The Greatest Ancient Picture Gallery

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Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis
A statue of the Buddha in one of the Ajanta caves, India

In the winter of 1844, Major Robert Gill, a young British military draftsman, set off from Madras into the independent princely state of Hyderabad to record a major new archaeological discovery.

Some years earlier, in 1819, a British hunting party in the jungles of the Western Ghats had followed a tiger into a remote river valley and stumbled onto what was soon recognized as one of the great wonders of India: the painted caves of Ajanta. On the walls of a line of thirty-one caves dug into an amphitheater of solid rock lay the most beautiful and ancient paintings in Buddhist art, the oldest of which dated from the second century BC—an otherwise lost golden age of Indian painting. In time it became clear that Ajanta contained probably the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world, and along with the frescoes of Pompeii, the fabulous murals of Livia’s Garden House outside Rome, and the encaustic wax portraits of the Egyptian Fayyum, Ajanta’s walls represented perhaps the most comprehensive depiction of civilized life to survive from antiquity.

The Ajanta murals told the Jataka stories of the lives of the Buddha in images of supreme elegance and grace. Unlike the flatter art of much later Indian miniature painting, here the artists used perspective and foreshortening to produce paintings of courtly life, ascetic renunciation, hunts, battles, and erotic dalliance that rank as some of the greatest masterpieces of art produced by mankind in any century. Most famous, perhaps, are the two astonishing images of the compassionate Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani, beings of otherworldly beauty, swaying on the threshold of enlightenment, caught in what the great historian of Indian art Stella Kramrisch described, wonderfully, as “a gale of stillness.” Even today, the colors of these murals glow with a brilliant intensity: topaz-dark, lizard-green, lotus-blue.

When they were first published in the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1829, it was clear that these precious fragments of a lost classical world were themselves of great fragility and in danger of disintegrating into a cloud of dust. John Smith, the leader of the initial hunting party that had rediscovered the caves, had carved his name across the body of a Boddhisattva, and it did not take long for word to spread that here were unprotected treasures ripe for the attention of Victorian hunters, tourists, and assorted other graffiti artists. Nine years later, Dr. James Bird, in the course of preparing a report for the Asiatic Society, “notwithstanding protestations about defacing monuments…contrived to peel off four painted figures” from the zodiac or shield, one of the finest of the paintings at the site. Before long a self-appointed Indian caretaker had set up shop in the caves and, “for a small consideration,” presented tourists with “souvenir fragments” of fresco.


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