Monday, April 4, 2011

Aura of Ajanta

Ajanta was the last leg of our cave tour of Maharashtra. Due to our not so great experience with the bus ride from Ellora on the previous day coupled with the fact that the Ajanta caves are located far away, near to 100 kms from Aurangabad, we opted for a car drop to Ajanta, or rather the MTDC resort at Fardapur which is 1 km further up from the Ajanta caves. There is another MTDC hotel at Ajanta T Junction which is closer to the caves, but we did not get any accommodation there when we booked. After breakfast, we left Aurangabad in an Indica with the driver for our journey, Mazhar Khan (9960505623) and the drop to Ajanta cost us 1200 rupees. After checking in to the hotel we immediately went to visit the caves with an understanding that we would have to skip lunch that day, again, now three days in a row, after Daulatabad and Ellora.

The Ajanta caves, inscribed as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1983, were excavated in a horse shoe shaped bend of a rock overlooking a narrow stream named Waghora. In 1819, a British officer, John Smith, accidentally discovered the caves.

The group of 30 caves is renowned for its murals and these exemplary paintings are the best specimens of Tempera technique of Indian art. After chiseling out the rock surface, layers of clay mixed with sand, earth and other organic materials were applied and coated with lime wash. Over this surface bold outlines were drawn and colours and shades ranging from red and yellow ochre, terra verte, to lime, kaolin, gypsum and lapis lazuli were applied. The chief binding material used was glue. The main theme of these paintings is the depiction of the Jataka stories. Though there are some beautifully carved sculptural panels as well in some of the caves, the main attraction of the Ajanta caves is its paintings and it’s a pity that many of them are in a dire state and in some of the early caves nothing substantial has survived. We found restoration work undergoing in some of the caves but from the conversations of some of the fellow tourists, who had visited the caves earlier, it seemed that the conditions of the paintings has deteriorated much in the last twenty - thirty years. I sincerely hope that the generations to come would not be deprived to get the opportunity to marvel at this amazing art work.

Out of the 30 Buddhist caves of Ajanta, only caves 1-26 can be visited and there is no proper access for caves 27-30. Out of these caves 9, 10, 19 and 26 are Chaitya-Grihas (prayer halls) and the rest are Viharas (monasteries). In date and style, the Ajanta caves can be divided into two broad groups. 6 caves belong to the earliest phase of Buddhism i.e. Hinayana sect which dates back to the pre-Christian era. This includes caves 9 & 10 (Chaitya-Grihas) and caves 8, 12, 13 & 15A (Viharas). Cave 10 is the oldest amongst them dating back to 2nd century B.C. The newer caves of the Mahayana sect were excavated primarily during the period of the Vakatakas around 6th century A.D. Caves 1, 2, 16 and 17 displays the best coloured wall paintings of the Vakataka period. One solitary Rashtrakuta inscription is found in cave 26 indicating its use in the 8th century A.D.

Cave 1, the first cave, built on the eastern end of the horse-shoe shaped scarp, is one of the finest Mahayana monasteries of Ajanta, handsomely ornamented with profuse paintings and comprises an open courtyard, verandah, hall sanctum with antechamber and cells. The world famous painting of Bodhisattva Padmapani is located in this cave. Bodhisattva Bajrapani is another well-known and important painting of this cave.

At the left side in the verandah, there is a famous sculptural panel depicting Prince Siddhartha’s journey which changed his course of life. The sanctum at the rear end has a sculpture of Buddha in preaching posture symbolizing his first sermon at Sarnath. Below, at the centre of the pedestal, there is a wheel flanked by two deer. The wheel represents Dharma-Chakra and the two deer symbolizes the deer park at Sarnath where Buddha preached his first sermon to five disciples.

Cave 2 is also lavishly painted although many of the paintings have been eroded away and it is difficult to understand the stories behind the paintings from whatever has survived. The cave has a panel depicting the birth scene of Siddhartha. The ceilings are beautifully painted with geometrical and floral depictions.

Most of the caves at Ajanta are devoid of bright light and also flash photography is prohibited inside the caves for better preservation of the paintings. As such it becomes very difficult to take snaps of and sometimes even behold the paintings in the dimly lit caves. I remember a funny incident when I was concentrating for a long time on taking a photograph of a painting, which was still intact, in high resolution night mode without flash and another gentleman beside me, without paying heed to the instructions put up by the authorities and also reiterated by the guards, happily used flash. And the guard immediately ran towards us and started rebuking me and by that time the other man silently moved away. At first I was taken aback but then I confronted him in such a harsh voice (probably because he startled me just when I was going to press the shutter) for picking on the wrong man that he was surprised in turn and apologized.

The barricades formed to restrain the visitors from touching the wall paintings, at places, further hinders taking good look at them and even the sculptures especially when there are pillars in between.

