Ajanta-Ellora Trip report

#1 Jan 15th, 2013, 16:07
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Ajanta-Ellora Trip report This trip was undertaken as a part of a longer road trip. The Ajanta/Ellora section will be posted here. The remaining road trip (before and after) may be read here:

<Road Trip> The Other Left – 2500 kms Self-Drive with Parents -Malwa-Ajanta-Jhalawar
______________________________ ______________________________ ______________________________ _____________________________
(Fast forward in the Graeco - Persian conflict) Alexander of Macedon woke up around half past five in the morning on the 27th of December and was told that there was no hot water. Actually, there was no electricity. How was he supposed to set off for campaign sans electricity and a decent hot water bath?

“Push off the Persia campaign by a day?”
“You don’t have a buffer day- remember? My little brilliant planner. “– said mother.
“Gawd, it’d just be easier to march all the way to India than argue with mother”, he thought, “maybe someday”.

He walked over to the reception area about a furlong away (the MTDC was built to a Soviet Socialist building scale).



Mr AK Sayyad (manager- MTDC) had handed over charge to a certain Mr Pathan who was sound asleep at that hour. Alexander wanted to brandish his sword except that he didn’t have one. So he merely raised his voice.

“Tea for my parents, no sugar; and HOT water, please !”
“I will put diesel in the generator immediately”, said Mr Pathan demurely. “It must have got consumed; we’re on backup since 3 am!”

Unfazed, alexander continued to walk around the reception building and then noticed that the non-AC wing didn’t even have power backup. “Ok, so Darius had a point”

Coming back to the reception, he barked “And someone needs to wash my horse”

“Sir ....sir”

Around eight am, we were scrubbed, well fed and checked out. This resort at Phardapur, though run by a government organization, is surprisingly efficient. Phardapur (or Fardapur) got placed on the map thanks to the wonder called Ajanta Caves, that lie about five kilometers from the resort.

We wanted to be on time for the first bus to depart and indeed, we were. After some struggle finding a parking spot (it was too large and too empty and consequently the little horse was scared of being left alone), we walked about a half kilometer amidst closed souvenir shops and some very annoying agate salesmen and reached a serpentine queue of schoolchildren. The queue was twenty five strong and counting. There was a small group of other tourists, an elderly Bengali couple who I had noticed in the MTDC resort as well loitering around.

(Alexander didn’t like leaving his horse behind and jumping onto someone else’s wagon train but he had little choice. To ford the river, these mechanized contraptions were a necessity as the map below showed him)



‘Clueless’ aptly describes the situation for most of the tourists at that point of time as the ticket counter for the bus pick up was closed. It was nearly half past eight at that time – the scheduled time for the departure of the first bus. There was some confusion regarding which bus would go so I cornered an unsuspecting Mr Tonde (working as security guard) and asked him what the problem was. He responded that the first bus that carries the ASI staff hasn’t left as the conductor for that bus had not arrived.

Indeed, a green liveried bus tried to hide shly behind another, saving herself from the ravenous gazes of the passers-by, cleaners and other men assembling around her and the growing mob of tourists (See below)



The words that flew out of my mouth for the next five minutes can only be classified as what Samosapedia calls “Maska Polish” . A few minutes later, Mr Tonde had requested someone else who , in turn, requested someone else that ‘these poor fellows who have come all the way from Jaipur should not be left behind when the first bus leaves’.

Rather incredulously, it all worked.

Much to the chagrin of the thirty odd tourists that morning at the Ajanta T-point bus departure counter, parents and I boarded the first bus along with the ASI staff. The Bengali couple, being quite street-smart, also boarded the same bus along with us by claiming ‘all of us are together’. (A view from the inside is below)



(The contraption operator closed the door before any other hopefuls could claim fealty or blood relationships with Alexander the Great. He sat quietly as the metallic box moved raucously along the serpentine Waghora River, a dried riverbed in this season – grudgingly appreciative of the scenery. It was dry, but it was beautiful!)





