped what energy she had.

By the time we made our way to Kailasa Temple she was fading.

We set my camera on top of our guidebook, and I bracketed the exposure. We were still shooting film, so it was nearly two months before we saw this:

Self-Portait in Shadow At Ellora Caves in Maharashtra

Alison loves Chris (and vice versa) at Ellora in 2004. Note Alison’s tired lean.

How do I know Alison loves me? She made this photograph happen. We cut our visit short that day, and I was her pillow all they way back to Aurangabad. She slept all the next day and all the next night save for a few crackers, water, and to take note of my trip to the post office to get the film on its way back to the US.

I love this picture as I love my spouse.

That brings us to today: the spring of 2015.

How do I know Alison still loves me?

We made this picture happen. Today.

A Self-Portrait in Ellora Caves, Maharashtra, 2015.

Alison loves Chris (and vice versa) in 2015. Note Alison’s perk and verve.


After heavy, unexpected rains on the train here, the weather is fantastic. A balmy, slightly breezy 80°F. Fast running, perfectly white clouds make shade and soften the shadows.

We come straight to Kailasa Temple and start shooting. Ellora still attracts many Indian tourists from places that don’t see westerners, and we are both happy to pose with them for “just one photo” while they cycle through everyone in their tour group.

We’re shooting digital this time, so we get the thrill of instant feedback and seemingly limitless retakes. A guidebook still holds the camera in position and I still sprint from the shutter release to my place in the portrait while the self-timer winds down.

I am giddy at being here, at having a new version of our togetherness, of my filled void.

We walk hand in hand to Ellora’s northern cave temples, Jain by denomination, and enjoy the blissful, peaceable, smooth esthetic they embody. They are new to Alison and a twenty-year-old memory to me.

And in the presence of thousand-year-old carvings, I am invited to wonder: how long can we keep this up?

Can we return together in 2024? 2034?

I want to, most desperately.

I want to keep commemorating our good luck, our togetherness, when I am 58, and 68, and 78.

And I know that while love may last, people cannot.

When might the public bus be too much for us, or when might we need to hire a photographer?

When will the Aurangabad newspaper start to cover our story as a miracle of devotion rather than two nearly insignificant quanta at the Ellora ticket counter?

I do not long for those decades to come rushing at as they probably will, but I do wish for them: a warm, familiar blanket of years with photo after photo after photo.

When might one of us come here alone and begin a different kind of series, aged face half in light, half in shadow?

The idea of being alone again—not a certainty, but the mere possibility—brings tears. I break down, crying, forlorn, the way I cried so many times on my first journey to India. In the first days of light and shadow.

But today Alison’s arms find their way around my neck and my tears can change to grateful tears and blissful tears.

I have a new picture to cherish. And we have an open road to travel. Together.

Awash in love,