The ancient Indians of what is now northern Maharastra State had time on their hands—lots of it.
Others so afflicted knit, whittle, twiddle their thumbs, whistle, or doodle, but these old guys chipped stone, something in the Western World you used to do if you were doing time, not just passing it. I discovered this truism when our host family in Pune took my wife, Mary Ann, and me to see the Ajanta and Ellora caves near Aurangabad.
In the United States Army in the 1940s, if a soldier goofed up, you set him to work digging a hole in the ground six feet long, six feet wide, and six feet deep, the sides perfectly vertical, the bottom perfectly flat (military precision, you know), and when the culprit proudly displayed his work, you smiled sweetly at him and told him to fill it up and tamp it down. If this is any measure, quite a few of these ancient Indians goofed up something awful up there near Aurangabad. I say this because in the first phase of activity there, during the 2nd century B.C.E., someone chipped out six caves in the thick basalt that overlays the northwestern Deccan. This particular spot forms the horseshoe-shaped gorge of the Waghora River 65 miles northwest of Aurangabad. Generous caves they are for the most part, wide and deep and high-ceilinged, no miserly 6x6x6. And because basalt chips don’t tamp down very well, the boss man then put the goof-ups to work painting the walls and ceilings.
Later, in the 5th and 6th centuries of the modern era, it all happened again there at Ajanta: someone had to chip out and paint another 25 caves. He must have done something absolutely horrendous to earn such a humongous job. And about a century later, sometime in the 7th century, not far away, at Ellora someone else began to chip away tooth and nail at the basalt, carving out several temples from the solid rock and making another series of caves.
Now you do have to ask what went on up there in northern Maharastra. Was it something in the air?
Something contagious, perhaps? A bug or virus? Basalt is not the easiest stuff to work with. Unlike the sandstones of Egypt or the marbles of Greece and Italy, basalt is hard—very hard. It’s an igneous rock with a density about halfway between granite and flint. Making a dent in it is difficult. Making a cave in it or carving a temple out of it is folly.
So what possessed the fellow who first stood beside the Waghora River there at Ajanta, pointed toward the basalt cliff above him and said, “Ok, guys, let’s dig some holes”? How many chisels did they wear out per day? How many skinned knuckles did they nurse each night when they settled down to sleep? And when they got each hole deep enough, wide enough, and high enough (Cave 10, the largest, is 100 feet long, 40 feet wide, and almost 40 feet high), they still had to prepare the walls and ceilings for painting. That is, they roughened the surfaces and then spread two layers of plaster (the first rough, the second smoother) that would form the support surface. Over this they spread a thin white lime wash and then painted their images into the wash, using brushes made of animal hair or, in some instances, twigs with one end mashed to separate the fibers and, if my own experience with oil painting counts for anything, probably a fingertip or two here and there. For colors they used mostly local materials, lime white, red and yellow ochre, soot black, and a green made from local glauconite. In the second phase of work, they added a blue made from crushed lapis lazuli, the stone obviously imported for the purpose. At least, no one has ever found any lapis lazuli in the surrounding area.
The crude tools and materials, for the most part, are almost exactly the same as those used by the prehistoric painters in the cave at Lascaux (15,000-13,000 B.C.E.) or in the older caves of the Dordogne region of France, and the resulting paintings are equally breath-taking but for a vastly different reason. The Ajanta paintings are considerably less impressionistic than those at Lascaux or in the Dordogne; they are much more realistic, reminiscent, in fact, of the Italian Renaissance. The Ajanta artists had not yet recognized the value of the “gapped” line used so often at Lascaux to suggest depth, a technique not rediscovered in Western art until the time of the French Impressionists in the late 19th century. But the Ajanta artists could and did achieve modeling by highlight and shadow.
The great surprise at Ajanta is the appearance here and there of the one-point perspective that in Western art did not appear until over 1,000 years later in the early Italian Renaissance (ca. 1420) with the work of Filippo Brunelleschi. And one wonders: Was this technique another of those Indian concepts passed westward through the Muslim Middle East to Venice during and after the Crusades?
