About 18 months ago, I managed to visit two UNESCO declared world heritage sites that are located close to the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, India. They were Ajanta and Ellora caves. They are called caves because in both instances the monuments have been artificially caved into mountainsides rather than being built in natural caves. Ajanta caves are slightly older having been created and used from about the 3rd century BCE until the 5th century CE. Ellora dates from about the 7th century CE to the 11th century CE. Ajanta caves are predominantly Buddhist whereas Ellora has a mix of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples.
There are a number of things that are spell binding and mysterious about these caves. First of all you wonder at the amount of effort that it would have taken people to carve out entire mountains and make such vast enclosures. Second, you have to think about the amount of precision that would have gone into creating the sculptures inside- pillars, statuary and so on. It isn’t like carving just another piece of stone or marble where if something goes wrong, you throw it away and create a new piece. Here, you were working with a mountain and you had only one chance of doing it right. If you didn’t measure the distance properly or if you made a pillar too thin or too thick or messed up the facial features of a statue there was no going back. Third, when you look at the intricate details of the paintings that adorn some of the Ajanta caves you wonder how people then could paint in such darkness. Today, you can only see the paintings because of artificial lamps. How did the artists in earlier days paint? Wouldn’t oil lamps just have created too much smoke and ruined the paintings anyway? I don’t quite know.
The first cave you enter when visiting Ajanta is Cave 1 and it is also the cave the contains some of the most iconic paintings from that era. Scholars state that Cave 1 or should I call it Temple Cave 1 was probably one of the last caves to be excavated and that the shrine inside may have never been fully dedicated before the entire site went into disrepair. The cave walls inside are about 40 feet long – you can imagine the amount of stone they would have had to dig out to create that space. Apparently the facade of the cave was a lot more adorned when the site was first re-discovered in the 19th century but has now been lost. There are pillars and aisles carved inside the cave with the walls being covered completely with paintings. In the rear centre is a statue of Buddha.
The cave is famous for its paintings of Bodhisatvas (Buddha reincarnations who are yet to become Buddha) including Bodhisatva Padmapani (Padma is the lotus flower) and Bodhisatva Vajrapani. The other paintings in the caves are from Buddhist Jataka tales. What these paintings offer are wonderful insights into the lives of people at the time these were being painted. I also found retrospectively that there was even a painting of an ambassadorial mission from Persia in Cave 1 and as luck would have it, I’d snapped a photograph.
The paintings are in a pretty bad state- not just because of the passage of time but also because they have been painted directly on rock on the inside of a hill and every time there is heavy rainfall there is an awful lot of moisture that seeps in.