Cave 6 is the only double storied monastery at Ajanta and is famous for the combination of painting and sculpture. The painted inscription on the wall of the upper hall mentions that it was a gift by a monk named Taranakirttana.

The sanctum with profusely carved figures and lit up with a yellowish tinge was creating a havoc on the surroundings and we spent quite some time there, sitting on the floor, so that we could be left alone for a while. Santu was in his usual humorous self and remained seated in a mock meditation posture.

Cave 9 is one of the earliest Chaitya-Griha of Ajanta belonging to the Hinayana sect of Buddhism and datable to 1st century B.C. The usual nave, apse and pillars of Buddhist prayer halls are present in this cave. The globular Stupa at the centre of the apse on a high cylindrical base is plain and devoid of any image of Buddha unlike the Mahayana prayer halls. Most of the paintings have been eroded away in this cave but some of the pillars still are adorned with images of Buddha and floral decorations. Cave 10 is another Chaitya-Griha belonging to the Hinayana sect and is the oldest cave at Ajanta datable to 2nd century B.C. On the basis of inscriptions, the cave was excavated by the gifts made by Vasisthiputra Katahadi, Kanahaka of Bahada and a monk named Dharmadeva. The Stupa is the largest at Ajanta and is plain and hemispherical in shape. The importance of the cave lies in the fact that it contains the earliest specimens of Indian paintings.

Cave 16 is the largest and finest monastery at Ajanta. An inscription on the walls of the verandah mentions that it was a gift by Varahadeva, a minister of Vakataka King Harisena. Two large elephants are carved out at the entrance of this cave welcoming the visitors. It contains some of the masterpieces of paintings like the Dying Pricess, Miracle of Sravasti and Sujata offering Kheer to Buddha. There are also some ingenious paintings of Jataka stories. The ceiling ornamented with floral and geometric designs creates an impression of a fluttering shamiyana. Cave 17 is another magnificent Mahayana monastery consisting of famous paintings of Apsara, Flying Indra, Make-up Scene and Jataka stories. On the doorframe is a panel with seven Mortal Buddhas along with Maitreya. A Brahmi inscription on the wall of the courtyard records the excavation of this cave by a feudatory prince under Vakataka King Harisena.

Cave 19, a small Mahayana Chaitya-Griha is considered one of the most perfect and proportionate specimens of rock-cut caves of Ajanta. This cave was also a gift from a feudatory prince under Vakataka King Harisena. The façade with its intricate ornamentation stands out as one of the finest. The interior walls are also exquisitely decorated. The chapel contains a panel depicting Nagraja with his consort and the Stupa and pillars are intricately carved with figures of Buddha.

The last cave that we visited was cave 26. This magnificent Mahayana Chaitya-Griha is an immortal work of art and sculpture. It was a gift of various devotees like Buddhabhadra, Bhadanta Gunakara and Bhikshu Sanghamitra and dates back to 6th century A.D. The façade has an imposing Chaitya window, but due to restoration work it was almost covered when we visited. A spacious forecourt, pillared verandah with two side porches and an apsidal hall comprises the Chaitya. The Stupa at the centre of the apse is beautifully decorated with figures of Buddha and other motifs. The pillars and the walls sustain much of the intricate sculptural panels. The lighting inside the cave is also smartly done imparting an awe-inspiring character to the surroundings which easily captivates the visitors. Unlike many if the other caves, one can look at the sculptural panels from close proximity.

On the left side of the hall there is an immensely important and famous sculptural panel of Mahaparivirvana of Buddha. It comprises a colossal figure of reclining Buddha on the verge of his nirvana with a calm face expressing true bliss and satisfaction. Below the disciples are mourning and above the celestial beings are ecstatic to receive him in heaven.

Unlike Ellora we had to enter most of the caves at Ajanta without our shoes and when I came out of the last cave I could not find my pair. Although there was a similar looking pair of Woodland shoes at the place where I kept mine, but they were smaller by a good couple of numbers. Thankfully an elderly man who was the rightful owner of that pair arrived soon and it appeared that he had mistakenly taken mine instead of his own.

After visiting the caves we took a stroll towards the stream and there was also a way with a flight of steps which lead to the view point from where John Smith discovered the entrance of one of the caves. There were quite a few hawkers trying to sell show pieces around that region. When we came back to the main entrance via a small bridge, we took a tour of the bustling small market which sells all kinds of gift items and show pieces. A restaurant run by MTDC was also located there but to our dismay nothing to eat was available. As the sun was slowly setting into the horizon, for the first time in our entire Maharashtra tour, we felt a few shivers of cold. As we were returning to our Fardapur resort, the feeling sunk in that our eventful and enjoyable trip has come to an end. We would be traveling to Bhusaval in the morning of the next day and boarding the Gitanjali Express taking us back to Kolkata.