In more belated news, two weeks ago I attended an event at the National Gallery of Modern Art was “Ajanta Cave Murals: Nothing Less than the Birth of Indian Painting.” I’d come to hear the presenter, William Dalrymple, author of nine books, including White Mughals and City of Djinns, to name the two on the shelf beside me. He was speaking on mural paintings at the Ajanta cave complex, about 100 km northeast of Aurangabad, at which the oldest known paintings of Indian faces—indeed, also the oldest known Buddhist paintings—were recently uncovered.
William Dalrymple is an odd presenter. He wore a black kurta and salwar, a gold dupatta that kept slipping from his shoulders, perhaps because it was too short for his bulk, and was barefoot. He could not let a painting of a female form pass without commenting on beauty or sensuousness, but had no comments regarding attractive male forms, though a number of topless soldiers were painted as well. But the story he told was fascinating.
The Ajanta caves—3o or 31 in total, depending on the counting—date predominantly to the 5th or 6th century A.D., were rediscovered after desuetude in 1819, and are an iconic site in Indian art. The Ajanta caves were Buddhist caves, from the first few centuries of Buddhist monastic life. They were built among trade routes, in the fringes of what had been the extent of Hellenistic conquest some centuries earlier. The caves from the 5th or 6th century depict the life of Buddha, with attention to his secular life before he attained enlightenment. Two of the caves—Nine and Ten—are different, and it is these caves that were the subject of Dalrymple’s talk.
These two caves had been excavated in approximately 90 to 70 B.C., and murals painted perhaps fifty years later. (Other dates suggest 2nd cent. B.C.). They are thus roughly 600 years older than any other caves at Ajanta. They had been re-discovered and described in the 19th century, along with the other Ajanta caves. They had been drawn by one British explorer over the course of thirty years; he sent his drawings to the Crystal Palace in London, where they remained until that building was destroyed by fire. They had also been drawn by that explorer’s successor, who sent his drawings to the Victoria and Albert in London, where they were subsequently destroyed in a fire. Subsequently, a Japanese calligrapher, who had come to Santiniketan in West Bengal to work with Rabindranath Tagore, also drew the murals, but his work was later destroyed in Tokyo, by a fire caused by a earthquake.
In the 1930s, the Nizam of Hyderabad, in whose territories the Ajanta caves lay, had hired some Italian art restorers to preserve those two caves. They covered the murals with a layer of shellac; this shellac attracted bat guano, and the murals were effectively hidden from sight until two years ago, when the Archeological Society of India, led by Manager Singh, completed a conservation project. The results were reported in conservators’ journals but otherwise, according to Dalrymple, untrumpeted.
The faces in the recently-uncovered murals are remarkable. They are not idealized forms, but individuals. The scenes play out with perspective, and a real sense of movement. I wish I could find images to share that show these murals in their setting, rather than just details, but suffice to say, these clipped portraits are part of a larger narrative. Accompanying them are short texts, which may likewise be among the oldest written Buddhist texts in known existence.
The construction of caves Nine and Ten was also personal. While the majority of the caves in Ajanta were endowed by a single patron or a handful of patrons, these were endowed piecemeal, collectively, by multiple individual monks, nuns, and supporters, with one column attributed to one donor and one ceiling rib to another, until the entire splendid cave was completed.