At the end of the four kilometer ride, we got down the bus, purchased the tickets for entrance (Rs 10 for an adult and Rs 5 separately for our group of three as the lighting charge). I was told that the excellent ASI-goodearth guides for Ajanta and Ellora will be available next door so I walked into what turned out to be the cafeteria. They redirected me to the ASI outlet at the cave’s entrance, up the hill. I walked up quickly the walkway of maybe about a hundred feet and the first view of Ajanta Caves – the world heritage monument came into view. I smiled, we had reached!

Last edited by vaibhav_arora; Feb 1st, 2013 at 19:19..
#2 Jan 15th, 2013, 16:31
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#2
"Maska Polish" aside, this post made me laugh out loud. Now looking forward to Alexander's conquest of Ajanta.
"Language is a weapon, it's not for shaving your armpits."

- Mahashweta Debi, Bengali author and activist.
#3 Jan 17th, 2013, 19:52
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#3
More, Please Sir, pretty please...?
#4 Feb 1st, 2013, 19:16
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Imagining how it was done

Note: I’ve been stuck for the past several weeks, dithering and procrastinating writing about Ajanta. This happened because I couldn’t figure out a way to describe what I saw. It is hard to understand the motivation of a set of people who were clearly very religious and had ostensibly no financial incentive to create such fine art in some of the most difficult conditions.

The rock – Deccan trap it is called – is igneous basalt formed by lava cooling and not the easiest surface to carve (seen below is an evidence on the ceiling of a cave). The marble in Mount Abu comparatively makes for much softer surface as does the one used at the Taj. This makes sculpture as well creating the structure difficult. Further, there’s the relative isolation of the place (over miles of low lying rolling hills) implying that all material for painting had to be locally sourced or used in small quantity (if brought from outside). Lastly, when it’s not hot in Ajanta, it’s pouring and till date rock fall is common during the rainy season.



The pathway that one sees linking all the caves is a modern creation. When the caves were rediscovered by a hunting party of the British in the nineteenth century, their situation at different heights from the floor of the river gorge below made access to some of them impossible without a stepladder. (Sometimes I wonder how many world heritage monuments in India owe their discovery to the British love for all outdoors – big game and exploration. I can think of Khajuraho and Ajanta and to a lesser extent Konarak.) Thus, when they were carved, how would the monks get to the mouth of the cave? It all makes one giddy with a sense of wonderment.



I think the easiest conclusion would be to side with religion and assume that the monks were indeed trying very hard to promote the cause of their religion. This is a somewhat flawed interpretation as the relative isolation of the caves would not allow for large number of visitors. I therefore feel that the caves were created by monks for their own pleasure and usage as much for others to visit and view (and I’m not only thinking from the standpoint of Viharas – the living quarters – having a utility value)

Of the total of thirty one caves that line the horse-shoe bend of the Waghora River, twenty six are open to viewing by the general public. Of these, some are incomplete, like cave three while some have suffered a partial collapse due to perhaps the age. Some such as caves 1, 2 and 17 have incomparable paintings, derived largely from Jataka tales. The rest have sculptures of different forms of Buddha- some in his mortal form sitting in various mudras while others have an aniconic representation of the Buddha- only as a Stupa.

After walking through the caves, one does get a fair sense of how these would have been made. This is possible thanks to the various stages of development the caves were left at. First, the rock was cut through revealing corridors and then the pillars were formed (See below)



The rough surfaces of the walls and ceiling were smoothed over. Given below is how it would have looked prior to smoothening.



The pillars were then carved into octagonal form and decorated with many designs, such as the bell (ghantai) shape; or floral motifs and seals.



The principal deity, Buddha was carved in the chamber in the ‘garbha-griha’ often accompanied by attendants – bodhisattavas.
Then a layer of plaster was applied. The constituents of this plaster may be seen in the cave where ASI maintains their ‘showcase project’ of cave restoration. The mud plaster contains materials as diverse as:

a) cowdung and horsedung (first photo)



b) (seen from left to right), natural gum, bark of a tree and wood shavings (second photo)



c) The final photo shows fruit of medicinal value such as harad (english: myrobalan), baheda (belliric) and lastly, bael (wood apple or Bengal quince).



