Nature and the human, the magnificent and the mundane, the earthly and the celestial blend harmoniously here

For those of us interested in art and history, a visit to the Ajanta caves is in the nature of a pilgrimage, a dream realised. These caves in the Sahyadri hills, excavated between the 2nd Century BC and 7th Century AD, are discovered anew by each one who visits them.

And to each it is a personal communion with the spirit of the past, an initiation into the language of the aesthete at its purest and most evolved. This mammoth creation continues to speak to us through beautifully fashioned figures dedicated to the glory of the Enlightened One. Painting, architecture and sculpture combine harmoniously at this site. Here is the Buddha wafting his serenity to all those who see his image in painting or sculpture. And communicating this infinite spirit of peace even for a moment to the beholder — however materialistic — is the accomplishment of the monks of the Mahayana and Hinayana sects.

Iridescent paintings

They laboured to convert these hillocks into caves whose insides glow with art like bejewelled offerings. Here, the colours obtained from natural sources — green, brown, crimson, ochre — mingle with the blue of the lapis lazuli to make the paintings iridescent. It is a luminosity that the passage of millennia and successive torrents of rain have dimmed but not erased. However, one feels better maintenance would have helped.

On this morning, we find people from all over the country and quite a few from abroad, crowded around the treasures at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, 108 km from Aurangabad.

And there is just one collective expression on their faces — awe — as they enter the chaitya (halls of prayer) and the viharas (monasteries). But there is also concern reflected in some about the toll taken by Time and Nature. Scenes from the Buddha's life, the Jataka tales and fabulously proportioned forms greet one from all directions in these frescoes.

Nature and the human, the magnificent and the mundane, the earthly and the celestial, the spiritual and the then contemporary, find place. As we enter Cave I, we are just in time to hear the guide of the previous group tell his flock how the Bodhisattvas are previous incarnations of the Buddha. The figure of Bodhisattva Padmapani with his lowered, compassionate eyes painted on the wall of the cave is etched in the collective consciousness of all lovers of art and heritage. Close by is the equally well-known figure of Bodhisattva Vajrapani with his thunderbolt.

Etched in memory

You experience a thrill on recognising the images seen countless times before in paintings and photographs. The dusky women with pearls in their coiffed hair and the gem-adorned princess whose jewels glow in the darkness of the cave. Most visitors are riveted by the pathos of the painted form of the “dying princess” whose husband left her to take to a life of austerity.

The guides reiterate the well-known fact that the caves in the horseshoe shaped gorge of the Waghora River were long hidden from view.

They were discovered by an English soldier, John Smith, on a tiger hunt in 1819. Young artists from a School of Art from the South are perched at various vantage points outside the caves putting down their impressions — Ajanta's art continues to inspire through millennia.

We notice semi-spherical structures coming up four km from the Ajanta caves in Fardapur. This is the project being implemented by the Government of India, Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation with soft loan offered by the Japan International Co-operation Agency. Four caves — 1, 2, 16 and 17 — are being replicated, using multimedia to give a virtual reality effect. The work of constructing the structures and interiors has been entrusted to Larsen & Toubro. Some of the sculptures are being executed by them while the replication, paintings and other sculptures will be done by other agencies.

HERITAGE RECONSTRUCTED

“The tremendous increase in the number of visitors poses a threat to the lifespan of the art,” says Vijay Sridhar Chavan, General Manager, Department of Tourism, Government of Maharashtra. “This project aims at diverting some of the visitor groups here. The entry fee will perhaps also be raised by the ASI to safeguard the treasures.”

“We have completed 97 per cent of the L&T scope of the work,” says V.S. Ramana, General Manager and Head-Corporate Communications, L&T-ECC. The project comprises two components — the Ajanta Visitor Centre and the Exhibition Centre. At the Visitor Centre, an information system will interpret and narrate the story of the caves. Both static components such as panels and replicated sculptures, and dynamic components such as movies and e-learning games, will be distributed over five galleries. These will impart information regarding heritage, Buddhist background, paintings, sculptures, construction techniques and conservation methodologies.

“The visitor centre will cover an area of 2000 sq m and the exhibition centre, 1000 sq m,” adds Sandeep T. Navlakhe, Project Manager, L&T.

Keywords: Ajanta caves