There is something universal about cave art. It invariably suggests antiquity. The art in the series of caves on the sheer face of the crescent ravine of the Waghora River, a few miles from the old town of Ajanta, has another dimension – spirituality. Built in two phases, when the gospels of the Buddha were enthusiastically accepted, first in the second century before the Christian era by the Satavahana Empire and then by the Vakataka Dynasty in the fifth and sixth century, the caves bear a brilliant testimony to the evolution of Indian art and the seminal influence of the Buddhist philosophy, doc-trines and religious principles on the oriental intellectual tradition.
With the proscription of Buddhism, the caves were abandoned, almost entirely, by the seventh century and languished into oblivion, essentially forgotten, for over one and a half millennium. It was reclaimed by the flora and fauna of the ravine, till its accidental discovery in the spring of 1819, by a captain of the Madras Army and his small group of soldiers, out on a hunting expedition, purportedly on a tiger trail!
I went on my pilgrimage to these holy caves in early summer this year. The experience was spectacular and illuminating. All my dreams, my hopes and expectations were inordinately surpassed by the awe and reverence the caves inspired.
The first impression of the caves is that of seclusion, solitude. A serene, silent sanctuary on the formidable cliffs of the Sahyadri Hills, tucked away from the wicked world without. A monument, which evidently despises display and yet, in a way, is richer than King Solomon’s mines. Perhaps the most astounding part of it is that everything – from the basilican relief of the chaitya-grihas, with its elaborate portals, ornate pillars and lofty arches, to the tranquil refuge of the viharas with its walls and ceilings adorned with gorgeous murals of unequaled splendor – is man-made, a statement of human prowess and creativity. What, on god’s earth, can be the motivation for choosing such an obscure canvas? What can possibly be the purpose of this recluse art, this fascinating yet secluded proclamation of art’s supremacy over life? The answers perhaps lie within.
From the fierce glare of the unrelenting Deccan sun, as I walk in those caves, I step into a different universe. It is cold, dark, hostile and yet, overpowering. As the eyes adjust slowly however, a paradise unfolds and I am overcome by the feeling of having a vision. Is this real? I look around to find the almost infinite jataka allegories coming to life.
Myriads of worldly scenes of rejoice and despair, love and hate, war and peace, cries and whispers silently blossom around me and like the recurring dreams of a distant past they all seem so familiar – there’s the royal priest interpreting the significance of the queen’s dream, heralding the birth of Gautama, to the king; there’s Brahmadatta, the King of Varanasi, venerating the golden geese; there’s the eagle demanding its prey, the dove, who has sought refuge in the benevo-lent king’s arms; there’s Mara and his army of demonic spirits engaged in their efforts to dissuade the Buddha from his pursuit of enlightenment…
In each of those ancient yet decisive strokes of human hands I can find the expression of man’s irrepressible creative urge, each meticulous line eliciting the finest details of tacit human emotions – from the expression of poignant despair in the dreary eyes of the old messenger, augmented by the gesture of dejection on his lips, to the delicate balance in the posture of the dying princess resigned to fate, wherein the shadows of death are most exalted; from the aesthetic elegance of the countless maidens whose supple wrists, palms and fingers eloquently beseech, ex-plain, deprecate and caress, to the timeless beauty of the avalokitesvaras, decisively ex-emplifying the paragon of oriental classicism – which truly, to quote Horace, could not be ‘destroyed by gnawing rain or wild north wind, by the procession of unnumbered years or by the flight of time’.
In no time, the sense of isolation disappears and I, as if, become the inevitable destiny, the indispensable last actor of this enduring saga and impart to it the completeness, it was perhaps longing for, hitherto.
The colloquy of a scientist and a poet comes to mind –
‘Truth then or Beauty is not independent of Man?’ asked the scientist.
‘No’ said the poet.
‘If there were no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful’ quizzed the scientist.
‘No!’ the poet asserted.