Once this plaster dried, paint was applied using brushes made of animal hair. The colors used were all natural , both organic and inorganic. There were vegetable colors as well as haemetite for red and brown pigmentation and even lapis lazuli for the blue. The entire palette was limited to just six principal colors (though one can’t tell that by looking at the paintings – the mixing of these colors judiciously has achieved the effect the artists intended). Thus, the paintings are more prone to peeling off as the paint does not truly bind with the plaster.
Lastly, at the time of discovery of these paintings, some were in a better shape than they are today (enhanced humidity levels in the caves due to humans entering does accelerate their deterioration) but many were so badly covered by plant growth that it was hard to make out if there was a painting there at all. For all the brickbats that ASI receives, I think they have done a fantastic job restoring Ajanta to a shape that the paintings can at least be viewed by normal tourists. Given below is an example of the before and after:

#5 Feb 1st, 2013, 19:36
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#5

Congrartulations

Beautiful Narration, waiting for more.
#6 Feb 1st, 2013, 20:07
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You may have kept us waiting for this part of your trip to unfold before our eyes, Vaibhav, but it was well worth the wait. Superb details and story-telling as well as great photos.
#7 Feb 4th, 2013, 14:06
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Brilliant! Keep going, Vaibhav!
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid Albert Einstein


Trip reports:

Syalsaur/ Deoria taal/ Chopta trip report, West and South Sikkim trip report , Puri/ Konark trip report
#8 Feb 4th, 2013, 14:07
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B E A U T I F U L photos vaibhav,

Like your other post and photos ...... I LIKED this too.


aamar payer tolai sorshe...(I have wheels under my feet)
#9 Feb 12th, 2013, 17:18
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Alexander in Wonderland

I ran up ahead, my parents were to follow me up the twenty odd stairs languidly and near the sign that read ‘rocks fall in rainy season’ was a small office I had been looking for – it sold the ASI guidebooks. They lay on the table but the person in charge was missing and the guard didn’t know when he’d be back. I thus would have to go for Cave 1 without the benefit of the guide but I could always come back and do another round after the purchase.

The entrance of cave 1 is supported by carved pillars that are topped by mythological figures of yakshas, some of whom fly, and by elephants. I entered and along with me were about twenty thousand school children, giddy with excitement, shrieking and laughing yet maintaining a single file. I was a bit apprehensive based on the reports that the paintings have been extensively damaged and on top of that photography with a normal DSLR is quite difficult as flash is not permitted and nor are tripods. So my expectations were quite low.



As my eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness, I was stunned by what I saw – all the fables about the gold of ancient India were true. She glittered and shone in the light that came through the window openings of this Chaitya (prayer hall).

The women depicted on the walls wore sufficient clothes only to protect their modesty – so different from the modern world. They laughed openly, dressed seductively, looked at their men with such longing that it was impossible to resist their allure and yet the men possessed such self-will that when the time to renounce came, all charms of the women failed completely – This is seen in the Conversion of Nanda in cave 1 (damaged and seen below) and again in Mahajanka Jataka on the same wall in the same cave.



Prince Mahajanka - a Naga king, sits surrounded by a bevy of women, each rivaling the other in her charms and in their attempt to capture his gaze. He has made up his mind though, to give up all that he possesses. His wife, Shivali, looking directly at him kneels down and stares with forlorn eyes knowing fully well that king will renounce and seems resigned to her fate (see below).




