One day in the year 1819 some British soldiers were going on a tiger shoot in the hills. Suddenly one of them spied a semi-circular, moon-shaped scarp overlooking a narrow gorge through which ran the Waghora River.
Intrigued by this they made their way across the ravine and climbed up to the scarp and discovered several caves camouflaged by bushes, shrubs and earth. Some goatherds seemed to be using these caves for shelter. One of them went inside a cave and peering into the darkness made out the forms of these incredible paintings. We can imagine how excited he must have been. He ran back and told the others who trouped in to see this wonder. They informed the government and of course the rest is history. The caves hit the international news and people started flocking to them.
The undisturbed slumber of centuries vanished. Very soon the whole of the art world was queuing up to see these wondrous paintings. They have won international fame for being the most perfect specimens of Indian mural art. They gave an impetus to Indian art revival in the beginning of the 20th century. We can imagine that they must also have influenced the art tradition of Central Asia many centuries ago.
Ajanta is a three-hour drive from Ellora and we reached there quite early in the morning after passing through a lovely winding road overlooking the valley. There were quite a few boys carrying dollies, which are a kind of sling baskets in which old people or lazy people can sit and be carried up the hill. The caves were quite high on a kind of ledge and it was an arduous climb. Once having reached the top you had to go from cave to cave which also posed a problem for the physically unfit since the ledge was uneven even though it had been cemented recently. I doubt if there was any path connecting the caves when they were made. A cemented path has now been constructed which connects most of the caves. The boys looked pleadingly at me since I was obviously a possible catch but I cheerfully shook them off. Some of them stayed behind me hoping to catch me as I fell as they were sure I would do, but though I’m not a fast walker, I’m a plodder and somehow managed to climb up with a bit of huffing and puffing!
Initially these caves, as the ones at Ellora were meant to serve as retreats for the monks especially during the four months of the rainy season when they were supposed to stay in one place and pursue their studies and meditate as the case may be. They must have come upon this site at this very season when we went — the monsoon season. The scenery was undoubtedly at its best in this season. The whole place was a lush green and scattered with lovely orange flowering trees. The stream was at its fullest and danced down the gorge making gurgling noises as it swept over the rocks. I really felt that the person or people who chose this spot for their monasteries must have been extremely artistic and great lovers of nature. The caves were excavated in a horse-shoe formation following the configuration of the hill. They were about 76 metres above the gorge in which flowed a stream known as Waghora. The selection of the place and the way the caves were placed were obviously not pre-planned since the 30 caves were excavated at different periods stretching from 2nd century BC to 6 century AD. In ancient times they were not connected with each other though every cave apparently had a flight of steps leading to the stream. Most of these steps are now almost obliterated and I could find only some traces here and there. The delicate beauty of the place coupled with the total isolation must no doubt have inspired the artists to produce their exquisite creations. It was a secret place, completely shut off from the madding crowd.
Unlike the ones at Ellora these caves were all Buddhist caves and date from 200 BC. The Chinese Buddhist travellers Hiuen Tsang and Fa Hien have made references to these caves which they came across during their travels.
The caves are unique in that they combine three forms of art — architecture, sculpture and painting.
A feeling of awe enveloped me as I entered the first cave and I felt I was entering a temple. I was happy that they had asked us to take off our footwear before entering. The cave was dark as I entered but all the caves had special lighting, spotlighting the magnificent paintings. The first thing I saw on the opposite wall beside the antechamber were the towering figures of the Bodhisattvas which are most famous of all the paintings here since we see their reproductions everywhere. These are indeed the masterpieces of the world. The one on the left holds a lily. His consort who is dark in colour, and who is known as the “Dark Princess”, also holds a lily. Between them is the whisk bearer. Although they are huge, their faces are filled with compassion. Around them were some divine musicians and flying figures. In the right corner there were a set of monkeys jumping about, some peacocks and a happy couple. In the midst of this moving and rejoicing world they seemed to be standing aloof, filled with peace due to their inner realisation. Their half closed eyelids show their absorption in their inner world.
