August 04, 2020
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Unseen Ajanta

The oldest classical Indian paintings, retrieved from time, and decay

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Unseen Ajanta
Unseen Ajanta

In 1999, Manager Rajdeo Singh, the ASI chief of conservation and head of science at Aurangabad, began work on the restoration of the murals in Caves Nine and Ten at Ajanta. Manager Singh, as he is always known, had been in charge of conserving the murals of Ajanta for a number of years, but the work in caves nine and ten was, he knew, especially difficult, and of the greatest importance. This was partly because these two caves contain the most severely damaged of all the Ajanta frescoes: “The paintings were so fragile that in some places there was a great fear even to touch them with the hand,” he wrote later. “At some places the pigment was found completely detached from the ground plaster and stone surface.”

But largely Manager Singh was concerned because the murals in those two caves are recognised to be not only the oldest images at the site, but the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence—dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha. These masterworks of early Buddhist art are, in other words, the prototypes of the forms which would later spread with Buddhism over the Himalayas to Afghanistan, China, Japan and the rest of Southeast Asia. More remarkable still, with the exception of a few prehistoric pictograms of stick men and animals left by palaeolithic hunters at Bhimbetka in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh, they are also the oldest pictures of India and of Indian people to have survived from the ancient world.

Satavahana face: Detail from a mural in Cave 10

The work took over a decade and proved to be even more difficult than guessed. Early British art historians who had worked on copying the murals between 1844 and 1885 had coated the murals with layers of varnish to bring out the colours, and they left the varnish in place after their work was finished, leaving a thick layer of discoloured glaze intermixed with soot and dirt. Moreover, these earliest murals were not only more fragmentary, they were also considerably more smoke- and incense-blackened in antiquity than the relatively pristine later murals elsewhere in the site, and perhaps for this reason seemed, blackboard-like, to invite the attention of early graffiti artists and tourists who wanted to leave an inscribed record of their visit. By the time the Nizam of Hyderabad had sent the leading art historian of his state, Ghulam Yazdani, to produce the first photographic survey of the murals in the late 1920s, the murals of caves nine and ten already looked irreparably damaged.

At the same time as the Nizam dispatched Yazdani to study the murals, he also sent two Italian conservationists to help restore them. Unfortunately. their efforts only obscured the murals further: they coated the pigments with a thick layer of unbleached shellac which sat on top of at least two existing Victorian layers of varnish. The shellac attracted grime, dust and dried bat dung and quickly oxidised to a dark reddish brown which totally obscured the images from both travellers and scholars. Less than a century after being rediscovered by a British shooting party in 1819, the figures of caves nine and ten had been lost again. For the entire length of the 20th century they remained effectively hidden, invisible to the naked eye, forgotten by all.

The Bodyguard of the King of Varanasi Mural from Cave 10

However, a slow and painstaking restoration of the paintings by Manager Singh from 1999 onwards using infra-red light, micro-emulsion and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology succeeded in removing 75 per cent of the layers of shellac, hard soot and grime from 10 square metres of the murals. “Particular care and precautions were taken not to alter even a grain of pigment,” he wrote. Manager Singh’s remarkable work revealed for the first time since the 1920s the extraordinary images which lay beneath and are now on open display. I happened to stumble across them on a visit to the caves in March. The ASI does not have much of a tradition of PR work, and even internally there is perhaps no full recognition of what Manager Singh has actually achieved and uncovered. For his work is nothing short of a revelation. Peeling off the successive layers of shellac, varnish, dirt and bat dung, Manager Singh has uncovered not just the oldest surviving Buddhist paintings, but the oldest paintings of Indian faces in existence.

More exciting still, this earliest phase of work is not just very old, but very fine indeed and painted in a quite different style, and using markedly different techniques to that used in the rest of Ajanta. The murals of caves nine and ten, reproduced here in colour for almost the first time, represent nothing less than the birth of classical Indian painting. Anywhere else in the world a rediscovery of this importance would be the subject of nationwide headlines, TV documentaries and triumphant exhibitions; but in India the remarkable work of Manager Singh has so far gone virtually unnoticed.


Ever since the work of James Ferguson—the pioneering archaeologist, art historian and early scholar of Indian Buddhism—in the 1840s, scholars working at Ajanta have recognised that there were actually two quite distinct phases of work at the caves, separated by as much as 600 years: the same gap as separates the Lodhi Garden tombs from the tower blocks of Gurgaon. The first cave to be discovered, which Ferguson named Cave 10, lay in the centre of the cliff face, and along with the five others flanking it, were dateable by inscription to the first or even late second century BC.

