Travel Grant Winner Wini Dandu on Her Travels in India

Wini used her travel grant to pursue a two-week independent study of medieval temples in India.

Buddhist prayer hall in the Ajanta Caves
Buddhist prayer hall in the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India

Since I was a child, I have been fascinated with the temples of medieval India. They captivated and puzzled me with their incredibly ornate exteriors. What was the purpose of the dazzling variety and sensuality of the sculptures and paintings that adorned the walls of the temples I visited? Was it simply an artistic choice, or was there something more meaningful that I was missing? With a generous grant from the Global Medieval Studies Program, I spent two weeks in India visiting a selection of medieval temples to find answers to these questions.

Lord Shiva killing Demon of Ignorance at the Ellora caves in Maharashtra, India
Lord Shiva killing Demon of Ignorance at the Ellora caves in Maharashtra, India

The most striking feature of the temples I visited was how intentionally they were designed to be interactive. Within the temple, the sculptures and paintings invited you to immerse yourself in the stories, legends, and histories they represented. For example, the walls of the Kailasa Temple in Ellora contained carvings of various episodes of the Shiva Purana. Great care was taken to make sure that each character communicated a certain emotion or theme. One can see ferociousness of Lord Shiva as he kills the demon of ignorance or the shyness of Goddess Parvathi as she weds her husband. When you slowly reach the inner sanctum where the murtis are worshipped, the beauty of the art gives way to the surreal experience of the prayers, chants, bells, and incense inside. In a way, the art guides you to the final spiritual experience.

By the end of the two weeks, I realized that my trips to these temples were far more immersive than I expected. Art was used as a way to connect with the devotee, and it enhanced the actual act of worship. I gained so much more from being an involved participant than an awed spectator. I thank the Global Medieval Studies Program for giving me the opportunity to do so.

The Global Medieval Studies Program awards a travel fellowship to 2-3 students each year. Learn more about the grant.

Sculptures at the Konark Sun Temple
Sculptures at the Konark Sun Temple in Konark, India