The treasures of this extraordinary site, way out in the depths of the dusty countryside of the Indian state of Maharashtra, and some considerable distance from the glittering capital at Mumbai, are universally described and signposted as the Ajanta Caves. This is nowhere near doing them justice. These are Buddhist retreat halls, thirty of them, hand-hewn from solid rock and fashioned into spacious rooms, with slender carved columns and elegant sculptures. They date from both the Hinayana and Mahayana periods of Buddhism in India, the earliest likely to have been started in the first century BCE, and the newest maybe as old as 480 CE, certainly completed no later than the seventh century, by when the site was abandoned, and the jungle took over until it was rediscovered by a British officer in 1819.
If there were nothing more to these retreat halls than the feat of chipping them out from the side of the hill, they would be already a magnificent physical demonstration of the realisation of space and clarity from the seemingly dense and impenetrable; but there is more; there is something awe-inspiringly, breathtakingly beautiful more. For parts of some of the halls are still covered in their original paintings, and kings and courtesans, bodhisattvas and celestial nymphs, fantastical beasts and landscapes out of the Jatakas, the tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, gaze down on us captivated onlookers, their details still sharp, their colours still vibrant and surprisingly barely faded, despite the many intervening centuries.
One can make out the places where the plaster has come off from the stone surface and the rest of the paintings is missing, and it is a startling instant of insight to picture that every square inch of every hall, inside and outside, would have been thus covered. Every detail would have been picked out in vivid hues, just as brightly decorated as Tibetan Buddhist and South Indian temples are today. (And, if we stop to think of it, as the classical buildings of Ancient Greece used to be. It is a disservice to the Parthenon to look at it today in the plainness of its marble cladding and assume that this is what Phidias and Pericles contemplated.)
This was a site I had missed out on during my first trip to India ten years ago, temple fatigue having set in by the time I reached Mumbai at the end of four months of travelling, and which I had dreamt of visiting ever since. It was extremely rewarding, especially in getting my imagination going on what it must have been like when it was regularly occupied.
These halls would have been used by a community of monks gathering together for the traditional monsoon retreat, when the rains made travel impractical, as otherwise the practice inherited from the Buddha was for renunciates to live as solitary mendicant wanderers. The literature on the site classifies the halls into monasteries (viharas), which contain a row of cells on each side of the main space, obviously for the monks to sleep in, and a shrine at the back, displaying invariably a massive stone Buddha; and prayer halls (chaityas), which were devoid of sleeping space, and may therefore have been used exclusively for assemblies of the monks and religious ceremonies.
It turned me immediately to the thought of the happy generations upon generations of monks that must have spent time there, rising early in the morning to their prayers and recitations of the sutras, the ravine along which the halls gently curve echoing with their chanting and the sound of instruments; absorbed in the study of their texts, the testament of their dedication the disfiguration at the top of walls and ceilings from the untold accumulation of soot from so many thousands of lamps fed on oil and ghee; and able, I hoped, at each setting of the sun, to gaze out towards the encircling forests and the river below in peace and quiet and tranquillity and serenity. It made me wish, wistfully, surrounded by hundreds of Marathi sightseers, that it were possible to have these halls resonate like that again, even if only briefly.
Back now in South London, and telling friends and acquaintances at the Kagyu Samye Dzong Buddhist Centre about this splendid experience, in answer to their questions about my recent stay in India, it has surprised me that none of them know of Ajanta. It confirms an impression of mine: that for Buddhists, for Tibetan Buddhists in the West at any rate, Buddhism is first and foremost a living tradition. The places they are interested in going to in India are those where revered masters reside, such as Dharamsala. Historical sites such as Bodh Gaya only appeal to them when a teaching or prayer gathering, like the annual Kagyu Monlam conducted by the Karmapa, is held there. And it convinces me that, without a permanent Buddhist presence and without regular Buddhist events, a project such as the Buddha Park in Patna, promising as it may sound in theory, risks proving useless and wasteful in practice – or rather in the absence of it.