‘Where are you from?’ questioned the girl sitting next to me in the bus. She was on her way to school at Dhar. The question however was not to me. She was not interested in Indians.
‘Spain,’ replied the fair guy in glasses. A cotton saffron shawl printed with red aums and swastikas was wrapped around his neck to keep out the cold. Next to him sat a pretty girl who was in her twenties.
‘Which city in Spain?’ continued to girl. She was keen on conversation. This was her chance to practise some English. Not that Spanish folks speak good English.
‘What is interesting in your city?’ asked the girl. She had some difficulty with the word Barcelona. It was not something she had heard before.
‘It has a famous football team,’ said the guy, quite unable to think of anything better to say about Barcelona. This confused the girl a little bit.
‘So, it’s a playground?’ she asked. But playground was not a word the guy knew and he had nothing to say in reply.
‘Is that your friend?’ she asked pointing to the silent pretty girl sitting by the far window. I think the Spanish girl knew very little English.
‘No. My wife,’ came back the reply.
I overheard this conversation because I had taken one of the first buses to leave this morning from Mandu to Dhar. School children use these early buses. I changed at Dhar for another bus to Bagh.
When I got off at Bagh, I asked the bus conductor, ‘How far are the caves?’
‘Get back into the bus. Caves are much farther,’ he replied out of distraction. He was busy collecting small change from other passengers. Apparently I had alighted at “Bagh by-pass”.
When the village of Bagh arrived, I was told to stay in the bus. The caves are still seven kilometers away. After some more minutes on the highway, the bus dropped me off. A milestone indicated clearly that the caves were 3.2 kms away and I would have to walk to them.
The walk to the caves and back is something I will remember for a long time. It was a beautiful afternoon today. The hills were in the distance. Green fields flanked the long winding road to the caves. Trees lined the road and provided lovely shades amongst patches of sunshine. The landscape was silent. The road was empty of all traffic. In the distance a villager attended to his field. On the slopes of a hill, cowherds were grazing their herds.
I passed a farmer and asked him what grows around here.
‘Lots of things – wheat, chilli, onion…’ he replied. He went on to name many things in Hindi that I did not understand. Clearly this was a place of good soil and yield.
‘Where do you get water?’ I asked.
‘From the river,’ he pointed in the direction of the caves. The early Buddhist monks had chosen their spot well. Today I found the river mostly dry.
‘Farming depends on your own hardwork. The more you put in, the more you get out.’ These were the words of wisdom from the farmer. He surprised me. He did not blame the government or the monsoons.
‘Lots of people come to cool off in the caves during summer. They bring their lunches with them and spend the whole day inside,’ he said as I took leave of him towards the caves.
When I arrived at the caves, I realized the isolated beauty of this place. Although a tourist spot, it is off the beaten track. Except for one stall selling tea, there was nothing else at the entrance to the caves. I asked the shopkeepers if he had a torch. He replied that I could borrow it from the guard and pointing towards the booking office at the caves. I had not charged my own torch but borrowed one of those powerful torches that can light up an entire room.
There are about 6 or 7 caves here. The caves are vast, cut out from the rocks in the 5th to 7th century AD. The general plan is a pillared central hall surrounded by separate meditation cells on three sides. There is a central shrine across the hall from the entrance. This shrine has a votive stupa. A couple of them are restored but there is one in its natural ruined state. The stupa is carved out of the rock and links to the ceiling of the cave. Such stupa worship has clearly continued for a long time even when the use of Buddha’s image came into vogue during the Kushan Period.
The halls are huge and the pillars massive. Just the sight of these halls makes a visit to Bagh worthwhile. It does bring to mind the change of beliefs and customs over time. Buddhism in India is a dead thing today but not during the time of the monks who lived at Bagh. It makes me wonder on the truth of things. Where they right? Are we right? Perhaps it is best to find truth and belief in a personal way.
The real gems of Bagh are the cave paintings. Most of these paintings are deteriorated or fully destroyed. Some have been carefully removed from the caves and placed in a nearby museum. These paintings have given me a foretaste of my later visit to Ajanta Caves. While the paintings at Ajanta are better preserved, it is said that at Bagh the monks were not careful in the first coating of the tempera. This coupled with the constant seepage of water has led to the destruction of the paintings. In fact, Cave 1 is fully destroyed. The pillars are gone. Roof has collapsed. The ruined stupa stands under an overhanging precipice that appears to fall anytime. The pillars of most other caves have been restored in recent times to prevent the roofs from collapse. Some pillars are original with wonderful scroll capitals.
The few paintings that remain are marvellous. They are not frescoes but paintings executed tempera, applied in varying thickness on an uneven rock surface to create an even canvas. The boddisatvas are expressive. The dancers are beautifully drawn and coloured. The scroll motifs of lotuses are splendid. Further lotus and kevera motifs are lovely. The colours used for these paintings are mostly red, brown, blue, green and yellow. The passage of time has added the colour of age and antiquity.