The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 19, 2003
Lead Article

Ajanta frescoes get a facelift
Zoya Das

The Ajanta heritage site has been environmentally upgraded with Japanese funds
The Ajanta heritage site has been environmentally upgraded with Japanese funds

THE famous frescoes in the 5000-year-old Buddhist caves of Ajanta have received a facelift. Neglected for centuries, the horse-shoe shaped world heritage site near Aurangabad, in Maharashtra now appears cleaner and accessible, thanks to Japanese funding towards its "environmental upgradation".

The project, launched almost 10 years ago, is already through with its first phase. The second and third phases would involve further upgrading of infrastructure facilities, improving local road transport, ensuring water supply, conserving the caves and establishing a site museum-cum-orientation centre.

"For the moment, we are concentrating on improving facilities for visitors," informs S.K. Misra of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

"In the next phase, we’ll take up conservation works like buttressing rocks and restoring some of the art in the caves."

On an average, an estimated 15,000 tourists troop into the expansive 31-cave complex every day to catch a glimpse of some of the most breathtaking examples of Buddhist art from the Vakataka era. Much of it has, however, turned black or flaky due to water seepage, pollution and faulty conservation measures in the past.


Today, no tourist bus or private car is allowed within a radius of five km from the cave complex. Visitors have to alight at a spanking new terminus and transported to the site in special non-polluting buses.

Photography is strictly prohibited in the caves lest the heat from flashbulbs further damage the frescoes.

Conventional low-watt light bulbs used for illuminating the cavernous interiors have now been replaced with fibre-optic lights.

Though physically intrusive, these cause less heat and do not emit the harmful ultra-violet rays common electric bulbs do.

"Ajanta is a spiritual experience," said a Buddhist scholar on his first visit. "It’s good to have a modicum of peace while reflecting on the myriad images of Buddha. Baring three or four caves which have been attracting the biggest crowds, it is not so stuffy in there."

Another way the ASI has managed to retain the sanctity of the place is by distributing the visitors’ flow with two additional entry points. No longer do they have to troop in a single file and move from one cave to another en masse. Instead, they can take one of the two newly constructed bridges, which provide direct access to the central section of the complex.

These bridges can be reached from what is now known as the ‘John Smith Path’ — named after the British soldier who discovered the caves in 1819 while on a hunting expedition. Taking this route not only adds to the thrill of negotiating the rugged Deccan terrain, but also heightens the drama associated with the caves.

Then there is the rock hardening work, recommended by the Geological Survey of India (GSI).

Though there is no immediate danger of boulders shifting or falling, it is imperative that loose rocks are provided support and crevices are filled in order to prevent water seepage.

"We also plan to clean a few of the murals chemically," Mitra disclosed. "Some fifth century frescoes have been adversely affected in recent decades by not only age, but also changing climatic conditions, pollution and the huge increase in tourist traffic (human breath)."

Despite Mitra’s assurances that the "cleaning and conservation measures are in keeping with latest international conservation techniques", nagging doubts have been expressed by certain quarters. Local art historians insist that ASI has yet to learn from the "ghastly blunders" made by conservators in the past.

An American, Walter Spink, who has spent the better part of the last 40 years researching the caves has gone on record to say that only those frescoes in immediate danger of crumbling down should be attended to by Unesco in association with international art experts.

"The rest should be left alone," he advised. "I have always maintained that is better not to touch the more problematic frescoes, if need be for centuries, till the world comes up with foolproof techniques to restore such works of art. Otherwise, you would end up doing more harm than good."

Spink, along with Aurangabad-based art scholars such as Dulari Qureshi and R.S. Morewanchikar are however, very supportive about the site museum-cum-orientation centre coming up and have offered to donate artifacts from their private collections.

Apart from exhibits of antiquities of the region, the centre will be equipped with photo galleries, a virtual reality centre, library, cafe and an auditorium. MF