My initial contact with South Asia

In 2009 I took my first trip to India. At the time I was twenty-seven years old and it was my first time to leave the North American continent. So of course I fell in love with the country. I was in graduate school at the time working towards a Master’s of Fine Arts in Photography and a Master’s of Arts in Art History. I traveled to India with my graduate professor who conducts research on Medieval rock-cut temples, primarily Jain material. We were in Maharashtra for two and a half weeks during which time we visited Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad, Ellora, Elephanta, and Ajanta. Each of these places has art and/or historical sites well worth the visits. We did our research in Ellora, so we spent nine days there. Anyone who has visited Ellora knows that it is a tiny town and most people would never spend more than probably two days there. But it was a great place. There are rock-cut temples there from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions.

Detail from ElephantaDetail of Elephanta

Elephanta which is an island off the coast of Mumbai is also home to rock-cut temples. The temples here are all Hindu material. The site is most well known for the huge three headed bust of Shiva. Technically there are five heads, however, since the sculpture is not carved in the round only three of the heads are depicted. The main temple also houses other relief sculptures that tell the stories of Shiva.

Stupa at AjantaStupa at Ajanta

Ajanta is a group of rock-cut temples dedicated to the Buddhist religion. There are about 30 cave temples at this site which are located in the bend of a river. The site is most well known for ancient paintings which are some of the oldest Buddhist paintings still in existence. However, the site also hosts many relief sculptures and Stupa’s,which are dome like structures that house the relics of Buddha or Buddhist monks. Ajanta and Ellora also have very basic living quarters as holy people would travel around India but would need somewhere to stay during the Monsoon season. Today holy men and women of each of these religions still travel around India by foot.


What can one say about Aurangabad. It is not my favorite place. Even now it is not my favorite place. It is not that it is so bad, I even have some good memories from there, but I guess everywhere can not be your favorite. Aurangabad does have some cool stuff though. Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor briefly moved his capital here and because of this there is a fort there called Dauladabad Fort and the Bibi-Ka-Maqbara. Dauladabad fort is a very nice place to visit. It is quite peaceful there. However, there is a man made structure that is pitch black with stairs that has to be passed through in order to reach the top levels of the fort, for protection no doubt. I hated that part. It was towards the end of our trip and I was tired. We were also going through with a bunch of middle school aged children and they were screaming and acting like middle school aged children, so that was no fun. The Bibi-Ka_Maqbara is a scaled down less impressive version of the Taj Mahal which is the resting place for one of Aurangzeb’s wives. Even though it is not as grand as the Taj Mahal it is beautiful in its own right and I would love to visit it again.

Gateway of IndiaGateway of India

Mumbai is known as a mecca for Colonial architecture. It has some very beautiful buildings built during the British Raj, most notable the Victoria Terminus now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. We did travel from and to this train station, it is very beautiful and it is also very smelly in certain places. Another monument Mumbai is known for is the Gateway of India. It was built for the commemoration of King George V and Queen Mary’s visit to Mumbai in 1911.

Me and Gandhi's ashesMe and Gandhi’s ashes

In Pune there is not a lot of art historically relevant material, however, it is where Mahatma Gandhi was under house arrest. The house is now set up like a museum and you can look into the room that Gandhi lived in and it still looks the same. Some of Gandhi’s ashes are kept there as well.

Even though I am a photographer I did not bring a lot of camera equipment on this trip with me. At the time I was still primarily shooting on film and did not want to lug all the equipment around with me. Plus, in graduate school I took a hiatus from making photographs and made artwork about photography instead. A little confusing I know. So, I went to India with a cheap $100 point and shoot digital camera (Which produced the photographs you see here). On the one hand I love my pictures even though some of them are terrible because of the camera. (Obviously I know what I am doing 🙂 ) Today I do not really regret it, I was there for another purpose. However, I knew that I would return to India with the point of making photographs. And I have….

Because of this trip I focused my research on photography from India. I am interested in getting to a complete photographic history of each of the countries in South Asia, however, this is no task for a single person. However, I wish for this blog to be a contribution to the distribution of South Asian photographic history. So it is a work in progress. I also think it is interesting to share some of my own experiences and photographs on the blog as I am not just a researcher but a photographer/artist.

By |2016-11-10T18:38:34+00:00November 12th, 2015|India|1 Comment

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

One Comment

  1. […] for India. That trip was a great experience as we explore Maharashtra (you can read about that here My initial contact with South Asia). It is exiting that I am arriving in Mumbai once again. It is an amazing city with lots to do. It […]

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