10 Jun The Hidden World of Ajanta, India
I had crossed a bridge over the parched Waghur River to retreat from the crowds.
Following a tree-lined dirt path that smelled of urine and rotting fruit, I dodged banana- and orange-eating macaques and nodded “No, namaste” to women in vibrant saris who were pushing wedges of watermelon.
Three teenagers approached from behind, dance music thumping from their boombox, then trotted ahead up a stone and dirt stairway. I steadied my hands on my thighs and climbed faster, almost running to my goal: the highest point on the Deccan plateau in Maharashtra, India, 268 miles northeast of Mumbai.
Standing at the U-shaped gorge’s lookout, I surveyed the sliced layer cake of earth that revealed Ajanta’s columned entryways and tiered pathways. Calcium residue had painted thick brushstrokes on the mountain, remnants of waterfalls that made some of the paths inaccessible during monsoon season, and provided the area’s fertility.
From the peak, it became evident how this UNESCO World Heritage site, comprising 30 rock-cut Buddhist prayer halls, meditation chambers, and monasteries that dated from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century AD, had remained hidden by jungle, dirt, animals, and brush for more than 1,000 years.
I had wanted to visit Ajanta for 15 years, ever since I’d heard my art history professor describe her first experience of the caves as if she had discovered a hidden world. What is now called Cave 10 was the first to be discovered in 1819, by a British Army Officer and hunter named John Smith, who carved his name into a statue in the prayer hall. I was anxious to see if, after two centuries, the caves still retained their magic.
I disconnected my senses from the music, birds, and teenagers on the lookout point, as swaying trees and a dancing patchwork of white clouds led my imagination through a silent procession of Buddhist worshipers snaking along the mountain pathways to enter stone doorways. I imagined the caves as they might have once been.
Stepping into the cool darkness of Cave 1, a monastery with tiny side rooms each with a stone bed for living and meditation, I was mesmerized by a painting of bodhisattva Padmapani holding a water lily. I visualized artists dipping their brushes into paint pots—holes burrowed into the hall’s stone floor—and mixing mineral pigments to form the bodhisattva’s delicate crown on a wall primed with clay, straw, and dry lime plaster.
Padmapani’s serene face, with thin sweeping eyebrows and long pierced earlobes, has become an iconic image that now represents Ajanta to the world, but as I gazed at it, I was amazed to see that this was only one painting in this center of devotion. The room where I was now standing had once been covered from floor to ceiling with scenes from Buddha’s life told through images, sculptured columns, and statues. How could it be, I wondered, that these had remained hidden for thousands of years to all but a select few?
I moved from dark to light and dark to light, as I walked inside and outside the caves, removed my shoes, put them back on, and adjusted my eyes to the striking November sun.
Stepping inside the doorway of Cave 10, below the prayer hall’s expansive horseshoe-shaped window, I paused to appreciate how the mountain had been chiseled into one of the earliest sanctuaries at Ajanta in the 2nd century BCE. I thought how this monumental feat of architecture rivaled Europe’s most impressive Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance cathedrals, basilicas, and churches, hundreds of years ahead of their time. As I stepped inside, light streamed onto a stupa surrounded by 39 pillars, and I conjured worshipers circumambulating and sitting cross-legged in meditation on the stone floor.
I continued to move along the path from dark to light and dark to light, overwhelmed by the never-ending statues of Buddhas and small meditation rooms and intricate columns and paintings of birds and kings and queens and armies and more Buddhas. I felt dizzy and overwhelmed and yet I lingered, never wanting to leave one cave, but wanting to see them all.
A breeze swept my striped scarf up behind me as I found that the path concluded at Cave 26. I stepped inside the prayer hall, to find another example of unimaginable human achievement. Among a series of smaller Buddha carvings, a giant reclining Buddha rested with eyes closed.
I closed my own eyes and soaked up the molecules of every person who had prayed and meditated and lived and walked in that chamber. The energy and vitality of the space made my eyelashes wet with tears. I stared at the reclining Buddha and saw how there was only peace and tranquility in the moment. Then I stepped out from dark to light again.
I had discovered that the hidden world of Ajanta was not only the treasure of exquisite paintings and sculptures that my art history professor had described. I understood the enormity of what visiting Ajanta — a place I had dreamed of for so long, yet always felt was impossible to reach because of distance, time, and money — meant to me, and what it must have meant to the people who created, lived, and worshiped there thousands of years ago, and what it must mean to the people who visit as pilgrims today. I suddenly felt suffused with a sense of connection to humanity and history and culture and human triumph and steadfastness.
Soon I would begin the climb down the mountain, but for now, I took a final look at the sacred scene and opened my arms wide to the dancing clouds above.
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