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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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