Perspective is frequently difficult to perceive in the paintings at Ajanta because of the absence of frames or boundaries of some sort to separate one scene from another. In the Western Renaissance, the frame of the painting permitted the fiction of a “window on the world” so that the painter and the viewer could see the scene within the frame as an extension via a window of the real world in which he or she stood. In a few instances, as at the altar end of the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo) and at Milan’s Santa Maria della Grazie (Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”), the artist used one whole wall and made the perspective within the painting an extension of the perspective established by the adjacent side walls. At Ajanta the various scenes flow fluidly into one another with little or no separation. And, too, the Ajanta artists followed the dictum set forth in the Chitrasutra, the ancient Sanskrit text on painting and sculpture, of sizing the various figures not according to perspective, but according to their political or religious importance.
But still, in places the one-point perspective is clear and unmistakable as on the back wall of Cave 1, to the left of the main shrine, where the artists have depicted a number of figures in and around a pavilion. The supporting posts of the pavilion, receding and diminishing in size by graduated stages as well as the various figures in foreground and background clearly indicate the perspective. It’s not as mathematically exact as Brunelleschi, an architect, would have made it, but nevertheless it’s there and deserves a generous bravo.
And certainly what one finds at Ellora also deserves an equally generous bravo, but for a much different reason. At Ajanta, one applauds great art; at Ellora, one applauds great daring. Here I’m thinking of the finest work at Ellora, the rock-cut Kailasa Temple, a work that surely deserves a place among the Seven Wonders of the World, deserves that place much more than the pyramids at Giza in Egypt. I say this despite the fact that this one rock-cut temple at Ellora is much, much smaller than any one of the pyramids. But it is so much greater in conception and execution!
Anyone can dream of a pyramidal shape, no matter how large or small. And anyone with enough political or economic power can bully a bunch of others into piling blocks of stone, huge though they may be, one atop another into that pyramid shape no matter how large or small. But now, figure, if you will, the scene at Ellora. Before any work began here, there was nothing but a series of huge pillows of basalt, the product of massive lava flows while the area was still underwater. Pillows, I say, because that is exactly their shape, smoothly rounded forms of cooled lava, much greater in the horizontal dimension than in the vertical, some only as large as a single football field, others three, four, or five times larger.
Figure now a man (it must have been a man, because women are much more practical) standing with his fellows before one of these pillows and saying, “Hey, guys, let’s carve a temple out of this one.”
Can’t you hear the response? “Bhai, you’ve flipped your lid!”
But they did it. Starting somewhere near the middle at the top of this pillow, or from the front as at Ajanta, they chipped away at the rock—carving, excavating, sculpting until finally they produced a monumental gateway, a courtyard, and in the courtyard a temple. In its overall dimensions, the courtyard measures 276 feet long by 154 feet wide dug into the basalt to a vertical depth of 100 feet. Set a bit back from the center of the courtyard stands the temple itself, 164 feet deep, 109 feet wide, and 98 feet tall. The labor involved removing some 200,000 tons of rock.
Scholars have estimated that it must have taken at least 7,000 laborers 150 years to accomplish the task. But the workers could not all have been ordinary laborers, for the temple is embellished with a multitude of figures—gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines, animals, and plants—this as with all Hindu temples to a stupefying extent. Nor are these figures crude; they are well sculpted, well proportioned, carefully finished.
That is to say, true artists carried out at least the finishing stages of the work. And someone had to act as overall designer or architect. What a stupendous imagination he must have had!
And another question, a simple one raised by Mary Ann: what kind of carving and excavating tools did the artists and artisans of Ajanta and Ellora use? A search for an answer turns up an interesting tidbit of information. In the few centuries before the beginning of the modern era, India became the known world’s major producer of steel. And one must ask, is this where the Tata family’s enterprises really started?
These early Tatas used a smelting process first developed in Egypt that produced what is known as Wootz steel. The process starts with the production in a sealed clay kiln of “sponge” iron, a soft, malleable, and porous form which workers then heated white-hot and hammered repeatedly to expel the slag. When they had worked the iron pure, the craftsmen then again sealed the metal in a clay kiln along with a measured quantity of woodchips and heated it until it melted. The heating drives carbon from the woodchips into the molten metal, producing a steel with from 1 percent to 1.6 percent of carbon.
This then can be worked into such things as the famous Sirohi sword and dagger blades, probably even into the wagh nakh (tiger claw) that Shivaji used as his carving knife, and undoubtedly into the chisels and rasps used by the artists and artisans at Ajanta and Ellora. It is the same process that centuries later produced vthe famous Damascus blades and the samurai swords of Japan’s legendary warriors.
Frank Rogers toured northern India with his wife, Mary Ann, in 1992; the two co-authored Painting and Poetry: Form, Metaphor, and the Language of Literature (1985).