The dark, cavernous hall at Bagh Caves was lined with gigantic pillars, seemingly the work of giants, not men. As we ventured deeper into the cave, the smell of pigeon and bat poop hung heavily in the dank air. At the far end, by the surreal glow of mobile phone flashlights, we barely deciphered the outline of a stupa. On either side of it stood a trio of large sculptures—only Buddha seemed discernible. Age and decay had severely eroded them, and the blemished appearance gave them an eerie touch. And then we gasped, when we saw the remnants of paintings on the pillars, floral motifs near the ceiling, geometric designs…“Yahan itna hi hai!” (There’s only this much here), boomed the voice of the security guard. The reverie was broken. We staggered out into the bright sunlight in a daze.

Abhinandita Mathur
Located on the far banks of the Baghini river, Bagh Caves contains Buddhist paintings and relics dating back to 5-7th century
Located on the far banks of the Baghini river, Bagh Caves contains Buddhist paintings and relics dating back to 5-7th century

We were at the rock-cut Buddhist caves of Bagh, carved during the Satvahana dynasty in 5-7th century. Located on the far side of the Bhagini River, and accessed by a wide 200 m-long walkway, the caves were hewn out of a sandstone hill on the southern slopes of the Vindhyas. Of nine original caves, only seven remain.

They were originally viharas (monasteries) with cells or resting places for monks, and a small chaitya or prayer hall at the back. Most important is Cave 4 or Rang Mahal (Palace of Colours), that contained the best paintings. A painting of the bodhisattva Padmapani is believed to be a prototype of the one at Ajanta. To protect the frescoes from permanent damage, as many as 21 specimens were removed and transplanted from Cave 4 alone.

Abhinandita Mathur
“Weeping women”, a 5th-century Buddhist painting from Bagh Caves
“Weeping women”, a 5th-century Buddhist painting from Bagh Caves

The Paintings: The cave painting technique used here was tempera. To smoothen the rocky canvas, the surface was first prepared with a gritty, reddish-brown mud plaster made of ferruginous earth, gravel, lime, and jute or hemp fibre. Over this, a second coat of one-millimetre-thick rough earth plaster was made, and a primer of silica and lime applied. On this prepared surface, Buddhist-themed art was painted using pigments from earthen or mineral sources, while organic vegetable gum was used as a binding medium.

Abhinandita Mathur
Broken relics lie scattered in the rock-cut Bagh Caves, carved into a sandstone hill on the southern slopes of the Vindhyas
Broken relics lie scattered in the rock-cut Bagh Caves, carved into a sandstone hill on the southern slopes of the Vindhyas

The Restoration: Over time, excessive seepage and percolation of rainwater, the accumulation of salts and micro-flora on the surfaces, and erosion, led to severe deterioration of the paintings. To prevent further damage, the ASI launched a conservation project in 1979-80 that took 17 years to complete. It involved relocating the frescoes to a more stable environment.

Abhinandita Mathur
A small museum near Bagh Caves outlines the restoration efforts undertaken to conserve the Bagh Cave paintings
A small museum near Bagh Caves outlines the restoration efforts undertaken to conserve the Bagh Cave paintings

Two techniques were used to strip the paintings—the Strappo method where only the paint layer was removed and the De-Stacco method where the paint layer was removed with a portion of the original mud plaster. These paintings are now housed in the Archaeological Museum in Gwalior, and in the on-site museum in Bagh.

Bagh Museum: Inside Bagh Museum information panels explain the conservation efforts. There are sections of retrieved paintings that depict various Jatakas (Buddhist tales): Buddha’s miracle at Kapilavastu, a horse procession of the Lichhavis at Vaisali, Princess Malini of Benares, Boddhisatva Padmapani, and a sequence of female musicians and their stories in captions.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there: Located 97 km from Dhar and 161 km from Indore, you can bypass congested Bagh town, and drive 5 km onto Kukshi Road. Turn left from the blue signboard for the 3 km drive to the caves. Upon entering the complex, you will notice a stone building (dating back to 1934), with a Surya emblem flanked by two coiled snakes. To the right of the building is a path towards the caves, while the left track leads to Bagh Museum.

 Bagh Caves
Address: Bagh Cave Road, Naingaon

Tel: +91 78282 28507

Entry: Indians ₹15; foreigners ₹200; children under 15 free; video camera ₹25.

Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Visit MP Tourism