“There can be little doubt that notwithstanding all the care bestowed on the ruined cave temples [at Ajanta] these wonderful wall paintings will be subject to progressive decay owing to irremediable physical conditions. It is most unlikely that their value for the student of Eastern art and Buddhism will ever be surpassed by any discoveries still possible in the future” – Sir Aurel Stein
All this talk of Buddhism in the Deccan is incomplete without mentioning the caves at Ajanta and their Hyderabad connection. The caves at Ajanta, 100 km from present-day Aurangabad, belong to two distinct periods – the Satavahanas in the 2nd Century BCE and the Vakatakas in the 5th Century AD. They were in use till around the 9th Century AD and the decline of Buddhism in the region eventually sent the caves into obscurity. The caves represent the pinnacle of Buddhist art in India; Hiuen Tsang left colourful descriptions of the caves despite never having visited them. After Mughal rule, Aurangabad (and Ajanta) passed into the dominion of the first Nizam pretty much at the inception of the Asaf Jahi dynasty. Aurangabad was, in fact, the capital of the Asaf Jahi kingdom till his son shifted it to Hyderabad in 1763.
Bridge and City Wall at Ajanta (built by the first Nizam in 1727) – From the collection ‘Views of the Caves of Ellora and Ajunta, Nizam’s Dominions, [by] Raja Deen Dayal & Sons, State Photographers’ (1900). Image Source: The British Library Online Gallery
Discovery & Restoration
John Smith of the Madras Cavalry and his fellow officers were out on a perfectly regular hunt in the jungles in Ajanta in 1819. The hunt wasn’t exactly successful – they lost their target in a valley below. They did, however, spot a horse-shoe shaped arch instead. Other stories tell us of a young shepherd boy who led the officers to the “unusual sight”. Cave 10 of the Ajanta caves was discovered thus. Mr. Smith promptly etched his name there – surely an indication of the “Amit + Reshma” plague that would haunt Indian monuments forever. This discovery probably cost the caves dearly. One Mr. James Bird, a surgeon (yes, a surgeon) from Satara was sent to Ajanta by the Governor of Bombay in 1926. He immediately declared the cave a Jain temple and believed he could “carry away” a few of frescoes with him – he ended up turning a few of them to dust. In 1844, Robert Gill arrived at Ajanta and spent the next thirty years of his life there. His copies of the caves’ frescoes and his photographs were instrumental in creating awareness about the art at Ajanta. Unfortunately, most of his work was destroyed by a fire in 1866. A few years later, John Griffiths, the principal of the Bombay School of Arts, began taking his students to Ajanta to copy the frescoes. However, the use of cheap varnish by Griffiths and his students did more damage to some of the frescoes than the centuries of natural decay did.
Fast forward to a 1915. The caves have been part of Hyderabad State for a while (barring a few post-battle transfers to the Marathas and back). Although copies of the frescoes had been made by Gill, Griffiths and Lady Herrigham, the government at Hyderabad appointed Syed Ahmed, an artist trained under Lady Herringham, to produce better copies of the art at Ajanta. But only a photograph could possibly be the most faithful reproduction of the frescoes – an option not entirely feasible due to the crust of moisture and dirt on them, not to mention the aftermath of earlier restoration attempts like Mr. Griffith’s – copal was applied as varnish, without cleaning the frescoes first, converting them into a hazy smear. That wasn’t all – even reaching the caves was a challenge. Consider the following excerpt from the Bombay Gazetteer (1880) :
“In 1824 Lieutenant, later General, Sir James E. Alexander, on his way to the caves, was warned by an officer in the Nizam’s horse, that he would never return, that if he escaped the tigers, he would fall victim to the stony-hearted Bhils. Near the path, several cairns, covered with rags, marked spots where travellers had been killed, and in one of the caves was a human skeleton and footprints of tigers, jackals, and bears”
It is at this point in the story that the 7th Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan steps in. With the help of Lord Curzon and Sir Rennell Rodd, the British Ambassador at Rome, the Archaeological Department at Hyderabad engaged two Italians, Prof. Lorenzo Cecconi and Count Orsini to restore the frescoes at Ajanta in 1920. The department then sought the services of E.L. Vassey to photograph the frescoes and published the collection in a four-volume work on the caves. The Nizam also ensured that the caves were accessible – he commissioned roads and bridges to the caves, he built a rest house for travelers to Ajanta and cut walkways in the valley so visitors could walk from one cave to the other. He spent Rs. 18 lakhs, a princely sum then, on the endeavor between 1915 – 1936. Mir Osman Ali Khan surely deserves the credit for preserving and bringing the magnificence of the Ajanta caves to us.
Note: This isn’t quite Hyderabad trivia, but Anna Pavlova visited the caves just after their restoration in 1922. She loved the frescoes so much that she asked her choreographer Ivan Clustine create a ballet based on them. And he did – “Ajanta’s Frescoes”. It didn’t do that well, though – the choreographer had never been to Ajanta.
Richard Cohen. (2005). Beyond Enlightenment: Buddhism, Religion, Modernity.
Sir John Cumming. (1939). Revealing India’s Past: A Co-operative Record of Archaeological Conservation and Exploration in India and Beyond.
Annual Report of the Archaeological Department of His Exalted Highness the Nizam’s Dominions 1920-21.
Ghulam Yazdani. (1930). Ajanta: Part 1.