Since I could not capture many portions of this Jataka fresco, a more complete description along with photos may be accessed here: http://www.slideshare.net/swami99/aj...ka-composition

(Alexander was confused in the absence of the guidebook as to which painting is this really – some sources state it is the Mahajanaka Jataka and others state that it is the conversion of Nanda, while still others place the conversion painting in cave 16. However, two facts, he was convinced of:
a) The woman on the right, either Shivali or Sundari (Nanda’s wife or Mahajanka’s wife) is smoking hot, even if she was wearing a top.
b) Thank goodness that she isn’t). )

I had put my camera on the wooden railing so as to be able to get anything worth showing and was happily clicking away till abruptly twenty two thousand school children came gushing in the door of the cave and ended my tete-a-tete with the lovelies of ancient India.

Perforce, I had to move up walk to my right, closer to the garbha-griha of the cave and came face to face the most reproduced and known painting in all of the caves – Bodhisattva Padampani. ‘He who holds the lotus’ is depicted a bit larger than life, with arms and torso of such fluidic quality and grace that it is impossible to ignore him and easy to see that he is of royal lineage.



He stands to the left of the Gautama statue which depicted in the ‘dhamma chakra pavattana mudra’ (setting the wheel of religion in motion). The statue itself is built after the buddha’s sermons at Sarnath – see the deer below on the pedestal.



Moving on, on the right of the statue is the second best known painting – that of Bodhisattva Vajrapani. The name vajrapani or the bearer of the thunder-bolt is derived from his weapon – a Vajra (though we do not see him bearing one in this painting). Vajrapani is seen wearing a five pointed crown that symbolizes the energy of the five tathagatas (the word that Buddha used while referring to himself). Vajrapani symbolizes all of Buddhas energy as Padmapani symbolized all his compassion.



To the left of Vajrapani is painted a small head, possibly of a royal personage, going by his expression (foul) and his headgear (impressive) – he is sometimes called ‘the prince’. Similarly, to the right of Padmapani from the viewers' direction is a lady displaying perfect proportions and uncovered breasts – she is sometimes called ‘the dark princess’. Both are seen in this composite image below.




Just as I was beginning to notice the jewelry worn by these characters in the paintings, a guide along with thirty thousand other schoolchildren in tow crept up close to the wooden railing and pointed out to as many as would bother to listen that many a jeweler have launched a successful line based on these paintings. The children couldn’t care less and continued to shriek and converse in Marathi.
So I took a step back to soak it all in, and got the view that gave perspective to the ‘prayer hall’ nature of the ‘Chaitya’ much better. In the center, recessed about twelve feet from the wooden railing is the Buddha sitting and preaching. The pillars are just four feet or so and behind the wooden railing on which the camera rests.



What can’t be seen in the previous photo but may be seen in the one below; to the left is Padmapani and to the right is Vajrapani, the two Bodhisattavas standing sentinel next to the Buddha. The masters at Ajanta achieved the effect of the prayer room in a very different way from what has been achieved at say Kushalnagar (bylakuppe at Karnataka) where all three are statutes or at any monastery in Ladakh.



(Alexander sensed a sudden discomfort as if someone unexpected was close-by. Standing in the right corner (close to the Vajrapani painting) he looked up and saw those he never expected to find here- in India. The Persians were here!!

Staring at him carousing and cavorting with his queen Shirin was the Persian king Khosrau. (The same shirin of the Shirin-Farhad fame).



More magic spilled from the pillars – four deer shared the same head. (Something must be said about that. Now if we were this economical in modern day Greece, would we have the recession what with the savings on the grass and whatnot …?)



And more discomfort spilled from another pillar to his right, war elephants! Those memories of Porus that still gave him nightmares; how his horses had fled at the sight of those chain-mailed beasts!



The base of a pillar was supported by three dragons, the largest of which blew from his mouth and everything around him took flight.



A bull stared down at him and no matter which part of the cave he went to, the bulls’ gaze followed him.



“India was indeed the fabled land of gold and magic – it was a wonderland”)

It was all too much for my little brain to consume. I rushed out with the vow of purchasing the ASI Goodearth World Heritage series guidebook from the ASI shop and returning to cave 1 to make sense of it all. Hopefully, there would be fewer children by late afternoon (I’m sure they’d get tired) and I’d be able to take more photos at peace.

