“John Smith -1819”, said the hastily scribbled wording near the entrance of Cave 10.
This speaks volumes about the cultural differences between eighteenth century British and 1st century Asians. I am talking about the fact that Ajanta caves were built by hundreds of monks over the span of 800 years and not one of those monks signed their names or left any literature tracing their name to this masterpiece while the British army general who chanced upon this monument on one of his hunting trips, chose it fit to inscribe his name.
Historians believe that Ajanta caves were built between 2nd century BC and 6th century AD. These were the times when the subject and object of all art was god, Lord Buddha in this case. Ajanta is full of paintings and sculptures describing the life and teachings of Buddha.
This was our first trip in India after we returned back from the US. August is in the middle of the monsoon season in Maharashtra when the entire state wears a carpet of green. It is a beautiful time to travel and I didn’t lose any time convincing Saru.
Vam: Hey, let’s go to Ajanta and Ellora for the August 15th weekend.
Saru (watching TV and paying no attention): Sure
Vam: Really? Great!
Vam(this is too easy): Trains are booked, so we have to fly to Aurangabad. It will be a little expensive.
Saru: Then – No.
Vam: What do you mean No?
Vam: But this is the only long weekend you have till October. Do you really want to stay at home?
Saru (stopped listening to me and was singing): “Hai Muscular, Hai Popular, Spectacular, is a bachelor”
Saru(totally oblivious): BUT…Pappu can’t dance Saala! hoye hoye hoye
Saru never watched desi movies in the US and now he knew lyrics of songs. That was thanks to - FM radio. The first few weeks after he started driving to work, he would come home steaming mad and rant – “these idiots drive like crazy”, “freaks! They should go to hell”, “I want to move back”. Then he discovered FM radio. Now he comes home humming tunes and talking about ‘Kamla-ka-Hamla’ and ‘Nukkad-ka-Sukkad’.
Vam: BTW, you get LTC, so that is like a 30% discount.
Saru: That’s right. I completely forgot. Let’s go
Saru moved on to the next song “When I say King…you say Singh….Singh is King…Singh is king… Singh is king”
I started planning the trip. We flew into Aurangabad and stayed at Hotel Rama International. I am not the type to spend a lot of money on expensive hotels, but this was our first trip in India and I did not want to take any chances.
We rented a car (comes with a driver) to go to Ajanta, 100 km from Aurangabad. The road was surprisingly good. The driver told us that Japan spends a lot of money maintaining these Buddhist monuments. It took us 2 ½ hours with a couple of stops to admire the scenery. The mountains were green and it was a very beautiful drive to the caves. We drove by beautiful canyons and gorges in the Sahyadris.
Once we reached the site, we had to park the car at a lot and take a bus to the caves. They are trying to reduce pollution at the site. Once we got off the bus, it was a steep climb to the caves. The caves are setup in a horseshoe pattern. There are a total of 30 caves, some finished and some unfinished. The early caves follow the ‘Hinayana’ school of Buddhism which preached simple and rigorous ascetic living and did not believe in idol worship. The latter caves showed the growth of the ‘Mahayana’ school that believed that Buddha was god and worshiped his idol. Early caves had more paintings depicting stories of Bodhisattva and Jatakas.
Ajanta is famous for its paintings and Ellora for its sculptures. People mistake these paintings for frescoes but they are actually murals. The difference is that Frescoes are painted on wet plaster and murals on dry plaster. Minerals were used for colors and it is a miracle that they still exist more than 2000 years after their creation. The Archeological Survey of India is doing a wonderful job preserving these national monuments. The caves are quite dark and have minimal artificial lighting which makes it very hard to take good pictures. That begs the question - How did they paint in these dark caves? Apparently they used mirrors to deflect sunlight into the caves!
We hired a guide who explained the stories (Jataka tales) behind the paintings and sculptures. There were two types of caves – ‘Chaitya’ (prayer hall) and ‘Vihara’ (living quarters). The Viharas were very simple with concrete beds. Chaityas has stupas and sculptures of Lord Buddha. The caves were full of tourists, but we soon noticed that most people were very impatient and would walk in and out very quickly. I am not a "been-there-done-that" kind of a tourist, but more of "been-there-taken-that-perfect-picture" kind. Snobbery aside, we would wait patiently and be rewarded with a minute or two of quiet and empty caves. These are shots taken at those moments.
The sculptures in some of these caves are amazing. Their attention to detail is mind-blowing. If you stare at the pictures below, you will notice details like clothes, jewelry and even expressions. That picture of Buddha with a serene smile just blows me away.
On our way down, I told Saru that I felt this inexplicable sense of pride touring places in India. This spectacular monument is in OUR country, the guide was talking about OUR history and that evoked very special feelings in me. It is one thing to travel other countries and marvel at their art and architecture, but a totally different feeling to find out that your country was producing these artistic masterpieces thousands of years before other civilizations.