A Mukherjee World View



There are two very good reasons to see Ajanta before you see Ellora. One, it dates to an earlier period. Two, the sculptures at Ajanta would look more impressive if they didn’t have to compete against those at Ellora. The sculptures at Ellora are more delicate, more varied, more expressive and just more. But then, Ajanta has something that Ellora doesn’t: paintings.

Getting to Ajanta requires a degree of patience. It is two-and-a-half bus hours from Aurangabad. You can get to Ajanta from Ellora without going to Aurangabad (changing a bus or two on the way) but we had to go to Aurangabad anyway, to offload pictures from the digital camera, which had run out of memory (oh, the limitations of technology!). We found a small cybercafe where we could burn our precious pictures on to CDs (near Hotel Ira, which is 10 minutes’ walk from the bus stand; go straight down and take a left when you see Hotel Devpriya on the right), had a hearty breakfast watching “rush hour” traffic roll by in a leisurely fashion, then around 10 am, hopped on to a bus to Ajanta.

Normally, you’d alight from the bus at T-Junction, a point 4 km from the caves. There’s an elaborate parking lot, and a barrier. You pay an “amenities fee” and keep going (but don’t throw away the receipt, you’re going to need it soon enough). You have to thread your way through a neatly paved and well-maintained shopping area, where there are stalls selling food, drink, souvenirs and trinkets, camera rolls, books and whatnot. The paved path also leads past a grassy patch and away from a sign pointing towards toilets, all the way to a small table in front of a bus bay. Here, if you show your ticket (the amenities fee receipt – I told you you’ll need it) at the table, you are permitted in to the bus bay, where you can elect to climb in to an AC or non-AC bus, which will cover the last 4 km to the caves.

These are supposed to be eco-friendly buses, but they looked like ordinary diesel buses to me. Each bus waits to get filled up, then rolls off towards the caves, AC and non-AC alternating. Because of the continuous influx of tourists, it didn’t take long for our bus to fill up and then we were off. Just in case you get the idea that the amenities fee covers the bus ride, think again. You have to buy the bus ticket on the bus, Rs 6 for non-AC and Rs 10 for AC (that’s Re 1 per km of air-conditioning!). Oh, and that’s a one-way ticket.

It is a winding, hilly road with pleasantly sloping greens on either side. The buses stop in front of another paved path, and another ticket window. This is for entry to the caves. If you don’t read the notice above the window very carefully, you will not realise that the entry ticket does not allow you access to the caves with the best interiors. For those, there is a separate ticket, for the lighting fee. Why can’t they combine all the tickets, I wondered impatiently, fumbling for change. Who would come all this way and pay the amenities fee without wanting to get on the bus? Who would take the bus to the foot of the hill without wanting to enter? And who would want to see the caves, but scrimp on the 5-rupee lighting fee (for a group of 1 to 20 people)? What was the sense of making the bus ticket one way, when there was really no other way of getting back at the end of the day? And what on earth was the sense of the amenities fee, when you had to pay separately for everything anyway?

We clutched our fistfuls of tickets and joined the queue heading up the steps to the caves. Unlike Ellora, the caves at Ajanta cover a short stretch of hill and all along the way there is a paved path with a businesslike railing blocking any adventurous or unintended descent to the river at the bottom of the hill. The caves are numbered from 1 through 27, more or less in the order you will come across them, and 28 and 29 are tucked away in inaccessible places.

There is electric light in many of the caves, some of it very artistically arranged, enhancing the ambience of holiness, mystery, and power. In the caves where there are paintings, the lighting is dim and blue. The lighting is actually generated outside the caves and is transported to the caves through optical fiber cables, to ensure minimal heat is transmitted, as it, apparently, is detrimental to the well-being of the paintings. Use of flash in these caves is strictly prohibited, and proactively enforced. (Needless to say, as in all ASI sites, camera tripods cannot be used either.) Shoes must be taken off prior to entry, there are no-nonsense metal railings keeping the crowd more than arm’s length away from the walls, the door is kept closed, people are shepherded in through a narrow aisle and there is a time limit of 15 minutes per head per cave (though I didn’t notice this last one being enforced).

Too many regulations, if you ask me. All highly laudable, of course, but they do detract from the romantic charm of the place. The wilderness, the sense of an ancient culture lost and rediscovered, is tamed, sanitized, modernized and hardly perceptible at all.

The beauty of the paintings is not lost though, despite all. I wandered into the first cave all unawares and the paintings jumped off the wall at me. The faces, the people, the activities, all seemed so evocative, so real, so recent, as though they could at any moment talk to me or walk around me to greet friends on the other side of the cave. These were not utopian expressions of peace, not idolized depictions of god-like creatures, but ordinary people doing ordinary things. Of course, time has taken its toll, and at places there are great blanks, people obliterated in the middle of a big, lively scene, animals cut in half. But lots of it remains and even that is enough to saturate the senses and send you back blinking in the sunlight, trying in vain to absorb it all.

Apart from people, there is an abundance of animals in the paintings: horses, elephants, deer, peacocks, birds. Floral and geometric patterns cover the pillars and ceiling.

We wandered from cave to cave, trying to get in when there were fewest people around. It would be a wonderful place to enjoy in complete solitude. The afternoon sun made it hot outside, but inside it was dim, cool and mostly quiet.

Caves 1, 2, 16, 17 and 19 had most of the paintings. The other caves had very little left. Several of the caves were chaitya halls (prayer halls), and were dominated by huge stupas in the central aisle, with a high domed ceiling and richly carved pillars creating a corridor around the stupa. The sound reverberates resoundingly in a dramatic fashion and the lighting is dim and diffused. All the caves at Ajanta are buddhist caves and most of them date to the pre-Christian era.

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.