-John Eickert

Sometimes, an item, a shirt, a blanket, a favorite pair of sandals, is misplaced and then forgotten. Time entwines with the conspiracy. One day, the item reappears and the associated joy begins anew. A long time ago, I’m not sure when, I lost track of a favorite blanket, it was checked orange, yellow, red, and black. Last week I opened a drawer in an old desk and there the blanket lay, folded neat. I have no idea how that blanket got in that drawer. It was a warm reunion.

If one draws a line directly south from Delhi, just across the border from Madhya Pradesh into Maharashtra, a bus ride from Mumbai are the once lost caves of Ajanta. As might be guessed, a group of British army officers were hunting tigers in late 1819 and they unwitting stumbled onto one of the caves. The caves at Ajanta, there are 27, are older than those at Ellora. Buddhists, Hinayana and then Mahayana used the caves and their utilization ended with the rise of Hindu and Islam in India. Laborers gouged out the Deccan lava before 200 BC to form the caves. Abandoned sometime in the 7th century and then swallowed by the jungle, the caves forgotten until opened again. The champion of their cleaning and restoration was James Fergusson who worked for the East India Company. The new history of these began then in 1843 and today is an astonishing tourist destination. There are interesting paintings and carved, pillared halls. The painting technique used at Ajanta is Tempura technique. The rock surface is prepared and then stained, and finally burnished to complete the masterpiece. The color pigments came from local plants. It is a distinctive way to spend an afternoon. There is also a curse.

Numerous attempts, beginning with the British, to copy the paintings for further study in offsite locations failed. Fire or foolish handling destroyed the copies, some of which had taken years to produce. Photography is not allowed in the caves for fear the light may destroy what remains. However, photos purchased in the gift shop, show detail. Archivists working for the government of India produced the photos and post cards. I purchased many when I visited there, but on arriving back in Mumbai, the photos were gone. The curse had struck again. I wonder where they will turn up.

There are also caves at Aurangabad, Rauza, and Ellora. Ajanta is further and requires it’s own day. Ellora caves are the most extensive and complex and they were never lost. I have not been to Aurangabad caves or Rauza, but someday, if there is ever enough time; and there never is, I will go there as well. I am sure all are worth the time.

As I sit at my desk and type these words, my mind is spinning with the news of deplorable acts of terrorism and worldwide unrest. Perhaps, if we are lucky the motive for these acts could be lost and forgotten. If so, let us hope no one finds it.      


P.S: Sometime in 1999, I visited Ajanta.  Though flash photography was not allowed video cameras were allowed in Ellora and some parts of Ajanta .  One day I would like to complete a short documentary about the wonderful experience we had at Ajanta and Ellora.  In the meantime, I have put together a few clips at the following link

-Dr. Susan Sharma


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