23 June, 2021

Unseen Ajanta

The oldest classical Indian paintings, retrieved from time, and decay

Unseen Ajanta

In 1999, Manager Rajdeo Singh, the ASI chief of conservation and head of science at Aurangabad, began work on the restoration of the murals in Caves Nine and Ten at Ajanta. Manager Singh, as he is always known, had been in charge of conserving the murals of Ajanta for a number of years, but the work in caves nine and ten was, he knew, especially difficult, and of the greatest importance. This was partly because these two caves contain the most severely damaged of all the Ajanta frescoes: “The paintings were so fragile that in some places there was a great fear even to touch them with the hand,” he wrote later. “At some places the pigment was found completely detached from the ground plaster and stone surface.”

But largely Manager Singh was concerned because the murals in those two caves are recognised to be not only the oldest images at the site, but the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence—dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha. These masterworks of early Buddhist art are, in other words, the prototypes of the forms which...

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