I seem to realize what the poet meant. Perhaps the poet was here himself, I muse. Perhaps it was here, where I am standing now, he stood and marveled, and overwhelmed by a similar feeling, his conviction was born. And perhaps it was here, where moved by this exquisite Hinayana motif of the lord’s feet on the radiant flower, he whispered to himself;
the lotus earth blossoms
at the touch of thy feet –
and looks up to behold thee, rapt in reverence
and then secretly yearned
why dost thou not bless
the lotus of my soul
with thy everlasting sight?
A gratifying imagination indeed, I tell myself and indulge further.
Perhaps, ages before him, another poet was here… he walked this path and breathed this air; he touched these walls and romanced with its art. And perhaps it was here, where inspired by this sublime beauty, he contemplated the ageless metaphors of abhijnanashakuntalam and meghadutam and raghuvamsham …
Beneath the dharma chakra – the wheel of universal justice, in front of the Enlightened One and his many avatars, I am trembling in exhilaration, to stand in the shadows of this noble lineage of pilgrims, to behold this pristine beauty with these mortal eyes, to wallow in this holy union of art, humanism and spirituality.
The sense of déjà vu prevails still – an unmistakable feeling that I have been here before. I can feel it in my veins. It echoes in my soul… and then with my eyes wide shut, I can, as if, see – I see the anonymous artists, emancipated by renunciation, united by faith, besieged by the quest for artistic truth. I see the stone masons, engrossed in begetting form from amorphous rocks and passionately breathing life into every imagined sculpture to be. I see the painters enthralled in their own creation, rapt in piety, composing this brilliant symphony of life on earth and beyond, with red and yellow ochre, black and white, malachite green and the blue of lapis lazuli.
The august ensemble celebrates the glory, of the man who knew the truth and the truth which set him free, in whole-hearted abundance, and perhaps it is this truth that they seek through their art, or may have always sought since the dawn of civilization. Amidst the inescapable cycle of life and death, I wonder – who knows if one of them, in their many lives, painted the tomb in Thebes, or the horses at Lascaux, or even perhaps the bison of Altamira? I stand alone, absolutely mesmerized, facing the Buddha, his right arm raised in the act of benediction. The solemn notes of a sacred chant come from a distance. My eyes well up and something from within makes me kneel down, bow my head and almost unconsciously murmur ‘thy kingdom come…’, as if informed by some primordial instinct, inspired by an obscure faith from an indistinct past…
The sun mellows and leans on the edge of the ravine. Legend has it that there was a time when the sun’s last rays would creep into one of these caves and the lord’s face would light up, as if in divine ecstasy. The geographical orientation of the caves and the physical terrain of the escarpment, invalidate the veracity of this legend almost at once, but even this myth kindles a deeper reflection.
What if the magic moment was to arrive now? Can it possibly enliven the lord so? Will I see his tender smile, generously acknowledging my arrival in his domain? Or will it be a smirk, veiling the profound grief stemming from the deep sense of futility of all that he had endured in his lifetime – to show to man the path of righteousness, to liberate mankind from the agonies of organic decay, disease and death?
Even god cannot defeat the man who has vanquished himself he said and advocated salvation from self – by banishing the desires of sensory gratifications, by abandoning the pursuits of immortality, by selflessly aspiring for virtues eternal and abhorring exhibition. Only thus, he preached, are wisdom and charity born.
I look at the lord, yet again. Is he being indulgently contemptuous, I wonder, ruminating on the irrelevance of his sermons in this ruthless, avaricious world, testified by history’s undeniable evidence? It is remarkable to think that when the Crusades were betrothed in their relentless carnage, in the name of rejuvenating Christianity, when Genghis Khan was wielding his violent reign on the vast expanses of Central Asia, when the Black Death was wreaking havoc on most of the civilized world and even when Napoleon Bonaparte was crowning himself emperor after his many fierce wars, the Buddha was here, in his lonely retreat. His right arm still raised in the act of benediction. It is remarkable to think that from the abysmal despair of millions afflicted by the two great wars, to the rise and fall of the Third Reich; from Oppenheimer becoming ‘death, the destroyer of worlds’ to the devastating holocaust unleashed thereafter – he has silently seen it all.
The Buddha must be sardonic, I surmise, the Buddha must be sad.
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Copyright © 2009 Dipanjan Sengupta