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India's ancient cave murals
Story and Photos by Margaret Deefholts

Modern India preens itself as a techno-savvy nation racing along the electronic superhighway. Its cities throb to the beat of Indo-jazz and its glamorous models strut the fashion runway in Bollywood style bling.

But beneath this sophisticated veneer lies another less strident India. One which has endured for centuries-a world of spiritual beliefs and mythology celebrated in an exuberance of cave paintings and temple monuments, spread across the subcontinent.

Just a couple of hours' drive out of the busy town of Aurangabad (in the state of Maharashtra), I stand on a high bluff, looking down at a horseshoe shaped basalt cliff pockmarked with entrances to 29 caves. Ant-sized people crawl along a paved pathway and in the ravine far below, the Waghur river snakes through the jungle foliage. These are the Buddhist caves of Ajanta, built between 200 B.C. and 650 A.D. Lost to the world until 1819, it was a British Army officer, John Smith, who stumbled on them while on a hunting expedition in the area.

It is a sunny, but pleasantly cool weekend in mid-November, and when my guide Amod and I arrive at the Ajanta Tourist complex, the area is swarming with Indian holiday-makers-with just a few foreigners in their midst. I am tempted to linger in a small craft bazaar with stalls displaying bright Indian shawls and readymade garments, jewellery, leather handbags and attractive curios, but time is of the essence so I hurry on.

At the foot of the caves, I join other visitors strolling through a garden rich with bougainvillea creepers and the scent of frangipani blossoms. A steep incline up the hill and the first cave comes into sight. Standing in its shadowy interior, I'm reduced to awe.

The walls of the hall are a riot of murals that have endured in varying degrees of preservation over the millennia. At the far end of the room a statue of a benevolent Buddha gazes down at visitors, but I'm riveted by what is probably the most photographed image in Ajanta. It is a painting of Bodhisattva Padmapani, an elegant prince, bedecked with pearls and holding an open lotus, signifying the awakening of the mystical inner self. With his golden skin, gentle smile and dreamy almond shaped eyes, he radiates a timeless serenity.

The word "buddha" means awakening (to enlightenment) and the Bodhisattvas whose images throng the walls of Ajanta's caves are those aspiring to attain Buddhahood. Five of Ajanta's caves were prayer or assembly halls; the rest were halls of residence and a great majority of the artistic masterpieces adorning the walls were created by under the patronage of a Hindu king Harishena who lived in the 5th century A.D.

The murals are painted with red, yellow and brown vegetable dyes and from powdered stones such as blue lapis lazuli. Unfortunately many of them are chipped and peeling, ravaged by time and weather. Yet for all that they rivet the eye. Mythical tales unfurl across the walls, the scenes seething with movement and colour; royal processions of elephants and horses, as well as beautiful women, languorous lovers, and stalwart warriors. The details are exquisite-the sheen of tiny pearls adorning a princess, and ceilings chequered with intricate flower motifs, birds and geometrical designs.

Above the milling confusion of people and groups of school children, Amod asks, "Can you guess how the artists would have created such beauty, working in these dark caves?" He fishes out a small mirror from his jacket pocket. "They used these," he says. "Large mirrors were angled to reflect the sunlight pouring into the entrance of the caves."

Even more astonishing is the fact that the caves were excavated out of the cliff side using hand held tools, the artisans working from the ceiling downwards. In the process, sculptors created free standing larger-than-life sized images of Buddha and detailed bas-relief friezes of worshippers and attendants along the walls.

On the twisting road heading back to the plains, Amod points out a site where a replica of the Ajanta caves is under construction. When completed in a year or two, it will offer cheap tickets for families who merely want to romp through the pseudo caves and enjoy a picnic in a park setting. The result? Reduced traffic and environmental damage to the ancient site-and the opportunity for genuinely interested visitors to enjoy these extraordinary murals in a tranquil wilderness setting.


Getting There: Aurangabad is accessible by air from Mumbai (45 minutes) and Delhi (3-1/2 hours). The 7-hour journey on board the airconditioned chair-car on the Tapovan Express from Mumbai costs $10 and arrives mid afternoon.

Group, or individual tours to Ajanta (about 2 - 3 hours drive from Aurangabad) are available at travel desks at most 4 or 5 star hotels, or through the India Tourism Development Corporation office in Aurangabad. Entry to Ajanta costs around $5.00

A car and driver (or taxi) may be hired for the day at a cost of roughly $40. Private vehicles are not permitted beyond the Ajanta Tourist Complex; instead affordably priced "green" (natural gas) shuttle buses ply to and from the caves. Those unable to tackle several flights of steps may use the services of porters who carry people up in sedans. Expect to pay around $15 for four hours. Flash photography isn't permitted and shoes need to be removed before entering some caves. Ajanta is very crowded on weekends and school holidays; it is closed on Mondays.

Where to Stay in Aurangabad: $75 - 120 price range: The Taj Residency, the Hotel Ambassador Ajanta and Quality Inn The Meadows offer the best in comfort and amenities, but aren't up to ultra luxurious standards.

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PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts:

1. Bodhisattava Padmapani - the dreamy-eyed prince
2. Amorous couple
3. View of Ajanta Caves from lookout point
4. A guide points out sculpture details
5. Monks shopping at the Ajanta tourist centre


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