The caves at Bagh in Madhya Pradesh had given me an introduction to Ajanta. Ajanta isn’t exactly next door to Aurangabad. It is 90 kms away. The road is rather good thanks to tourism. In the early morning when road traffic is less, it is possible to cover the distance in two hours. I was informed that visiting Ajanta will take a whole day.
In the bus I chat with Shide, a 45-year Japanese guy who runs an Internet shop back home. His itinerary of just two weeks spans from Delhi to Bangalore, Mumbai to Calcutta, all by train and bus.
‘Travel agent no good. Not honest. Too much money,’ he complains. Apparently he had booked all train tickets and paid USD 1000. The total cost of all tickets would not have been more than Rs. 7000. This had happened while he was still new to India.
A few days later when he had tried to change one of the tickets at Calcutta he was sent back and forth across various counters. ‘Go here, go there. No one knows. Whole day gone,’ he concludes but adds that train service in India is good.
Twice divorced with four children, he loves travelling. But he is not rich. ‘Japan is a poor country. India is rich,’ he says. ‘People assume I am rich but things are so expensive in Japan. I had to save and budget carefully for this trip.’
He then showed the entry tickets to various Indian monuments. ‘This is for Taj Mahal. Rs. 750. Too much, too much,’ he complains again.
‘But did you like it?’
‘Yes,’ comes back his reply, the word drawn out with a long breath. It was indication that he had expected more. ‘Too much people. Cannot take photo because people everywhere. Too expensive.’ He shakes his head in disappointment.
His greatest complaint was about touts, ubiquitous and annoyingly persistent. I empathize with him. I too hate these touts but foreign tourists suffer much more. They are hounded by them at all places. I believe they can singularly spoil the good impression of India but this is really how our people live. In Japan, if touts are almost illegal. If someone touches a tourist, he will be behind bars. In India, Shide is often pulled by the arm to enter shops or hire auto-rickshaws.
Shide has been also researching on Indian fabric and design, something ethnic that he can sell back in Japan. ‘Designs here are limited. Japanese not like. Colours are dark, dull, grey,’ he argues.
‘No really true. Indian women wear colourful dresses. In Rajasthan and Gujarat people turbans are bright colourful, but I suppose you couldn’t sell turbans in Japan,’ I tell him.
‘Why is he wearing that? I thought men wear turbans,’ he asks about the Nehruvian cap so common in Maharashtra. I explain that not all men wear turbans. Certainly in South India men dress simple and plain except for regional ethnic groups such as the Kodavas.
Shide is a catalogue of complaints. Indians shout and play loud music in public places. Vehicles on the road are constantly sounding their horns. Indians spit and shit in public. They don’t wash their hands after toilet. They are not honest and one has to bargain everywhere. Trash is everywhere and no one bothers to clean. Worst of all, people are undisciplined about their litter. All these left with him a bad image of India but barring these unpleasant experiences he has still enjoyed visiting famous monuments on well-tread tourist trails.
By now the sun has risen in the east, the mist has thinned and the day is warming up. We pass Ajanta village and arrive at a stop by the highway. The caves are 4 km inside by a single tarmac road. As soon as we step out we are approached by vendors and hopeful drivers for a ride to the caves.
‘Guide book sir,’ says a man while flipping the pages of a thin book on Ajanta. I pause to look at it and enquire the price without being serious.
‘Two-fifty! There is nothing for two-fifty in these pages,’ I tell him. The images are not sharp. The paper is cheap. Typesetting is mediocre.
‘Sixty rupees sir.’
I tell him that I don’t want the book amidst his pleas that I am his first customer for the day. As a last resort he pulls out the magic book. This is a technique pursued by many book vendors at all monuments across India.
‘Khajuraho guide book sir,’ he says flipping to particular pictures that he thinks might interest me.
‘I have already seen Khajuraho,’ I conclude and walk away.
Meanwhile Shide has been persuaded to buy a seven-rupee bus ticket to the caves. He had assumed it was the entry ticket to the caves. I clear the matter. The bus is crowded with early birds.
‘I think I’ll walk to the caves. It’s a great morning,’ I tell Shide. We stop for some tea and walk together to the caves. We pass cotton fields. We cross a stream over a bridge. We cut across grassy hills. We follow the road’s curves between the hills until we arrive at a horseshoe-shaped valley bounded by rocky cliffs. A river flows through at the bottom. On the rising slopes, trees cling to the soil. On the higher rocky surfaces, the caves curve in a line.
This first view of Ajanta Caves is special. I am convinced that very few places on earth can we find a scene something as magnificent and yet as compact as this. On these black-grey surfaces are the facades of chaitya halls, the pillars of verandahs and dark entrances to the darker caves. The hill behind is just a little higher than these excavated cliffs. It is covered with browish woodland trees that will take on a different colour and shade during the monsoons. Below by the river are patches of green woods with purple bougainvillas adding a dash of colour.
