India’s Own Ajanta Caves May Be The Birthplace Of Indian Art

Vishal Ingole
Aug 29, 2014, 06.47 PM IST

The Ajanta Caves, located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra consist of about 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments that date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 or 650 CE. There are several sculptures, paintings and murals in the caves that can be called some of the finest surviving examples of Indian art. Many have referred to the murals as 'nothing less than the birth of Indian art'. These murals give one an insightful look into an ancient world that has long since been destroyed. Two of the oldest paintings in the caves, which have been hidden from view for decades, have recently been restored to reveal their natural beauty.

Rediscovery of the cavesIn the summer of summer of 1819, a British hunting party, led by Captain John Smith, a young cavalry officer from Madras, was traversing through thick jungle near Aurangabad, when they came upon a manmade facade cut straight into the rockface. What Smith saw was the work of great sophistication, which had been abandoned for centuries. A closer look revealed a long hall with 39 octagonal pillars on both side, and a carved domed-shaped Buddhist stupa at the center. On the walls, the officers noticed some of the most magnificent murals they had ever witnessed. The robes of the monks in the murals were painted in orange-and yellow hues. They stood on blue lotuses and had green haloes. Other murals revealed elaborate crowd scenes.

These elaborate murals represented the lost golden age of Indian painting and told the untold story of life of the Buddha with grace and elegance. Today, the Ajanta murals have been identified as some of the greatest works of art that have emerged out of any century.

Early restoration of the murals  It was only in the late 1920s that the Nizam of Hyderabad sent Ghulam Yazdani, the leading art historian of the state, to take a photographic survey of the murals. But unfortunately two of the caves, caves nine and 10, had suffered irreparable damage by then. Two Italian conservationists were also dispatched by the Nizam to assists with the restoration, they ended by obscuring the murals further, by coating them with Victorian layers of varnish first and then a thick layer of unbleached shellac. Bat dug, dust and grime fused to the shellac which then oxidized to a dark reddish-brown color, obscuring them from scholars and travelers alike for the rest of the 20th century.

Modern restoration attemptsIt was only in the year 1999 that Rajdeo Singh, the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) chief of conservation and head of science at Aurangabad, began restoration work on these long-forgotten murals. Singh said that the restoration work had to be carried out extremely delicately because some paintings were so fragile that a mere touch might have ruined them forever.
The painstaking restoration involved the use of micro-emulsion, infrared light and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology, which ultimately succeeded in removing almost 75% of the layers of hard soot, shellac, and grime from 10 suaqare meter of the murals.
Due to the efforts of Singh and his team, the murals were ready to be displayed for the first time since the 1920s. Singh's restoration work has allowed us to take a look at the oldest paintings of Indian faces. These are the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence, dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha. It can undoubtedly be said that the murals of caves nine and 10 are representative of the birth of Indian painting.

Antiquity of the cavesWhile the antiquity of the caves is evident, the exact dates of construction are unclear. Most scholars believe that the caves were most likely to have been constructed between 90-70BC, and excavated shortly after the collapse of Ashoka's Mauryan empire, which once stretched from Kandahar to the Vindyas.

A rare treasure uncovered in cave 10 Only recently has a rare treasure been uncovered in cave 10 - an image of the first sermon at Sarnath and fragments of the oldest surviving painting of the life of the Buddha. Near the painting of the sermon, lies a pictorial depiction of the legend of Udayana, a tale of two rival queens, one evil, and the other virtuous. The best preserved and most dramatic paintings however, are illustrations of two Jataka stories: the 'Chaddanta Jataka', the story of a virtuous six-tusked elephant that a vindictive and jealous instigates to have killed, and the 'Shyama Jataka', the story of a forest dweller who the poisoned arrow of the king of Varanasi fatally hit.

The artists of Ajanta have given us an insight into a time we know little about, through the illustrations of these two stories. Through this visual window, we know more about the attire the kings donned at the time, their general facial features (which are strikingly central Asian), the arms they carried and more.
 The murals bridge the gap between a time that fleetingly went by 2,200 years ago and the modern day.
 Image: Wikipedia
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