Ajanta

On our second day in Aurangabad we set off for the 105k drive to the remote site of Ajanta and a sneaky little rebellious thought crept up to ask how badly I really needed to visit yet another group of Buddhist caves. After all, a couple of years back I had spent weeks travelling in the remoter parts of Western China and the place seemed to be honeycombed with them. But here in the rock-strewn wilderness of the Deccan plateau, we found one of the greatest artistic treasures that archaeology has yet to uncover.

Back in 1819, so the story goes, an Englishman by the name of John Smith was hunting tigers when he reached a high vantage point to find himself looking down on a horseshoe-shaped canyon with a row of mysterious cave entrances following a natural ledge in the rock. It is to our great good fortune that detailed excavation did not take place for another hundred and fifty years because this meant that the magnificent paintings, which were for the most part safely hidden under layers of accumulated dirt, have had the benefit of more modern methods of conservation.

These caves are considerably older than those of Ellora, whose rise to prominence from the seventh century onwards was probably responsible for the abandonment and subsequent preservation of the Ajanta site. Here, exquisitely detailed narrative scenes and delicate, floral or geometric decoration are all rendered in the type of mineral pigments whose colours defy the ages. Sometimes known as the “Louvre of India”, the paintings, which date from the fifth century building phase, show an amazing pot-pouri of classical styles and influences. Well, either that or early European art owes far more to India than is generally acknowledged: Greek key borders, Florentine flower garlands, grouped attendants from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, the details would repay a lifetime of study.

Instead of trying to substitute guide book or reference shots, I have deliberately stuck with my own (totally inadequate) photographs from the site. I’ve tried to show the viewing atmosphere and picked up a few interesting vignettes of some of the visitors. The lady in the fine Republic Day scarf (49) was less than impressed although I got a lovely smile from one of the Tibetan pilgrims (19). The hardest person to capture was the grandmother in her traditional Maharistri-tied sari (35); something less frequently seen nowadays. We¬†picnicked¬†with the delightful Jain family (47) who shared our guide, their Swiss guests agreeing that the couple with all the extra equipment (34) were probably German.

The Deccan is also a mineralogist’s paradise and although I did not come here to buy gemstones it was impossible to go home without at least one small specimen. Unfortunately, there was no time to browse anywhere other than at a tourist outlet where the inflated prices completely overwhelmed my bargaining skills. Sunil came to my rescue and negotiated a price for an exceptionally pretty little amethyst geode which, if not exactly reasonable, was no more than I would have paid a specialist dealer on the international market. And I do at least know exactly where it came form.

On the road back to the hotel I tried very hard to get some evening pictures of the cotton-pickers on their way home and the burning-off of the fields but was barely able to capture glimpses of these tranquil pastoral scenes. I wasn’t quick enough to get the smashed up wreck of an ambulance that we passed either (I found one remarkably like it on-line) and I certainly didn’t want to try to photograph the graphic aftermath of a dreadful accident that we passed only moments after it had occurred. This is an inevitable aspect of Indian road travel; it might seem fun to watch whole families hanging out of vehicles like the fairground-ride-that-health-and-safety-forgot but the reality is some of the worst road casualty figures in the world. And those are the ones that the officials will admit to.

Saying my goodbyes to Sunil and Sandhya in anticipation of an early morning flight back to Mumbai, it was necessary, of course, that we toast my Scottish ancestors before going out for dinner. I think I’m going to miss that little tradition when I start travelling on my own, especially in a dry state like Gujarat. We had an absolutely splendid meal at a Rajasthani restaurant: a fixed price vegetarian thali (everything) where the dishes just kept coming and the extra-attentive staff seemed to have learned their “just one more wafer thin mint” technique from the French.

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