Donna and Joe have finished their assignment in India. Occasionally they still travel somewhere.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rock Cut Temples of Ajanta

We arrived in Arangabad for our visit the world heritage sites of Ellora and Ajanta early in the morning after a very short night's sleep near the Mumbai airport. So after hiring a car and driver we stopped at a road side stand for some coffee. In India coffee is generally made with milk, not water. So here you see a pot of milk simmering on a wood fired stove. The mechanical thing down amongst the fire wood is a hand cranked fan to keep the fire hot. To make cup of coffee the vendor scoops out some hot milk with a large, metal cup, adds some ground coffee then filters the coffee into a glass.

The Ajanta "caves" are actually temples and monasteries carved into the face of a solid rock cliff. The caves are quite dark and in many of them flash photography is prohibited. So while the pink and green tones of this picture are not entirely accurate the picture conveys the dark, other worldly feeling of the interior of the caves. The caves at this site are all Buddhist and so there are a great many statues and paintings of the Buddha. This Buddha has his hands in the "teaching" position, a very common occurrence in the caves. In the next statue the Buddha is surrounded by other figures. In such scenes the other figures are always much smaller than the Buddha indicating their relative importance. The tightly curled hair and large ears on the Buddha are also indications of his importance--or so the guide told us.
As you look at these statues keep in mind that these are not pieces of stoned carved and then set in place. The entire room is carved into solid rock. So the excavators had to plan for where statues, pillars, etc. were going to be and leave stone in place to carve whatever is going there.

This picture shows an unfinished cave. Rooms were carved from the top down. You can see in this picture a large area which is higher than the floor, left so that workers could stand on it to work on the ceiling. There are a number of unfinished caves at both Ajanta and nearby Ellora. Each cave was supported by a king, and if he died or needed to shift his resources to fighting some other king before the project was finished, it might never be finished.

As this view shows, caves are arranged in a line along the cliff face of a horseshoe-shaped mountain ridge, with the Waghora River bed at its base. There was water nearby necessary for survival, and the secluded, hidden location was ideal for the monk's work and study. This shows only the center section of the string of caves. There are 27 caves in total. While most of the caves were carved between 200A.D. and 500A.D., their location within this interior semicircle prevented their discovery by outsiders until around 1820, when an Englishman out tiger hunting realized that the bit of the red and yellow he'd spotted was actually paint seen through a doorway, almost hidden by bushes.
In modern times some of the walkways and stairs have been reinforced or extended with concrete. Originally access was by stairs cut into the rock and flat areas in front of the entrances was created by cutting back the face of the cliff before carving the rooms into the interior of the hill.

Ajanta caves are actually most renowned for their paintings. It is said that the paintings and carvings were all done without any artificial lighting. They were worked on when the sunlight was from the right direction to penetrate the cave openings. This was aided with the use of metallic mirrors that were aimed to shine light in through the windows. Since there is no sign of accumulated soot from lamps or candles, I think this must be true. It's difficult to get good pictures in the caves with the best preserved paintings, because flash photography is not allowed. Most of the paintings depict scenes from the Buddha's life. As you can see here, scenes and figures are packed together and in many caves cover all of the walls and the ceiling.
The next two pictures were taken in a cave where flash photos are allowed and restoration work is in progress. The one on the left is a small part of one wall. There are 500 paintings of the Buddha on this wall and 500 on the opposite wall, commemorating a miracle in which the Buddha appeared as a 1000 images of himself at once. The second image is from the ceiling of the same cave.

And while were talking about painting I have added this picture of the floor of a cave. These holes were used for mixing paints back when the caves were initially cut and painted. Paints were made from ochre, lime, lamp black and lapis lazuli.

This is one of the older caves at Ajanta. It was cut before the time when Buddhists began to think of the Buddha as divine and to make images of him. The center piece of this temple is a "stupa" (burial mound). When the Buddha died, his body was cremated and the ashes were distributed to eight stupas in various places in India. Over time more stupas were built and used as a focal point for worship. The brown posts in this photo are about a meter high and rope off the area were tourists are allowed to walk. Notice the ceiling has "rafters" carved out of the rock as the room was cut. They of course have no structural purpose but make the room look more like a building built from pieces of stone rather than cut out of solid rock. This cave is quite well lit because of a large door and a large semicircular window above it.

Many of these caves were living quarters for monks. They had a large central room and small cells around the sides. Here you can see me inside a one of the cells which varied in size from about 2 by 3 meters to 4 by 4 meters. Two even had a stone bed "built in", complete with a stone pillow.

On our way out of the caves I took this picture of a woman, also on her way back to the bus parking lot. To reduce pollution all private vehicles must park a few kilometers away from the caves. An electric bus takes you to a spot near the caves from which it is a moderately steep half kilometer hike to the caves. If you prefer to ride, for a fee, four men will carry you in one of these chairs to and from the caves. Once the rider is comfortably seated they lift the poles up to their shoulders and take off at a brisk trot.


Karen said...


Karen said...

Hi Joe and Donna. This was extraordinary!! Can you just imagine the time and effort that went into these beautiful caves?? Artists have been making life better for others since time began. See Donna, Joe was right. Artists keep life beautiful for the rest of us. Thank God for artists!!!! Love ya and cant wait to see you in a month.

Anonymous said...

Awesome pictures and great narrative. Thanks for sharing.

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