In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party was heading through thick jungle near
A few minutes later, the party made their way gingerly inside, as Smith held aloft a torch of burning dried grass and his companions clutched their muskets. A long hall led straight into the rock, flanked on either side by 39 octagonal pillars. At the end rose the circular dome of a perfect Buddhist stupa carved, like everything else, out of the slope of the mountain.
All over the walls, the officers could see through the gloom the shadowy outlines of ancient murals. On the pillars were figures of orange- and yellow-robed monks with green haloes standing on blue lotuses, while on the rock walls facing on to the side aisles were long panels of painting filled with elaborate crowd scenes, rather as if a painted scroll had been rolled out along the wall of the apse. In the light of the flickering flame the officers crunched over a human skeleton and other debris dragged into the cave by generations of predators and scavengers. The party advanced until they reached a pillar at the far end of the hall, next to the stupa. There Smith got out his hunting knife and inscribed over the body of a Bodhisattva (a previous incarnation of the Buddha) the words: "
In the decades to come, first other hunting parties, then later groups of Orientalists, archaeologists and Indologists followed in Smith's footsteps through the jungle to
From almost the beginning, scholars working on the site came to the realisation that there were two quite distinct phases of work at
However most of the
From this period date the rich picture cycles of wall painting in caves one and two. Here among handsome princes and bare-chested nobles, princesses with tiaras of jasmine languish love-lorn on swings and couches, while narrow-waisted dancing girls of extraordinary sensuousness, dressed only in their jewels and girdles, perform beside lotus ponds. Nearby are painted very different images of stark ascetic renunciation - a shaven-headed orange-robed monk lost in meditation, a hermit seeking salvation or a group of wizened devotees straining to hear the words of their teacher. Dominating everything are portraits of bodhisattvas of otherworldly beauty, elegance and compassion, eyes half-closed, swaying on the threshold of enlightenment, caught in what the great historian of Indian art, Stella Kramrisch, wonderfully described as "a gale of stillness".
Such was the celebrity of these
fifth-century masterworks that most scholars, and almost all modern accounts of the
By the time the Nizam of
Then in 1999,
However a painstaking restoration of the paintings from 1999 onwards using infrared light, micro-emulsion and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology succeeded in removing 75% of the layers of shellac, hard soot and grime from 10 sq m of the murals. "Particular care and precautions were taken not to alter even a grain of pigment," he wrote.
Manager Singh's work revealed for the first time since the 1920s the images that are now on open display. Remarkably for so famous a site -
I stumbled across them on a visit to the caves in March. The ASI does not have much of a tradition of public outreach, and even internally there is perhaps little recognition of what Manager Singh has achieved and uncovered. For his work is nothing short of a revelation: Singh has uncovered the oldest paintings of Indian faces - with the exception of a few prehistorical pictograms of stick men and animals left by paleolithic hunters in the wilds of
More exciting still, this earliest phase of work is not just very old, but very fine indeed and painted in a quite different style, and using markedly different techniques to that used in the rest of
The extreme antiquity of the caves is clear, though their exact dates remain elusive: from the paleographic evidence they can be securely dated to between the second century BC and the first century AD, but most scholars believe that between 90-70BC is the most likely period of construction. This meant they were excavated shortly after the collapse of Ashoka's great Mauryan empire, which once stretched from
Inscriptions in cave 10 record the many small patrons of these masterworks, like sponsorship tags on television today. One mentions a Kanhaka of Bahada, presumably a nobleman, others monks named Dharmadeva and Sikhabhadra, the latter "in honour of his mother and father". This was a period not of royal but of community patronage, and appropriately the murals were a crowded, vibrant narrative art, teeming with people and alive with drama.
Cave 10 contains a supreme treasure that has only recently been identified: fragments of the oldest surviving painting of the life of the Buddha and an image of the first sermon at Sarnath. Next to the latter lies a depiction of the legend of Udayana, a tale of two rival queens, one virtuous and one evil. The most dramatic, and best preserved scenes however show two Jataka stories: the "Shyama Jataka" is about a forest dweller who was fatally hit by the poisoned arrow of the king of
In illustrating these stories, the artists of
Much about the clothing is identical to that worn by the sculptures at gateways of the Great Stupa at Sanchi, and there is the same interest in detail, yet the style is in feeling and temper subtly different. In Sanchi, the images are animated with a wonderful joie de vivre. Here there is a sadness in the programme of painting, which is concerned with justice, peace and non-violence: one image tells of a war breaking out over the Buddha's relics - something that went totally against the grain of everything he taught.
There is also something very different in the style of these faces. Their physiognomy and the world in which they are depicted may be utterly Indian, yet the artist's long, bold brushstrokes, the use of perspective and three-quarter profiles, the play of light across the large brown eyes and cheekbones, and the technical aspects of the work with its choice of pigments and use of lime mortar all show a hint of Hellenistic influence.
This is hardly a surprise: after all, at this period Indo-Greek kings controlled as far south as the Punjab and were deeply integrated into the Indian world. This intimacy, classicism and striking realism, combined with the haunting wistfulness of the features of these faces, is not a million miles away from the distant, melancholy world of the later first century AD encaustic wax mummy portraits from the Fayum region of Greco-Egyptian Egypt, which were also the products of the Hellenisation of the east. In both, we are in a world so lifelike that even today, even in reproduction, they can still make you gasp as you find yourself staring eyeball to eyeball with a silently watching soldier who could have fought the Bactrian Greeks, or a monk who may have seen the sculptures at Sanchi being carved.
So realistic are the faces of the people depicted that you feel these have to be portraits of real individuals. There is none of the idealisation or otherworldliness you see in the later images of the bodhisattvas. Instead there is something deeply hypnotic about the soundless stare of these silent, often uncertain, Satavahana faces. Their fleeting expressions are frozen, startled, as if suddenly surprised by the king's decision to loose his arrow or by the nobility of the great elephant breaking through the trees. The viewer peers at these figures trying to catch some hint of the upheavals they witnessed and the strange sights they saw in ancient
Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the people in these murals is that they appear so familiar. Two thousand years after they were painted these faces convey with penetrating immediacy the character of the different sitters: the alert guard, the king caught in the excitement of the hunt, the obedient son fetching water. Indeed, so contemporary are the features that you have to keep reminding yourself that these sitters are not from our world, they are depictions of a court that vanished from these now bare hills more than two millennia ago.
Yet these are self-evidently the same people who inhabit western
The oldest Indian faces . . . details from the murals in cave 10 of the
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