Two thousand two hundred years ago work began in Maharashtra, India.
Then, some speculate around the year 1000 AD, they fell in to disuse.
Dense jungle grew around, hiding the caves away from human eyes.
Then, in April 1819, during the time of the British, Raj, an officer with
the unassuming name of John Smith, rediscovered a doorway to one of the temples.
He had been hunting tigers – something of which many would disapprove today.
Such a rediscovery did not remain secret for very long.Soon, European and
Indian tourists were thronging to the site – after extensive tidying up.
After all, the caves had been home to bat, birds and larger animals for
hundreds of years. The Ajanta Caves had been returned to the world of the living.
The nearest human habitation is Ajinṭhā, a tiny village a few miles away
from the caves. The sanctuaries, which are known as chaytia-girhas
from the second century before Christ. They were used primarily as prayer
halls and are similar to an extent to the contemporary Roman designs
of arch and column. However, these sanctuaries were carved from the
immense rock face of the caves, with chisels and, indeed, bare hands.
The first caves were hewn from the bare rock at the time of
The Sātavāhana Empire which started around 230BC.
The Sātavāhanas brought peace to India after several foreign invasions
and the decline of the previous, Mauryan Empire.
Although there is widespread debate about the time at which the second
period of building took place, most now agree that it was probably
during the reign of Harishena, from 460AD and over a period of around
twenty years. This architectural flowering saw the creation of twenty
temples which were used as monasteries.
There are paintings everywhere – literally.
Every surface apart from the floor is festooned
with narrative paintings. Time has taken a serious
toll on these marvelous works with many parts
simply just fragments of what they were when first
created. The stories are almost wholly devoted to
Jātakas – tales of the Buddha’s previouslives.
These 547 poems were painstakingly and lovingly
painted on to the walls by devotees.
They were created using an ancient method. The surface was chiseled
so it was rough and could hold plaster which was then spread across the surface.
Then the master painter would, while the plaster was still wet, commence his work.
The colors soaked in to the plaster and so became a part of the surface.
Although this meant that it would not peel off as easily, perhaps not
even the painters foresaw the temples persevering for over two thousand years.
No one knows for sure when and why the caves were abandoned – whether
it was a gradual desertion of some event of political and social magnitude
took place which precipitated the neglect and final vacation of the site.
Yet for hundreds of years the place remained
forsaken, to be rediscovered that fateful day in
1819 by John Smith.
They even had running water handy, nearby!
In all that time, no one knew anything about its existence; now isn’t that amazing?
They were carved from solid rock, which meant artisans approached a solid rock
wall and began to chisel. But they had to have had copious drawings, which planned
this all out. For example, how did they make rows of columns in 3-D from 2-D drawings?
There cannot be any ‘oops’ moments.
And like the Pyramids and other extraordinary monuments which are thousands of years old,
you’re talking about a very basic people who struggled to stay alive, find food, raise families.
Where would this sort of talent come from, and when would they have had the time?