Capt. John Smith was on leave from his cavalry regiment and was determined to bag a tiger while on a hunt deep in the jungles in Western India, around 100 km from modern-day Aurangabad. The date was 28th April 1819, and Smith was stalking through the thorny underbrush of the Waghora River, inside a horseshoe-shaped ravine carved out by the water over millennia, when one of his young beaters pointed to a cave above. Since the river was named ‘Waghora’ (tiger), Smith figured there was a good chance a tiger could be laired in the cave.
Legend has it that the young army officer spotted some colour in the cave and, after he managed to get to the top, he was dumbfounded by the sight that awaited him. In the dim and flickering light of the torches carried by his hunting party, Smith was confronted by an ancient art gallery painted into the rock face of the cave he was standing in.
Looking back at his astonished face were images of princes and mendicants, sensuous dancing girls, crowd scenes and bodhisattvas or monks. Deep inside the pillared hall was a stupa carved out of living rock and within it was carved an image of the Buddha himself.
After he recovered his composure, Smith knew he was standing on the cusp of history. So, to mark this great discovery, he carved his name on a Bodhisattva image in Cave No 10, along with the date of his discovery!
Smith was not the first to stumble upon the caves at Ajanta. In medieval times, these rock-cut caves were known to Chinese travellers like Hiuen Tsang and, later, by an official at Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court.
But Smith was the first European to discover the caves. This was a turning point as it led to the restoration of the caves and intense research by Western scholars. Up until then, not much was known about Buddhism in India, as a result of which Buddhist art and architecture had been largely ignored.
A couple of hundred years before this, in the 16th century, rock-cut caves had been seen and mentioned by the Portuguese in India and many other travellers who visited the subcontinent but nothing of this magnitude had ever been recorded.
The Portuguese had occupied the island of Elephanta in the Bombay harbour in 1534 and had stationed their troops in the caves there. One of the early writers was sure that these caves had been built by Alexander’s soldiers because it was believed, Indians did not have the skills to build caves like these and embellish them with such delicate rock art!
West Discovers Ajanta
Smith’s discovery of Ajanta and its painted halls captured the imagination of Western archaeologists and scholars, and it brought them here in droves. The caves and their art were priceless, dating from the 2nd century BCE to the 6th century CE. However, unmindful of their archaeological value, many who came inflicted irreparable damage on the murals by chipping at them or attempting to rip them off.
The first scholarly paper on the caves was read by William Erskine in 1822 to the Bombay Literary Society. James Fergusson, the co-author of the seminal work The Cave Temples of India (1880), was the first to raise his voice against the destruction and vandalising of the caves. He proceeded to visit them and presented a paper on them to the Royal Asiatic Society (of Bombay) in 1843. This paper, later published by the Society in 1845, was the result of Fergusson’s surveys of rock-cut monuments at Cuttack in 1836, Western India in 1838 and Mahabalipuram in 1841.
In 1844, the East India Company appointed Major Robert Gill to document the paintings at Ajanta, which he did over the next 20 years. He made a series of paintings in very inhospitable conditions. Twenty-seven of his paintings were displayed at the Indian Court in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, Britain, where 23 of them sadly perished in a fire in 1866.
Gill returned to Ajanta, armed with a camera and a painting kit, to redo his work but died at Ajanta a year later. The four surviving canvases are currently with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and are a testament to the beauty of the paintings and to Gill’s work.
During Gill’s first stint at Ajanta, the Royal Asiatic Society formed the Royal Cave Temple Trust in 1848, which played a pivotal part in the creation of the first Archaeological Survey of India in 1861. The Ajanta caves were then mentioned by Charlotte Speir in 1856, in her famous work Life In Ancient India, perhaps the first woman to discuss rock-cut caves. Fergusson published his first work The Rock-Cut Temples of India in 1864, to much acclaim.
While the international spotlight stayed firmly on this great discovery, it encouraged more and more people to visit the caves, including treasure hunters who tried to peel the murals off the walls. All this left the paintings in very fragile condition.
Since the caves fell under the jurisdiction of the Nizam of Hyderabad, he invited two Italian experts to conserve the paintings in the 1920s. Prof Lorenzo Cecconi and Count Orsini painstaking removed the shellac and varnish applied by earlier conservators to cleanse the murals. They then covered the paintings in what was then considered cutting-edge technology by using injections of casein to stabilise them.
Conservation of these breathtaking murals has been a continuous effort on the part of the ASI and the last major restoration project was undertaken as recently as 1999. It was led by Rajdeo Singh of the ASI, using Japanese techniques. Today, the caves are not just an ASI protected site but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Ajanta to Rest of India
Capt Smith’s discovery did more than bring to light one of the most significant discoveries in Indian art; it introduced the West to a Buddhist phase in Indian history and led to a huge enhancement in our knowledge and database of all things archaeological and artistic. It led to the creation of a Cave Temple Survey, a catalyst in the founding of the ASI. The discovery also spurred research into conservation techniques and in alternative uses of art history viz to understand polity, political turmoil, social organisation, religious affiliation, narration, jewellery, coiffure, dress and other angles.