(TBC)
Last edited by vaibhav_arora; Feb 12th, 2013 at 17:26.. Reason: fixed image and link
#10 Feb 12th, 2013, 17:21
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These paintings always evoke a sense of awe in me! Unimaginably talented people!
#11 Feb 12th, 2013, 17:45
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So true Sagar. They appear almost unreal the first time you see them. Significant challenge to photograph anything at all though with the no-flash, no-tripod rule and with everyone pushing everyone else for space especially in the last week of December, I was lucky to get any photos at all.
#12 Feb 12th, 2013, 19:10
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Exquisite paintings and descriptions.
#13 Feb 12th, 2013, 21:07
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Thank you TD
#14 Feb 25th, 2013, 19:58
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Ajanta , Ellora , though I had visited a couple of time in these golden days of my life , when I used to live in Pune. But I always feel the strong urge of visiting these place again and again. It is very well presented log and the pics are nicely captured. Excellent read.
#15 Mar 6th, 2013, 17:20
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Caves two to four

As I stepped out of cave 1 the light was blinding. I walked back to the landing area where the ASI shop was. Sunil, the ASI caretaker, was standing at the doorstep. He was delighted to welcome his first customer and promptly sold me the guidebooks for Ajanta and Ellora. Each was priced less than 100/-. I wanted to buy similar guidebooks for the Great Living Chola temples that I have visited in multiple trips to the south but it was not in stock. Then he blurted out ‘ Sahib, even these will get sold quickly. There was quite a racket going on here when young college students from Aurangabad would pick up this guide from here and at the base of the stairs or in Aurangabad, would sell each for Rs 250/-‘.

Walking back towards the caves, I spotted that very Indian solution to the problem faced by those with knee trouble while traveling - a ‘doli’ (or palanquin).

Shortly, thereafter, I was at the entrance of cave number 2, staring at unidentified bodhisattvas, many elephants and other creatures from Buddhist mythology. Inside the verandah, just below the ceiling, on the right side is a small compartment that depicts a seated naga king with his attendants.



Once inside, I noticed a great similarity with the celiing of cave 1, stunning floral motifs. The ones in Cave 2 are nearly monochrome though and the execution is much bolder. The ones in Cave 1



What really is the star attraction of this cave are the flanking statues on either side of the principal deity that are housed in their own small ante-chambers. On the right side, I saw a seated figure of what appeared to be a king – he has all the signs of a man of royal lineage, ornaments including a crown, a rounded belly and a smile of contentment on his face. He sits next to his consort. The photograph is a near impossible shot as any attempts to get the proper elevation in front are thwarted by a wooden railing and overzealous ASI watchmen. So, the statues behind the pillars is the best that are available. On the left of the king as seen from the front is ‘hariti’ – the Buddhist goddess of children and the king is called Pancika, her consort. Pancika was quite a man- he is said to have fathered 500 children!!



Hariti was an ogress who used to devour the children of Rajagriha till she was converted by Buddha and in due course of time came to be revered as the goddess of children in Buddhism. Her sculpture is very life-like and she is seen wearing a necklace of large beads and many strands of pearls (image below). On her lap is a small child.



The chamber on the left of the principal deity houses two bodhisattvas called Sankhanidhi and Padmanidhi. They are stunning as well but I couldn’t take a photograph despite my best attempts.

On the right wall, perpendicular to the ante-chamber that houses Hariti and Panika is a depiction of the Vidurapandita Jataka. This Jataka tale, In a nutshell goes like this : The naga king as well as three other contemporary kings get into a bitter dispute over who is the greatest of them all. Vidurapandita, a learned man of the times counsels them and convinces that they are all equal. Impressed, the Naga king, Varuna, offers his wife (Vimala’s) necklace to Vidhurapandita without informing her.
Here we see two of the key players from the story, the Naga king Varuna (on the seat) and his wife Vimala (kneeling, on the left) at the king’s court.