The King of Varanasi? A mural in  Cave 10

The great majority of the Ajanta caves, and almost all the murals, particularly the rich cycles of wall painting in caves one and two, date from the second phase of construction. This later phase coincided with the height of the Golden Age of the Guptas, the period when Kalidasa was writing his plays and the Buddhist university library of Nalanda, then the greatest repository of knowledge east of Alexandria, was at its scholarly apex. It was also, apparently, a time of great achievement in painting, almost all of which is now lost. Under the pat­ronage of the Vakataka king Harisena (c 475-500 AD), ruler of the Deccan, most of the greatest masterpieces of Ajanta were painted. Dominating everything are the famous portraits of Bodhisattvas of otherworldly beauty, elegance and compassion, eyes half-closed, inward-looking, weightles­sly swaying on the threshold of Enlightenment, caught in what Stella Kramrisch described, wonderfully, as “a gale of stillness”. Even today, the colours of these astonishing murals glow with a brilliant intensity: topaz-dark, lizard-green, lotus-blue.

Indeed, such was the celebrity of these 5th century masterworks that most scholars, and almost all modern accounts of the Ajanta caves, have more or less ignored the earlier second to first century BC caves and their picture cycles. Because of the dirt covering them, to this day the murals of caves nine and ten have still attracted only passing scholarly attention and, remarkably for so famous a site, their wall paintings have never before been properly photographed. It is true that Ghulam Yazdani included four almost totally illegible shellac-obscured black-and-white shots of the Cave Ten cycles in his exhaustive four-volume work, Ajanta, published in 1930; but up to now the early mural cycles have never before been fully published in colour and the true beauty and importance of these frescoes have therefore been missed.

The extreme antiquity of caves nine and ten is not disputed, though their exact dates remain elusive: from the palaeographic evidence they can be securely dated to between the second century BC and the first century AD, although most scholars—notably Vidya Dehejia and Walter Spink—believe that between 90-70 BC is the most likely period of construction. This makes caves nine and ten—ribbed chaitya halls lined with tapering octagonal columns, ending in a rounded apse which encloses the perfect dome of a tall stone stupa—among the oldest strutures of their kind in the world. These halls were already 200 years old when Augustus started rebuilding Rome. They were excavated shortly after the collapse of the Mauryan Empire and are therefore roughly contemporary with the spectacular early Buddhist stupas and gateways at Sanchi and Bharhut, and a little before those of Amaravati. The closest monuments to the early caves of Ajanta are the other rock-cut chaitya halls of western India in sites like Bhaja and Pitalkhora.

The actual excavation of the cave is naturally difficult to date with a great degree of precision. An incised dedicatory ins­cription on the left wall of Cave 10 was covered with a thick layer of plaster upon which the paintings were done, so the cave was clearly plastered after the excavation was complete. On the facade of Cave 10, there exists a carved panel which mentions one Vasithiputra Katakadi as contributing to the excavation of the cave’s frontage. Judging from his name, he was probably a prince of the Satavahana dynasty, which controlled the Deccan after the break-up of the Mauryan Empire and the assassination of Brihadratha, the last of the Mauryas, in 187 BC. The style of the turbans, the costumes the figures wear, the absence of images of the Buddha, and the similarity of the figure style to that of other early sites like Sanchi also point to this period. In addition, the presence of very different 5th century AD overpainting confirms this very early date.

Hall of fame The murals inside the chaitya at Cave No. 1

The murals of Cave 10 have been shown by Dieter Schlingloff to contain a supreme treasure: fragments of the oldest surviving painting of the Life of the Buddha. One scene shows a group of kings and deities venerating a Bodhi tree, a stupa and dharmic wheel of the law. This appears to be an image of the first sermon at Sarnath, with the tree taking the place of the Gautama Buddha. Next to the first sermon lies a fragment of the legend of Udayana, a tale of two rival queens, one virtuous and one evil. The evil one places a snake in the veena the king liked to play one evening, deviously framing her virtuous competitor as a murderer; but when the enraged king tries to shoot her with an arrow, such is the power of her virtue that the arrow reverses and hits her accuser. The most dramatic, and best preserved, scenes however show two Jataka stories, both of which illustrate tales of killings by huntsmen in the jungles of ancient India.

At the furthermost end of the apse, the artists drew images from the Shyama Jataka 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. Next to it is the Chaddanta Jataka which tells of a six-tusked elephant who is killed at the instigation of a jealous and vindictive queen. When she sees his tusks, the queen is overcome with remorse and dies of guilt and heartbreak.

