I must admit, when I first stood at the base of the Ajanta Caves in the sweltering June sun, I didn’t understand why my family and I had left the glittering metropolitan city of Mumbai, to see thirty some ancient caves. We were vacationing in India for a month to meet our extended family, but my parents thought we should also explore our Indian cultural heritage. After a five-hour train ride to reach Jalgaon, we finally arrived at my uncle’s house in an auto rickshaw. Following a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast the next morning, we rented a cab to see the caves, fifty-nine kilometers away.
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I casually flipped the pages of a guidebook bought from an aggressive Ajanta shop seller, while my brother, parents, two cousins and I trudged up the steep stairs. The Buddhist Ajanta caves were built around 2nd century BCE to 400-650 CE. They had been hidden until they were excavated by John Smith, a British officer in 1819. While I was engrossed in reading, my cousin suddenly exclaimed, “The sign says not to stand by the edge in monsoon season!” They had already visited this World Heritage Site twice. Personally, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to travel this precarious cliff to see primitive depictions of the Jataka tales.
Sweating and panting, we entered the first cave after taking off our shoes. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. As I slowly walked around the cave, silently studying the vivid, intricate murals, I gaped in disbelief. Their colors, bright after all these years, mesmerized me. Each figure, carefully positioned and painted with earthly tones, looked alive. I reached for my camera to capture the exquisite beauty of the cave but my cousin warned me to turn off the flash. He pointed to a wall where patches of the mural were peeling off. The light had damaged it. I gasped. No one would ever get to see what had been painted there. Disconcerted, I looked the other way. There were mysterious passageways in the walls. A tour guide explained that these caves were monasteries or prayer halls connected by passageways to living quarters. Unfortunately, that area was guarded by a velvet rope-line so I couldn’t explore them. My mother tapped me on the shoulder, “We’re only in the first cave.” I left reluctantly.
In subsequent caves, the tour guide spoke at length of British expeditions and other stories, in Hindi, English and Marathi. He pointed out specific frescoes, such as the one of Buddha’s mother dreaming, stately stupas, Buddhist shrines, and Buddha in the dharmachakrapravartanamudra position. He identified ceilings which mirrored the rib-vault ceilings of the European Gothic Churches of the Middle Ages. I was amazed to see the similarities between two distant cultures that had evolved independently of one another.
The later caves were well preserved, with pristine façades and ornate columns intact, withstanding centuries of erosion. But, it was not until we entered an untouched cave full of sharp speleothem deposits, that I really began to appreciate the work of the ancient Buddhist monks. Even without modern technology, the monks persisted in creating these marvels at such heights in extreme heat without electricity. Didn’t their feet hurt? Weren’t they afraid that the caves might collapse?
In the last cave, reclining Buddha was displayed, representing his death – a grandiose finale to the portrayal of Buddha’s life.
We crossed a bridge overlooking the lush ravine. I turned one last time to admire the beauty of the caves in its entirety. Surely, I would come again.
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