India's forgotten caves
India’s Forgotten Caves
For 1,500 years, shrubs and shoots grew, the monsoon rains fell and the Waghora River snaked around a forgotten group of caves in the Deccan Plateau.
Here, in eastern Maharashta, one of India’s greatest treasures lay hidden to the world. If it were not for a tiger, an uncertain ascent and one small act of vandalism, that treasure might never have seen the light of day.
The Accidental Discovery
In 1819, Captain John Smith of the Madras Army led a group of officers deep into the jungles and scrub near Aurangabad, Maharashtra, on the hunt for a wild tiger.
At the time, only the daring ventured here
This territory belonged to the Bhil, a native group with a fearsome reputation; those who did not surrender to the Bhil’s bows and arrows might otherwise succumb to the region’s searing summer heat.
Following the tiger’s tracks, the group came to a clearing between tamarind trees and thickets that revealed the rushing Waghora and the ravine it had whittled out of the earth. Smith spotted a horseshoe-shaped escarpment on the other side with a number of openings in the rock face. On closer look, the openings appeared unusual to Smith. Perhaps they were man-made.
The group crossed the river, clambered 79 metres up the cliff and entered. Inside, they found a head-spinning collection of bodhisattvas, stupas, pillars, peacocks and elephants, carefully carved out of ancient rock, as well as immaculate murals, bursting with colour.
Before leaving, Captain Smith etched his name and the date into one of the caves with his hunting knife, forever writing himself into the legend of his discovery: the Ajanta Caves.
The Mysterious Disappearance
The Ajanta Caves comprise 30 rock-cut Buddhist monasteries (called viharas) and worship rooms (chaitya-grihas), each with its own unique characteristics as well as striking murals and carvings. Most impressive, the caves are, as Smith suspected, manmade constructions.
The caves are believed to have served as monsoon sanctuaries for monks and pilgrims, who would discuss Buddhist doctrine or meditate while waiting for bad weather to pass. The first six caves were made in the 2nd century B.C.E. The others date back to the 4th and 5th centuries C.E., during the reign of the Vakataka dynasty – noted patrons of the arts, architecture and literature – considered the peak of India’s golden age.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Ajanta Caves, though, is how quickly they disappeared from the map
Following the death of Emperor Harishena around 480 C.E., the Vakataka dynasty fell into decline and the caves were abandoned. Until 1819, that is where their history ended.
After word about Smith’s discovery spread to Great Britain, the Ajanta Caves quickly became a top destination for Western adventurers, archaeologists and Indologists.
In 1983, the Ajanta Caves were named one of India’s first UNESCO Heritage Sites, alongside Agra’s Taj Mahal, helping to preserve the delicate treasures inside of them and establish their status as one of the Subcontinent’s most important religious, architectural and artistic sites.
Inside a Manmade Wonder of the Ancient World
Under the Vakatakas, Mahayana Buddhism spread and art flourished. During this resurgence, the last viharas and chaitya-grihas were commissioned by royal patrons and aristocrats. Each cave took roughly 30 years to complete, the architects leaving slabs of rock intact as they chiselled away, so that eventually they could create the sculptures they had envisioned.
Painters were appointed to produce murals on the walls and ceilings. Many of them narrated the Jataka tales, Indian legends telling the story of Gautama Buddha’s previous births. Using lapis lazuli and minerals mined from the earth – terra verte, gypsum, red and yellow ochre – they painstakingly painted temperas, or ‘dry frescoes’, sealed with lime wash.
Caves nine and 10 – the caves are numbered chronologically; the latter is the cave Smith stumbled into and one of the first created – may represent the foundation of Indian painting itself, the roots from which the flamboyant style that defines this period would evolve.
Cave 10 also contains fragments of what might be the oldest-surviving painting depicting the life of the Buddha, providing a lens into an historical era about which even scholars know little.
Other murals portray a world of sensuousness, religious devotion and magic, frequently depicting the Buddha in animal form. Although, in cave one – possibly commissioned by Harishena himself – the paintings show the Buddha as a king, ready to denounce his royal life.
A Lens into the Life & Art of Ancient India
Nearly 200 years since Smith’s discovery, these living monuments to Buddhism and ancient Indian art still astound travellers with their heavenly beauty and exquisite craftsmanship.
Rightly so. The secluded Ajanta Caves contain some of the finest examples of ancient Indian art in existence – and they are preserved in their original setting, one of the earliest monastic sites established in the country.
Thanks to one tiger, which the Madras Army officers never did find, one of India’s best-kept secrets is a secret no longer