You feel strongly here the Buddhist intuition that the natural and animal world are closely related to humankind through cycles of reincarnation: a neglected elephant queen in cave ten is reborn as the queen of Varanasi—yet remains essentially the same soul. One can see that the animals at Ajanta are depicted with the very same love and the same respect and individuality as the humans. In illustrating these three stories, the early artists of Ajanta open wide a window on an age which remains otherwise 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 turban wound around his hair and twisted into a top knot.

Much about the clothing is identical to that worn in the sculptures of Sanchi, Bharhut and Karle and there are some of the same compositional strategies—the fondness, for example, for ranks of figures looking from the left and right of the frame at some event taking place at the centre. In Sanchi, however, the images are animated with a wonderful joie de vivre. Here there is a sadness in the programme of painting, which is concerned with issues of justice, peace and non-violence: one image tells of a war breaking out over the Buddha’s relics—something that went totally against the grain of everything the Buddha taught. This is followed by three images which all tell of the unjust killing of an innocent: successively, the loving wife of a king who is unjustly accused of trying to kill him; the shooting of a boy as he fetches water for his parents in the forest; and a noble elephant murdered by hunters for his tusks.

Detail of a painting before and after restoration

There is also something distinct from Sanchi in the style of these faces. For here 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 seen the sculptures at Sanchi being carved.

Indeed, 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 none of the otherworldliness you see in the later images of the Bodhisattvas. Instead, 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 loose 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 the photography for this piece, the guards joked among themselves about which painted king looked most like which guard. The women on the cave walls wear the same bangles as the Banjara tribes of these hills still stack along their forearms, and their dupattas are decorated with fringes of taarkaam or Paithani still popular in Maharashtra today, as are the fishscale kham textiles which clothe the hunters in the Shyama 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 somehow reassuringly familiar.


Raiders Of The Lost Art

How the Ajanta paintings were discovered, lost to carelessness and have now been found again

  • Ajanta is located about 100 km off Aurangabad, in Maharashtra. The City of Gates is named after the sixth Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1658-1707).
  • The Ajanta cave paintings date to 1,400 years before, say, Renaissance. They outdate any European painting of similar artistic value and technical expertise.
  • A British hunting party led by Capt John Smith, tracking a tiger in the jungles of Aurangabad, stumbled upon the 31 caves in April 1819.

  • Other Orientalists, archaeologists and Indologists have since unearthed a trove of art.

  • The murals and frescoes of Ajanta are recognised as among the greatest artworks produced by humans in any century, as well as the finest picture gallery to survive from an ancient civilisation. They are prototypes of the forms which would spread with Buddhism to Afghanistan, China, Japan and the rest of SE Asia.
  • Ajanta caves attract about 5,000 visitors a day. The restoration work is complete now and the caves 9 and 10 are open to the public to come and see the works of the first true masters of paintings.

  • With the exception of the prehistoric pictograms of stick figures of men, women and animals left by Palaeolithic hunters at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh, the early Ajanta paintings are the oldest portraits of Indian people to have survived from the ancient world.
  • The period of the later, more famous Ajanta paintings is hailed as India’s golden age, when the Gupta dynasty lorded over the Gangetic plain. This was also the time when Kalidasa was penning his greatest works.
  • The current restoration has been done in Caves 9 & 10, located about in the middle of the 31 caves. The frescoes inside them are the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence, dating from only 300 years after Buddha’s death.
  • The newly restored paintings have not been seen since the 1920s. They are the oldest paintings of Indian faces and the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence.
  • There are two distinct phases of artworks: the cave that Smith first walked into (later named Cave 10) and five others flanking it dating to 1st or 2nd century BC. Other murals are from 600 yrs later.
  • In the early 1930s, the Nizam of Hyderabad sent two Italian conservationists to help restore the works but their efforts obscured the murals even further.
  • The restoration work of Caves 9 & 10 has been on since 1999. The frescoes here are the oldest and coated with shellac, bat dung, soot and dirt, plus varnish left by careless British restorers in the mid-1800s.

  • Manager Rajdeo Singh, the chief of conservation of the Archaeological Survey of India, has been slowly and painstakingly restoring the paintings since 1999.
  • The paintings were so fragile that in places restorers were afraid to touch them even by hand. Manager Singh and his team used infra-red light, micro-emulsion and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology and has succeeded in removing three-fourths of the deposits.

Edited online. A version of this article appears in print

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