John Smith of the 28th cavalry was out looking for tigers in 1819, when he found a cave, full of bats and rubble and used by local people for religious ceremonies.
He’d stumbled upon one of the world’s ancient wonders, man-made Buddhist caves dating back to at least the fifth century AD, and probably seven hundred years before that. John was so excited he scratched his name on the wall, as explorers were wont to do.
Since word got out about the discovery, millions of people have followed him into the Ajanta Caves, and although we take off our shoes or pull soft covers over them, we’re all doing our little bit to damage them.
The Ajanta Caves are now world-heritage listed by UNESCO and one of Maharashtra’s most visited tourist attractions, with nearly 400,000 people tramping through them each year. This despite the fact that they’re still not easy to get to.
It took us an overnight train trip from Mumbai, then 45 minutes on a bus from Jalgaon railway station, passing dusty villages and dodging potholes and oxcarts on the narrow road.
Buddhist caves are spaced around India at roughly 30km intervals – the distance a man can walk in a day. They offered travelling priests shelter, as well as places to worship.
Once out of the bus and heading for the toilets, we ran the gauntlet of the hawkers selling guidebooks, postcards and carved buddhas.
There are also steep stairs to negotiate to reach the cave entrances. Porters with palanquins follow visitors whose knees look dicky, ‘Carry you, sir, madam?’
We insisted on doing our own walking, so we could feel slightly superior to those who accepted assistance.
It’s dark inside the caves and flash photography is wisely prohibited to preserve the glorious painted walls and ceilings.
Some are remarkable simply because of their age, and also because of the sheer engineering feat of carving the caves out of solid rock.
Others are lovely works in their own right. I confess almost total ignorance of Asian art and I have little understanding of its cultural context. Our guide did a good job of attempting to explain it, but I was soon reduced to just wandering around admiring the paintings I found most beautiful.
Because of the fragile nature of the caves, reproductions of the interiors of some of them are being built in a nearby visitors centre. Quite understandable, though it will probably mean that some of the caves will then be closed to the public. Looking at replicas, however good, will never match the experience we have been privileged to enjoy.
If we were told the Mona Lisa was deteriorating and had to be placed in a vault for safekeeping, would anyone be interested in seeing her replica in the Louvre?
The writer travelled in India on the Maharajas Express as the guest of Railbookers.