A walkway and connecting steps give access to all the caves. Many centuries ago access would have been more primitive, the woodland would have hugged closer. There are 26 caves in all although a map at the entrance mentions 28 caves. Cave 10 from the 2nd century BC is the oldest while cave 26 is from the 7th century AD.
Shide and I part quite early, each walking to one’s own pace. I move from cave to cave, mersmerized by the sculptures and paintings. The general layout of caves is an entrance verandah leading to a wide hall with pillars on the sides. The sanctum at the far end contains image of Buddha flanked by Boddhisattvas, fly whisk bearers and celestial figures. Buddha is usually seated in dharmachakrapravartana mudra. Bhumisparsha mudra or varaha mudra are rarely seen at Ajanta. Reliefs in doorways are wonderful. Buddha sits in many cases on a lotus pedestal. His bearing is dignified, his eyes demure and his countenance serene.
Among the masterpieces of Ajanta are the following I recall as I make these notes:
- The large panelled sculpture of Buddha in a reclined pose in Cave 26 (Mahaparinirvana) is a wonderful piece. This cave is a chaitya hall with a seated Buddha in relief on the stupa’s cylindrical drum. An ambulatory follows the apsidal cave all round with panelled reliefs lining the wall. The overall feeling is one of awe.
- The well-known masterpieces of Cave 1, the wall paintings of Padmapani and Vajrapani, are dimly lit to preserve the colours. There is grace in their stance. There is near bliss in their gaze. Many other paintings here and elsewhere at Ajanta are wonderful but really a guide is necessary to understand them in any detail.
- Cave 16, the largest and the finest of all caves, has a roof that dips and rises with its panelled floral designs in ancient vegetable dyes. This roof creates the feel of a shamiana rising and falling with the wind. In the same cave is the necklace that looks ordinary at first but reveals its resplendent pearls when light is shown closely parallel to the wall. I later found a similar necklace in another cave. I see that the pearls of the necklace are not just paint but low relief in stucco.
- Cave 17 has beautiful paintings in its verandah. Of particular note are the flying apsaras whose dresses, earrings, necklaces and hair give evidence to their flights. The same verandah has a painting of a drunken couple, the colours still richly preserved.
- Cave 9 with its chaitya hall has a plain stupa. Paintings from 2nd century BC are much faded but elephants and royal processions can still be made in the dim light. The ceiling is plain unlike the coffered ceiling of Cave 10 which has the biggest stupa at Ajanta.
- Cave 19 is a small but beautiful chaitya hall. Capitals are beautifully sculpted and give way to a superb entablature of sculpted reliefs set into neat panels. At the verandah, a panel of Nagaraja is a work of art.
- Cave 24 is wonderfully unfinished. In this we can see the process of excavating a cave. Pillars have not yet taken shape. Capitals exist only in the minds of the builders. The hall is yet to enter its space. The floor is an ascending slope with steps and platforms. They would have been later levelled.
It’s been a good eight hours of wandering from cave to cave. I skipped lunch and settled for some biscuits I had with me. Meanwhile Shide returned to Aurangabad earlier in the afternoon. We agreed to meet up next morning for a visit to Ellora. I did a few sketches of floral motifs, geese, hairstyles, meditative eyes, mudras, apsaras and the like.
As I leave, I chat up with one of the men carrying a bottle of chemical. The paintings were not discovered this way. They were painstakingly cleaned with chemicals. The process is quite simple. First the surface is cleaned with wool to remove any dust. Then a single coat of the chemical is applied. I am not sure if it is a single chemical or a mixture of chemicals. Once applied, within five to ten minutes the paintings reveal their true colours. Such a treatment needs to be done only once and it will last for centuries to come.
It is almost sunset. The last of the visitors rush in and run from to cave to cave.
‘Which are the important caves?’ they ask in a hurry. A bunch of numbers are given to them. They run helter-skelter in search of these caves. Guides are done for the day but attendants at each cave try to double up as amateur guides. They have learnt a few facts in their time here. These well memorized facts are unloaded on to visitors who pressed for time. In return they ask for a minor tip.
I walk back to the highway by the same road. The caves are closed for the day. Guards, wardens and guides return home on their bicycles. A small herd of buffaloes is grazing the hills. Minutes later I meet the cowherd.
‘Where are they?’ he asks.
‘Those are your buffaloes?’ I ask. He nods. ‘They are on the other side of this hillock. Not far at all. How many do you have?’
‘Do you rear them for milk?’
‘Yes. I sell the milk in Ajanta.’ He means the village, not the caves. In subsequent conversation I learn that each buffalo gives about four liters a day which he sells for thirty rupees a liter. His father used to rear buffaloes as well. The lands around here are not his but he is allowed to graze his herd on the grassy slopes.
‘You should come to the caves during the rains. It is wonderful,’ he points out. Perhaps I will, one day, someday.