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A History of Indian Art Through Five Masterpieces Part 1: The Splendor of Ajanta

by William Dalrymple January, 2016

ajanta entrance

Ajanta caves, entrance

Editor's Note:William Dalrymple is a Scottish historian and prolific writer, art historian and curator, as well as a prominent broadcaster and critic. Dalrymple's interests include the history and art of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Muslim world, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Jains and early Eastern Christianity.

He is also one of the co-founders and co-directors of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival. Dalrymple has lived in India on and off since 1989 and spends most of the year at his Mehrauli farmhouse in the outskirts of Delhi.

Sutra Journal is honored to publish his five part series on the History of Indian Art starting with this beautiful piece on Ajanta.

In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party was heading through thick jungle near Aurangabad, in the hilly ghats of south central India, when the tiger they were tracking disappeared down into the chasm of a deep ravine.

Leading the hunters was Captain John Smith, a young cavalry officer from Madras. Beckoning his friends to follow, he tracked the pug marks down a semi- circular scarp of steep basalt, and crossed the rocky bed of the Wagora river, then made his way slowly up through the bushes at the far side of the steep horseshoe- shaped amphitheatre of cliffs. Half way up, Smith stopped dead in his tracks. The pug marks led straight past an opening in the rock face. But the cavity was clearly not a natural cave or a river-cut grotto. Instead, despite the long grass and the all-encroaching pepper vines, Smith could quite clearly see that he was looking onto a man-made façade cut straight into the rock face. The jagged slope had been painstakingly etched away into a perfect portico. It was clearly a work of great sophistication. Equally clearly, it had been abandoned for centuries.

A few minutes later, the party made their way inside, crunching over a human skeleton. Smith held aloft a torch of burning dried grass and his companions clutched their muskets. A long apsidal hall led right into the living rock, flanked on either side by 39 octagonal pillars. All over the walls, the officers could see through the gloom the shadowy outlines of ancient murals: figures of orange and yellow- robed monks with green haloes standing on blue lotuses.

In the decades to come, word spread that in this most remote spot lay 31 caves which collectively amounted to one of the great wonders of the ancient world. The murals told the Jataka stories of the Lives of the Buddha in images of such elegance and grace that the murals of Ajanta are now recognised as the finest picture gallery to survive anywhere from any ancient civilisation. Even today, the colours glow with a brilliant intensity: topaz-dark, lizard green, lotus-blue.


Exposition Clemenceau,le Tigre et l'Asie(MNAA-Guimet, Paris)

I first saw these murals in 1984 as a young backpacker, on a first, long six-month journey across India that completely changed my life. It was my first close encounter with Indian art, something that has obsessed me ever since. I was 18 then. I am 50 now. In this short series, I hope to convey how and why the art of India has the power to fascinate, hypnotise and even make you fall in love.

The murals of Ajanta that I saw that winter morning in 1984 embraced subject matter that was at once both profoundly spiritual and strikingly sensuous. Although the images were originally intended for a monastic audience and the occasional passing pilgrim, what puzzled the 19th century Orientalists who first worked on them was this unexpected yet heady mixture of two worlds normally considered incompatible. Yet it was clear that the artists of Ajanta clearly saw nothing odd in this juxtaposition of monk and dancing girl. There are no panels or boundaries in the Ajanta paintings beyond the physical borders of the cave, and the artists likewise move from the world of the ascetic’s cave to the pleasure gardens of the royal court and back again without recognising any essential separation between the two.

Here the Buddha tends to be shown not just in his monastic milieu, after his Enlightenment, but in the princely environment in which he grew up. He takes his place among handsome princes and bare-chested nobles, as princesses with tiaras of jasmine and raat-ki-rani, Queen of the Night, languish love-lorn on swings and couches. Close by, swan-necked, heavy-breasted and narrow-waisted dancing girls of extraordinary sensuousness, dressed only in their jewels and girdles, perform beside lotus ponds, swaying to unheard music, ringing their silent ghungroo anklets. These women wear only spinels and chrysoberyl cat’s eyes; they hold nothing but empurpled ebony flywhisks of burnished gold; gleaming rubies the colour of peacock’s blood flash against their dark skin. The features of these palace women conforms closely to the ideas of feminine beauty discussed by the great fifth century playwright Kalidasa, who writes of men pining over portraits of their lovers, while straining to find the correct metaphors to describe them: ‘I recognise your body in liana vines; your expression in the eyes of a frightened gazelle; the beauty of your face in that of the moon, your tresses in the plumage of peacocks; and the play of your eyebrows in the faint ripple of flowing water... alas! Timid friend—no one object compares to you.’

pillar hall

Ajanta caves, Pillar Hall, by C.Shelare

Nearby are painted very different images of stark ascetic renunciation—a shaven-headed orange-robed monk lost in meditation, a hermit seeking salvation in the gloom of a rock-cut grotto, or a group of wizened devotees straining to hear the words of their teacher. Dominating everything are portraits of Bodhisattvas of otherworldly elegance and compassion, eyes half-closed, inward-looking, weightlessly swaying on the threshold of Enlightenment, caught in what the great historian of Indian art, Stella Kramrisch, described, wonderfully, as ‘a gale of stillness’.

From almost the beginning, scholars working on the site came to the realisation that there actually were two quite distinct phases of work at Ajanta. Most of the Ajanta caves, and almost all the murals, date from around 600 CE. This was at the height of India’s classical Golden Age, when Kalidasa was writing his great work, The Cloud Messenger, and the Buddhist university library of Nalanda, then the greatest repository of knowledge east of Alexandria, was at its scholarly apex, its wisdom and learning sought by scholars and pilgrims from across the world. The murals left by this Ajanta Renaissance included many of the most striking picture cycles, notably fabulously elegant and other-worldly depictions of the beautiful lotus-holding Bodhisattvas Padmapani and his bejewelled companion, Vajrapani.