I was transfixed with the beauty of these figures and could have sat there forever looking at them or looking through them to the artists who conceived such beauty. Who were their models or did they work only through imagination? Actually opposite the entrance is the sanctum in which there is a colossal figure of the Buddha seated in the preaching attitude with the “dharma chakra pravartana mudra” which is the one we normally see on all statues of the Buddha when he is preaching. In this mudra his right hand has the jnana mudra in which the forefinger is touching the thumb. The little finger of the left hand is hooked on to the thumb thus showing that one has to hang on to the Dharma which is the only escape from this wheel of samsara. On one of the two central columns on the right are four deer with only one head but the figure has been done so cleverly that anywhere you look you will find that there is a deer with four legs! While on this type of trick painting let me mention that in one of the last caves there were also some 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional faces. This means that the 2 dimensional face would appear to turn and look at you when you went to one side. In the 3 dimensional one it looked straight at you when you stood in front and the eyes seemed to swivel round when you went to the left and again to the right. I was also amazed to see the intricate carving of beautiful rosettes on the ceiling. Apparently every inch of this cave had originally been painted — the pillars, the figures, the ceiling and the walls. Unfortunately much of it has peeled off but even then we can imagine their pristine grandeur.
How did they paint such exquisite figures on the rough walls of a cave?
They used a very special technique. First they plastered the rough surfaces of the walls and ceilings with a layer of clay mixed with cow-dung and rice-husks. Sometimes they used brick powder mixed with paddy husk, grass and other material of organic origin. Next a second coat of mud mixed with rock powder or sand and fine fibrous material was applied to it. The surface was finally given a thin coat of lime wash and the surface was kept moist when the colours were applied. The outlines were first drawn in red. All the colours except blue were got from the neighbouring hills. I suppose the figures were mainly from imagination and described the stories from the Jatakas or scenes from the life of the Buddha.
Another thing which struck me was the beauty of the ceilings which had such detailed paintings of chakras and other flower motifs. How did they ever do it?
I was told that their methodology could be discovered through the few unfinished caves. Apparently they worked from the top to the bottom. They would hack out some of the rock from the top of the cave and then use that as a scaffolding on which they could lie with perfect ease and work on the intricate designs of the ceilings! It was only after the ceiling was finished that they would hack the rock until they reached the floor of the cave.
After going to all the other caves I realised that Cave 1 was really the most splendid. It would take at least a week to see everything in this cave. Most of the caves had the Buddha seated at the back in the teaching posture. Cave two was similar to cave 1. The side walls were all painted with a thousand different Buddhas. One of the things which struck me was the fact that many of the ceilings emulated wooden beams and rafters all cut out of the rock! On either side of the big caves were little cubicles in which the students obviously stayed. Cave 7 has innumerable Buddhas carved in different postures.
The Buddha had particularly asked his followers not to keep any idols of any kind and forbade any images of himself to be worshipped but the human heart yearns for some symbol on which to pour out his love and very soon after his Samadhi his devotees started carving wondrous statues and paintings of him.
Another historical fact is that after his Samadhi, many aboriginals became his followers and they wanted to worship him as the Hindus worshipped idols. The monks made up many stories of the Buddha’s previous incarnations. He had also told his disciples stories of his previous births. Slowly Buddhism split into two groups, the Hinayana or those who denied any type of pleasure and who practiced the eightfold path of right behaviour and the Mahayana or those who accepted the fact that world is filled with desire but also remembered the fact that the world is filled with pain. Under the insidious influence of Hinduism the Mahayana made Buddha himself into a god and started to accept women in the Sangha which had been forbidden by the Master. We can imagine that by the time when the caves were painted the Buddhists had evolved an imagery which was as complicated as Hindu pantheon.
On the opposite side of the horseshoe we came to Cave 16 which has a large statue of the preaching Buddha. The last cave, 26 had a magnificent piece of the Buddha on his Samadhi bed, surrounded by his disciples. Three of his main disciples stand at the feet and his favourite disciple, Ananda stands apart weeping.
Instead of returning the same way along the caves we chose the path which went down to the river. Right down at the bottom we had to cross a wooden bridge, on the right side of which, was a striking waterfall which must have been seasonal. We followed the small track which ran along the side of the river which took us back to the first point where we had chosen the difficult path leading straight to the caves. It was a beautiful walk, with lush green plants and bushes on either side. There were many Sornali trees dotted amidst the green and they made brilliant splashes of colour since they were in full bloom.
The whole place must have been a thick forest during the time when the monks came to find a retreat for themselves. One can only marvel at the faith and tenacity of these people who were prepared to push through the jungle, perhaps infested with snakes and wild animals until they reached the ledge and the rock face where they decided to make this fantastic haven.
Hari Aum Tat Sat