Let us briefly return to the middle of the 19th century, when James Fergusson conducted a thorough and systematic classification of rock-cut caves across India from 1829 to 1847. He also published many academic papers on the subject. Later, he teamed up with famous archaeologist James Burgess to carry out a series of surveys of the rock-cut caves of Western India. Together, they described the architecture and art they came across, contemplated the similarities and evolution of different styles, and in 1880 published their work in a magnum opus called The Cave Temples of India. This book is still referred to by students and scholars of Indian art, architecture and archaeology.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Burgess and Bhagwanlal Indraji took the study of the caves of Western India a step further by comprehensively deciphering the inscriptions carved into them. In doing so, they added an enormous corpus of new historical and socio-cultural data. Many of these inscriptions had already been deciphered by stalwarts like Rev J Stevenson, H Jacobi and Georg Bühler, but the work by Burgess and Indraji is unsurpassed even today.
Following the impetus by Fergusson, Burgess and Indraji, caves were discovered all over peninsular India. The discovery of the Barabar hill caves in Bihar took the history of cave-temple making to the Mauryan period and proved that the first caves were not Buddhist but meant for the Ajivaka mendicants! Today, Maharashtra has the greatest number of rock-cut caves (over 1,000), with the Kanheri cave complex in Mumbai having over 100 such excavations. There are Jain caves in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Orissa; Brahmanical caves in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; and Buddhist caves in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Bihar.
Over time, these caves and their builders have been researched by Indian and Western scholars, who have studied their art history, iconography, inscriptions, layout, construction techniques, social organisation, philosophical attributes, ownership by different sects, ancient Indian narrative styles and traditions, royal endowments, economic matters, shifts of power, patronage, dress, coiffeur, food and drink, animals and animal husbandry and many other aspects, thereby enriching the discipline and academia.
A Towering Authority
Special mention needs to be made of Prof Walter Spink, former Professor (later Prof Emeritus) at Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was best known the world over as an authority on the Ajanta Caves and on cave architecture and art history, in general.
Spink came to India in 1952 as a Fullbright scholar. He worked on the Jain rock-cut caves of Udaygiri and Khandgiri and, in 1954, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the subject. For the next five decades, he visited India, often twice a year but at least once a year. He shifted the focus of his research to the Ajanta caves and his mastery over the subject was such that he was able to reduce the entire chronology of the Mahayana Phase during the Vakataka period to 18 years. It was a figure that shocked the art history world, which had casually guesstimated a period of 200 or so years! His approach was very comprehensive and it encompassed art, architecture, sculpture, iconography, epigraphy and history.
This wasn’t the end of the line for Spink, who returned year after year with eager American university students for one of the most sought-after seminars in art history in the world - The Ajanta Site Seminar. He also took with him for these seminars, free of cost, an equal number of young and aspiring students from Indian universities to train them in his methods and to expose them to scholarship. He published his work in seven humongous volumes (titled: Ajanta History and Development, Vols 1 to 7) totalling almost 2,800 pages, besides a large number of articles, presentations and lectures, both academic and public. Spink described the study of rock-cut architecture as ‘reverse archaeology’, where to understand the past you have to put back what has been excavated.
One of the things he said to the author (Kurush Dalal), then a young scholar, in 1995, was that the paintings at Ajanta were not unique to this cave complex; they originally existed at all Buddhist rock-cut shrines. They had faded and peeled away as the structures were used over time, leaving behind only minor traces at caves like Bagh (5th to 7th c AD Cave complex in the Dhar District of MP) and Kanheri in Mumbai (dateable between the 1st c BC and the 15th c AD), and at smaller ones like the caves at Bhaja (near Lonavala, District Pune and dateable to the 3rd c BC onwards) and Karla (also near Lonavala and dated from the 2nd c BC onwards) in Maharashtra.
At Ajanta, the beacon of all rock-cut cave archaeology and which started it all, the paintings survived simply because the caves were deserted whilst almost completed. If you follow Prof Spinks chronology you realise that the work at Ajanta was stopped abruptly as royal patronage dried up due to dynastic change. Thus preserving these caves in an unused manner. It is because of this lack of usage that these were the ‘flashiest’ and ‘first’ of the caves to be exposed to the limelight of Indian art history. The misfortune in the 6th c AD was the good fortune of the 19th c AD and onwards.
Prof Walter Spink passed away on 23rd November 2019, 200 years, 6 months and 25 days after the Ajanta Rock-Cut Caves were discovered, leaving their legacy stronger and brighter.