Ajanta-Ellora: Looking up to the Rockstars!
This trip had to be a big dose of special. We were to travel with a bus full of students, whose excitement levels seemed to keep rising with every passing kilometre. These were 26 junior college students and aspirational designers. We got to know this fun bunch through their design coach, Sarita Dhimate. The trip to the fabulous Ajanta-Ellora caves was essentially an academic undertaking for them, as the group is constantly on the lookout for creative inspiration. Be it plays, or exhibitions, or films, or workshops, the crux of their design education is to instil in them solid aesthetic values, and expose them to myriad ideas. These students ultimately aim to end up at top design schools, and we were thrilled at the prospect of this trip becoming one step forward in that direction.
The plan was for a weekend trip where we would explore the fascinating treasures of the Ajanta and Ellora caves.
Having the group of caves known as Ajanta Caves spread out across you is like holding an invitation to step back in time. Research has established the caves’ existence since 2BC, and there are almost 30 of them in total, though not all are accessible. They are cut across the south side of something like a gorge formed by the local river Waghora, and during monsoons, the caves’ silence is interrupted by the gushing of the flood waters close by. We all first gathered near the viewing gallery that slopes down towards the caves, and affords visitors a 360-degree look at the site. We landed when the clouds were hanging low, and within a few minutes of reaching the gallery, it began to drizzle. Words may just fail to explain how much more enigma the rain added to the sight. Inspite of the abundance of camera equipment and the dearth of raincoats with us, we stood there and stared. There was a light mist that caressed the site, and we just couldn’t take our eyes off it.
A passageway connects the complex of caves today, and walking up and down is good exercise indeed. Dr Shriikant Pradhaan, who has a PhD in Ajanta paintings, was our subject matter expert at hand, and he dutifully picked the caves we would enter. These Buddhist caves were earlier monasteries, and like most such sites, used to be hidden from view due to thick jungle covers, till they were accidently discovered in the 19th century by a hunting party of British soldiers being led by army officer, John Smith. The story of this discovery is rather famous, and because it drew aside a curtain on some of the finest pieces of old Indian art, its news spread beyond the country and led to considerable excitement in archaeological circles. On the day of the discovery though, Smith, in what could possibly have been excitement or a pressing need to be remembered, scratched his name onto a wall in cave no. 9. This, unfortunately for him, is till date considered an unforgivable act of vandalism at this site of precious, already weather-beaten art.
The sculptures and paintings at the Ajanta caves are precious specimens of early Indian art. Built over two distinct phases in time, the caves earlier fostered under the patronage of the Satavahana dynasty, and adopted a Hinayana approach, while the latter part of its evolution took after the imagery and beliefs of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism. This confluence of styles and schools of thought is a fascinating study, and the students lapped it up as Dr Pradhaan extolled on it.
Dr Pradhaan is one of the most erudite and soft-spoken persons one will ever meet. Like a true teacher, he has an unending supply of patience, and never deflects any question. Being a consummate miniature artist himself, his understanding of all strands of art is rock solid (pun intended!), and the students seemed to revel under his calm tutelage.
In the end, we finished a mighty big round around the site, and started heading back downhill. Dr Pradhaan was still tackling the many questions that came his way, and he seemed impressed at the general level of curiosity. Sarita was the proud teacher walking around, making sure everyone was taking notes, because there would be assignments to be finished later!
By the end of day one, everyone was exhausted, and the fantastic thali at Man Mandir was exactly what the doctor had ordered!
Ellora Caves. Now these two sets of caves are similar and so different at the same time. Ellora is awe-inspiring beauty, and the genius behind its construction will leave one breathless. One of the faces of the basaltic Charanandri hill was cut into, top-down, to construct Kailash caves.
The site amalgamates the faith and styles of Buddhism (cave no. 1-12), Hinduism (cave no. 13-29), and Jainism (cave no. 30-34), and therein lies the secret to the remarkable beauty of the place, which once stood on a major trade route. Cave no. 29, the Dhumar Lena, was the earliest excavation here, but undoubtedly, the most breath-taking was of cave no. 16, the Kailasa Temple, often cited as the largest monolithic excavation in the world. The ASI dates the caves to the 6th – 7th century A.D., to the 11th – 12th century A.D.
We climbed up to the shikhara end of the hill, and looking down from here means inviting vertigo of happiness. Here you get the full view of the primary example of India’s rock-cut architectural legacy. Walking around the main complex can be risky business, because you will surely be looking up with your mouth agape, and could stumble clumsily!
We just couldn’t get enough of the tall sculptures, and we openly grieved at the damage inflicted on many, many of them. The harmonious-coexistence of the symbols of three religions at Ellora points to the maturity of Indian society then. To shift one’s gaze from one cave to another and to discover Shiva and Parvati in a few, and the calm visage of the Buddha in some others, was quite an experience in perspective.
As we got out, the weather hadn’t budged, and a cloudy spectre enhanced the prettiness of the hilly landscape even further. Some pens were still feverishly noting down points in notebooks, and some cameras were still at work. It would be a tall order to express the whole experience in words or pictures, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying, should it?