Poetry in Stones II (Ajanta Caves, Aurangabad, India)

Aurangabad was founded in 1610 by Malik Ambar, the minister of Murtaza Nizam Shah II on the site of a village called Kirkee. When his son Fateh Khan came to power, he renamed it Fatehpur. It finally came to be called Aurangabad when the Moghul Emperor Shahjehan's son Aurangzeb was put in charge of the Deccan and made the city his capital.

Today, Aurangabad is largely an industrial town, and the place from where tourists go to see the marvelous frescoes of Ajanta and the carvings of Ellora - as indeed we did. The magnificent wall paintings of Ajanta caves and the intricate sculptural wonders of the Ellora caves are perhaps the most beautiful and unusual combination in the descriptions of UNESCO world heritage sites in India.

 We did our round of the Ellora Caves and the next day was scheduled for a visit to the Ajanta caves, the paintings and sculptures of which are considered to be masterpieces of Buddhist religious art. These caves were carved over many years out of a horseshoe-shaped cliff along the Waghora River. They were used by Buddhist monks as prayer halls and monasteries for about nine centuries, and were then abruptly abandoned. These fell into oblivion until rediscovered in 1819.

The caves are numbered from east to west and today a terraced path connects the cave and a viewing platform across the river affords an excellent view of the entire Ajanta site.

‘Ajanta caves’ are clearly divided into two beliefs of Buddhism; the Hinayana sect where Buddha was represented only in symbols and the Mahayana sect that gave Lord Buddha a human form.

The caves are a sort of illuminated history showing scenes from the courts and streets. The uniqueness of Ajanta lay in the fact that the artists covered the rough walls with a layer of mud and cow dung, mixed with straw as a binding medium. This layer was an inch thick and when it dried up, was smoothened with a layer of lime plaster. It was on this that the painters created their worlds of colour. Another amazing fact about the paintings is that they were done in extremely poor light in the caves. Only the diffused rays of sunlight could penetrate the caves, making it difficult to even figure out the murals, painting was far behind. The vihars, the pillars, the sanctum and the sidewalls are elaborately and exquisitely painted with murals narrating different stories from the life of Buddha including the masterpiece, the compassionate Bodhisattva with a lotus in his brilliant headgear. Each and every cave was unique by itself and it was extremely difficult to judge which was the most beautiful. Another masterpiece was the large carved statue of the reclining Buddha, representing his moment of death. We spent almost the entire day in the ‘Ajanta.’ So beautiful was its appeal that it was difficult to believe that these were ages old and done at a period when there were no modern facility, no canvas or no super quality oil paint to give life to the paintings; these were so beautiful that it spelt life and fullness in every corner.

We returned, with a mind and heart full of appreciation of the fascinating creations. It would be unfair to compare which of the two was better; Ellora’s carvings and Ajanta’s paintings would forever occupy a special place in my heart.