Such was the celebrity of these 5th century masterworks that almost all modern accounts of the Ajanta caves have more-or-less ignored the earlier 1st and 2nd century BCE picture cycles in caves 9 and 10. These earlier paintings were always more fragmentary and smoke-blackened than the almost pristine later murals, and perhaps for this reason seemed, blackboard-like, to invite the attention of tourists who wanted to leave an inscribed record of their visit. By the time the Nizam of Hyderabad sent the art historian Ghulam Yazdani, to produce the first photographic survey of the murals in the late 1920s, the murals of Caves 9 and 10 had already been irreparably damaged.

At the same time, the Nizam also sent two Italian conservationists to help restore them. Unfortunately their efforts only obscured the murals further: they coated the pigments with shellac varnish which attracted grime and dried bat dung and quickly obscured the images from both travellers and scholars. Less than a century after being rediscovered, the figures of caves 9 and 10 were lost again. For the entire length of the 20th century they remained hidden, invisible to the naked eye, forgotten by all.

It has taken a slow and painstaking restoration of the paintings by Manager Singh of the Archaeological Survey of India to bring these images out of darkness. Manager Singh has recently succeeded in removing 75 per cent of the layers of shellac and grime from 10 sq m of the murals, revealing for the first time since the 1920s the extraordinary images which lay beneath.

On the façade of Cave 10 there is a panel which mentions a prince of the Satavahana dynasty, which controlled the Deccan between the second century BCE and the first century CE. The murals within are therefore not only the oldest images at the site, and indeed the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence—dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha—but with the exception of a few pictograms of stick men left by Paleolithic hunters at Bimbedkar in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh, they are also the oldest pictures of Indian people. The murals of Caves 9 and 10 represent nothing less than the birth of Indian painting. The best preserved of these early murals—and undoubtedly my personal favourite—are the images from the Shyama Jataka, an early Buddhist text which tells of Shyama, a virtuous forest dweller who was fatally hit by the poisoned arrow of the King of Varanasi who was out hunting. Because he was sinless, his blind parents were able to call him back to life and he becomes the King’s guru in the virtuous ways of Dharma.

In illustrating this story, the early artists of Ajanta open wide a window on an age which remains otherwise dark and shadowy to us. We see the costumes of this very early period: the King of Varanasi, for example, wears a white cotton tunic of strikingly Central Asian appearance, wrapped around the waist with a cummerbund, while on his head he wears a very Indian turban cloth wound around his hair and twisted into a top knot. He has a bow and a full quiver of arrows. His guards are bare- chested but wrap a lungi around their hips and are armed with spears and bows and bell-shaped shields decorated with the emblems of half-moons and shining suns.

woman ajanta

Exposition Clemenceau,le Tigre et l'Asie(MNAA-Guimet, Paris)

The intimacy, classicism, and striking realism of these figures, combined with the haunting wistfulness of the features of these faces, is not a million miles away from the melancholy world of the first century CE encaustic wax mummy portraits from the al-Fayum region of Greco- Egyptian Egypt. As with the painted mummy covers, we are in a world so astonishingly realistic and lifelike that even today, even in reproduction, they can still make you gasp as you find yourself staring eyeball to eyeball with a silently watching soldier who could have fought the Bactrian Greeks, or a monk who may have attended the great Buddhist university of Nalanda.

So realistic are the faces of the people depicted, so direct are their expressions, that you feel that these have to be portraits of real individuals, glowing still with the flame of eternal life. There is something deeply hypnotic about the soundless stare of these silent often uncertain Satavahana faces. Their fleeting expressions are frozen, startled, as if suddenly surprised by the King’s decision to lose his arrow or by the nobility of the great elephant breaking through the trees. The viewer peers at these figures trying to catch some hint of the upheavals they witnessed and the strange sights they saw in ancient India. But the smooth, clean humane Indo-Hellenistic faces stare us down.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the people in these murals is that they appear so astonishingly familiar. Two thousand years after they were painted, these faces convey with penetrating immediacy the character of the different sitters: the alert guard, the King caught in the excitement of the hunt, the obedient son fetching water. Indeed, so contemporary are the features, so immediately recognisable the emotions that play on the lips, that you have to keep reminding yourself that these sitters are not from our world, that they are pigments attached to the wall of a cave, and depict a court and jungle world of hunters and hunted, and Buddhist monks and devotees, that vanished from these now bare Deccan hills more than two millennia ago.

Yet these are self-evidently the same people who inhabit Western India today: looking at these images, you cannot help but feel the great distance of time separating them from us; and yet we find in their eyes an emotional immediacy that is at once comprehensible. Some of them look like the guards who admit you to the caves: indeed while the glass coverings were being removed to allow me to photograph the images, the guards joked among themselves about which painted king looked most like which guard. The women on the cave walls wear the same bangles that the Banjara tribes of these hills still stack along their forearms, and their dupattas are decorated with fringes of Paithani still popular in Maharashtra today, as are the fish-scale kham textiles which clothe the hunters in the Shyam Jataka.

It is odd and eerie to stare into the eyes of men and women who died more than 2,000 years ago, but odder still to feel that their faces are reassuringly familiar.


Bodhisattva Padmapani,cave 1, Ajanta, India

William Dalrymple

by William Dalrymple

January, 2016

About William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple is a writer and historian. His books include From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East; Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India; The Last Mughal; White Mughals; and Return of a King: The Battle of Afghanistan (which has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper and PEN Hessel-Tiltman prizes). Twitter: @DalrympleWill

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