Magic carpet unrolls in Ajanta Caves | Sunday Observer

Magic carpet unrolls in Ajanta Caves

11 July, 2021

We focus on places that existed centuries ago from time to time because of their relevance to modern times. Ajanta Caves and their gorgeous ladies take us back to a time of affluence and glory. Who first arrived at the secluded gorge about 200 BC is not known, but it is believed that Buddhist bikkhus were the first inhabitants of the cliff dwellings. When they arrived, there were no caves for them to live in.

So they lived in wood and bamboo structures. Gradually the caves had been created carving from front to back and from top to bottom. Parallel galleries and tunnels have been excavated in the massive rock. Later the galleries had been united by demolishing the partition walls.

Entirely hand made

The 30 Ajanta Caves were located in the Indian countryside some 200 km north-east of Mumbai. There is evidence that the sanctuaries had been made entirely with pickax and chisel. You can imagine the time and energy spent on the massive task. As the caves had been carved between 2,200 and 1,300 years ago, modern technology was not available to them. When once the caves were ready for occupation, somebody came up with the idea of decorating the walls of the caves with breathtaking murals which rival the art of the Italian Renaissance.

There are two types of caves. Some of them were used for living and the others were meant for meditation. Some caves, particularly caves number one and 16 had richly carved front porches looking out on the valley. They also had broad verandahs and cloister-like halls.

The caves occupied by the bikkhus opened onto the cloister. The meditation halls were dispersed among the dwellings. Archaeologists have found that cave number 10 was the biggest and the oldest of the lofty caverns. According to some authorities, it had a close resemblance to an early Christian Church.

Luxurious scenes

Ajanta caves had been decorated with luxurious scenes and beautiful ladies. They were created during the Golden Age of Indian art. However, there are two views as to who did those paintings. According to one view, the frescoes and sculptures were the work of Buddhist monks who lived there between 200 BC and AD 650. Another view is that Ajanta painters were itinerant professionals who unrolled a magic carpet of marching armies, loving couples, shipwrecks, glittering palaces and stories based on Jathaka tales. Whoever had performed this marvellous job, Ajanta paintings depict a fascinating blend of faith and folklore. They also demonstrate a command of form, knowledge of perspective and an exquisite sense of movement and expression.

The Buddhist bikkhus who were leading a religious life would not have painted loving couples and marching armies. With their implicit consent itinerant painters would have done the miracle paintings. They were extremely good at drawing figures often with a single sweep of the brush.

The contours of the monkey and the deer in cave 17 confirm this view. They also painted male figures exuding energy and grace. Ajanta damsels display curls and they are dressed in diaphanous gowns. Some of them, however, appear nude. The beautiful damsels are adorned with elaborate jewellery and strings of beads that plunge down between breasts or their shapely thighs.

Such luxurious scenes and beautiful damsels might have been created for the pleasure of benefactors. There were many people who viewed them and benefited from the paintings because they had a spiritual lesson. The resident monks knew that all beautiful things decayed because nothing lasted forever. However, they depended heavily on patronage for their sustenance. According to a rock inscription, in addition to rich merchants, even princes and ministers had defrayed the cost of the construction and paintings. Ajanta caves attracted a large number of visitors as it lay close to a busy caravan route.

Ajanta caves were discovered by British officers in 1819 while they were on a hunting expedition. They found that the caves and the paintings had suffered due to ravages of time and man’s ingratitude. When the caves were abandoned for a long time, pigeons, swallows, bees and bats invaded them. Professional restorers had to spend many years to bring back the past glory. After the restoration, Ajanta Caves have become a major tourist attraction in India. Most tourists are impressed by the paintings found in caves one, two, 16 and 17.

Hunting expedition

The paintings are possibly the finest surviving picture galleries from the ancient world. The credit of conserving murals goes to Rajdeo Singh, the Archaeological Survey of India’s Chief of Conservation. He found that some of the murals were so fragile that he could not even touch them with his hand.

In 1999, the restoration of paintings was done using infrared light, micro-emulsion and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology. Restorers succeeded in removing 75 per cent of the layers of shellac, hard soot and grime from the murals. Particular care was taken not to alter even a grain of pigment.

Restorers found that the murals had been done on a solid mixture of clay with rice husks or vegetable matter spread on the stone wall. Paintings had been done on a thin layer of white plaster. Red, brown, green, and ocher were extracted from minerals found locally. White was obtained from shell lime, black from lamp black.

India’s Golden Age dawned when the Gupta dynasty was filling their capital of Kannauj with some of the greatest masterpieces of Indian sculpture. Even literature was flourishing with legendary Kalidasa writing his great play The Cloud Messenger.

If you happen to visit India, Ajanta Caves should be included in your itinerary.

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