Poetry carved in stone

ARCHITECTURAL MARVEL

RESPLENDENT The Ajanta caves. Photo by author

Somehow, I could not make it sooner. In school, I remember reading about Ajanta. I was in awe of its images in my history text book. Finally, when I boarded the train to Jalgaon, I was excited like a child looking forward to fulfillment of a childhood dream. From Jalgaon, an hour’s road journey brought me to Fardapur. Spending a night filled with restless expectations, I headed towards Ajanta the very next morning.

The Ajanta Caves date back to 2nd century BC. The semicircular face of the isolated rock rising about 250 feet over the ravines of the stream Waghora appeared to be an ideal location for a monastic sanctuary. It seems that the original entrance to the caves was a separate flight of steps from the bed of the river, but these have been destroyed along with the facade of many other caves.

Buddhist inclinations

Of the total 30 cave temples in Ajanta, five are chaityas and the rest are viharas (monasteries for the monks). This amazing and extraordinary work of exquisite artistry was the result of missionary dedication and zeal of monks and friars of the Buddhist monastic order, who must have made this desolate place their exclusive retreat for several centuries.

Standing before the caves in a serene ambience, the emotion was overwhelming. The place inducts a meditating tranquillity that helps transcend to the period of history. The caves are numbered according to their geographical order from its current route of approach.

Chronologically, the first two caves built or excavated are caves 10 (2nd century BC) and 9 (1st century BC), both being chaityas. The whole first phase of excavation was completed by 2nd century AD. This was the Hinayana period of Buddhism when it was forbidden to depict Buddha in life; the symbols in place were stupas, lotus, dharmachakra and the likes.

Six of the caves bear the testimony of this period — chaitya caves 9 and 10 and vihara caves 8, 12,  13 and 30. The other 24 of the total 30 caves were built during the next five centuries of Mahayana period of Buddhism that allowed worshipping of Buddha and the Jatakas, his incarnations in several human and animal forms.

The guide books and guides will tell you that the best of sculptures are in caves  1, 4, 17, 19, 24 and 26 while the best paintings are found in caves 1, 2, 10, 16 and 17.

Unfortunately, the darkness inside the caves (the light arrangement is not too good) and the distance (forced by railings raised for physical protection) did not allow me to get a closer look at these works of art. But one cannot miss the fluid grace, meditative poise and compassion of Avalokiteswar Padmapani with his dark beautiful consort at left and the other bodhisattva, Vajrapani, with his highly decorated head gear in cave 1.

I could straight away relate with the magnificent facades of chaityas 9 and 19 and whatever remains of the highly enamoured Flying Apsara with her bejewelled headgear and neck ornaments, and the Flying Gandarvas in cave 17.

I could witness poetry in stones by looking at the meditating eyes and peaceful poise of the huge sculpture of reclining Buddha in Mahanirban. The guide tells me about the significance of the different mudras of Buddha — preaching, touching the earth, etc. One also needs a guide to explain the details of Jataka tales, which are painted on a wall panel.

Ironically, the marvel of Ajanta, which was the result of about 700 years of human devotion, love and worship, lived through 1,000 years of total isolation and abandonment in the wild, but suffered the most during the last 150 years of its re-discovery. Restoration attempts had been there all along, but they have never been very effective in treating the frescos. I saw restoration work going on at several caves.

Fortunately, today, Ajanta is not only in safe hands, but has gained international recognition too.

On my way back to the resort, I was wondering why and how this beautiful long standing place of worship and retreat was vacated and left behind by monks in the 9th or 10th century AD. There is no known reason for this quiet exodus. Buddhism was in its wane alright, but there was no evidence of plunder or  desecration of artworks by the people of other faiths.

Also, there was no indication of any great natural disaster when Ajanta was rediscovered after more than 1,000 years, in 1819, by a group of British soldiers while doing a reconnaissance survey of the area.

It appears that the creators of Ajanta renounced and left their most cherished possession, their work of art, that grew around them as their monastic abode. Me, of course, a lesser mortal, would love to remain enchanted by Ajanta and come back to re-discover its marvel and maya again and again.

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