Monumental delights

My recent visit to the Ajanta and Ellora caves was not only an occasion for enjoying these art and  architectural wonders once again, after a gap of nearly 25 years, but it also sparked off a dose of delicious nostalgia, for it was here at Ajanta that I had worked for more than three years in the mid-fifties, during the early period of my service in the Archaeological Survey of India.

The story begins with my mention to some friends, during a casual conversation, that I would very much like to see Ajanta and Ellora once more but my age prevented me from travelling alone. And lo and behold, in no time six of us got together for the trip. At Ajanta, when we went up the winding pathway and reached the point from where we first catch  sight of the caves, my mind went back to that unforgettable day in February 1955, when I first trod this pathway and reached this same point. I recalled how, on catching my very first glimpse of the half-moon  shaped hill, shimmering in the morning sun, the sheer beauty of the spectacle had made my heart skip a  beat. Now the same eyes, aged more than half a century since that first occasion, were looking at the  sight. May be that excitement, the natural concomitant of youth, was no longer there but the wonder still remained.

My mind further skipped back to, yet another February day about 190 years ago, in 1824 to be  exact, when Lt James Alexander of the 16th Lancers of the East India company went into the hills north  west of Aurangabad for a spot of shikar.  On reaching a spot at the  crest of the opposite hill, imagine his wonder at suddenly catching sight of these caves!

Little did Alexander know that these caves had been lost to the outside world for a thousand years and the credit for re-discovering them had fallen to his lot — out of the blue!

Once you start going round the caves and looking at the paintings, you are soon lost in admiration, not only for their sheer artistic quality consisting of impeccable line drawing and colour scheme, modelling of  figures and even spatial perspective, but also their presentation of life in its myriad  forms in the Jataka stories that they depict, with the entire gamut of human emotion so tellingly portrayed. Substantial portions of the paintings now survive only in seven caves, merely small fragments remaining in the rest.
After a day of such soul-satisfying tour of the caves, towards the evening, you stand in front of the  seven-tiered water-fall at the far end of the hill, which feeds the river Waghora flowing below the caves. 

As you gaze at this awe-inspiring sight and recall the significance of the number seven in Budhist lore (the seven levels of the Stupa, seven stages of life etc), you cannot but marvel at the eminent appropriateness of this place to be a Budhist  centre and the wisdom of the monks who  selected the spot for the purpose.

  It is believed that the monks used to live in these caves for four months in the year during the rainy season and went around preaching the Dhamma the rest of the time. When and why they abandoned  the caves  altogether, is not known. But one thing I do  know; I shall never ‘abandon’ these caves. I may not come back here due to advancing age, but they will always be with me.

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