Vimala is understandably upset and asks for Vidurapandita’s life, else she will give up her own. This greatly upset Varuna. Around the same time, a Yaksha (mythical being with superpowers) general Punakka was flying over the naga kingdom. He spots the Naga princess Indrati swinging in the Royal Garden (seen in the photograph below) and falls for her.



Punakka asks Varuna for Indrati’s hand. Varuna, couldn’t say no and yet hesitant to give away his daughter to someone unknown asked his minister to devise a scheme. The cunning minister suggested that Punakka bring Vidurapandita’s heart as the prize. The complete description of this Jataka tale is beyond the scope of this travelogue, chiefly as I could not take all the photographs required to create this narrative. A very good description may be read here: http://ignca.nic.in/jatak039.htm

On the opposite wall we see the miracle of Sravasti, the tale where Buddha multiplied himself to prove to confound the heretics. The Miracle of Sravasti is a recurring theme throughout Ajanta as well as Ellora and many other Buddhist chaityas in other countries. Usually any number of Buddhas more than three suffices, however, some depictions (seen in Ladakh) actually represent hundreds of Buddhas and few in Ellora number between a dozen to many. Another dimension of the Miracle is to represent a Buddha with totally opposite qualities – one emanating water while another gives off fire, etc.



A little further to the right is possibly a scene from the nativity of Buddha (the child form is seen).



The scene from the Jataka tale of ‘Dream of Maya’ – where buddha’s mother Maya dreamt of an elephant entering her womb and the said dream was interpreted by Brahmins of the court that a Buddha will be born – is depicted on the wall immediately on the left as one enters the cave. Due to strong backlighting, I could not photograph it satisfactorily. I moved out of cave two while admiring some of the lifelike depictions on the walls of the verandah. It was time to get inside cave four (cave three is devoid of anything to see).

The entrance of cave four is elaborately carved and the top of the door frame on either side has ‘shardula’ (glyph) figures topped by riders. To the left of this shardula is a sala-bhanjika (or a tree nymph) of most feminine grace (second below) and below her are flying yakkas (yaksha, mythical beings with supernatural powers such as ability to fly) and some bold couples. There’re two niches carved on either side of this door that is over twelve feet tall.





The niche on the left houses a sitting Buddha in the dhamma-cakra-pavattana mudra. The niche on the right shows the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara surrounded by ganas (attendants or followers) praying to him for deliverance from Eight Great Perils of lion, elephant, snake, fire, robber, water, fetters and demon. Further, a closer observation of the Buddha on top of the Avalokiteswara reveals traces of paint, indicating that the entrance of the cave was finished and has weathered away over the centuries.



In the far right of the veranda outside this door is a seated Buddha, nearly five feet tall (note the comparison with the shoe rack and the man standing next to it). The scale of this cave is so impressive that it made me wonder how powerful Buddhism would have been in those days (approximately sixth century AD) in India - a far cry from what it became in the later centuries as the ancient period gave way to medieval and Brahmanism helped Hinduism revive at the cost of other religions.



Stepping inside this monastery, I was awestruck not only by grand proportions of the cave but also by the fine finish that the master sculptors of a millennia and a half ago were able to achieve over this surface – one that is terribly difficult to carve. Solidified magma flow on the ceiling may be seen even today and provides a perfect contrast to the smooth finish of the pillars that is further highlighted by subtle lighting that ASI employs. The corridors remind the visitor of a palace more than an ancient monastery.



The far end has a sanctum sanctorum and an ante-chamber that houses six large buddhas standing with the ‘abhaya-mudra’ (assuring the devotee to be fearless) while the other hand holds the hem of their draped dress.



The sanctum-sanctorum itself has a seated Buddha in the dharma-cakra-pavattana mudra with deer on the pedestal. Each of these statues is over twelve feet high and was quite overwhelming to be surrounded by so many representations of the Buddha, the cool smoothly carved stone surface under my bare feet and sunlight trickling in from a-far.



I looked at my watch, it was time to move on.

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