BY VOLKMAR WENTZEL
National Geographic Society Staff Photographer
AJANTA, I read, “is the most ancient and art heritage handed down to India.” And Kailasa Temple at Ellora, the “noblest Hindu monument of ancient India,” is man’s idea of a god’s heaven.
Such descriptions, read as I traveled to India, helped to prepare me for an assignment by the National Society to photograph those extraordinary shrines in the State of Hyderabad. Months later, gazing carvings and frescoes, I understood why Ajanta and Ellora had evoked such praise.
Both religious centers carved With infinite patience from the living rock. Monks, priests, and laymen worked by sun and torchlight for more than a thousand years on 60-odd temples and halls.
Frescoes Picture Ancient Life
Ajanta monastery was settled two centuries the Christian Era. when followers of Gautama Buddha retired to that lonely precipice. There, with mallet and chisel they dug into the rock and hollowed out nearly 30 temples and dwelling halls. On the walls painted exquisite frescoes and ceilings portraying the li e of ancient India.
In the 7th century, the Buddhists mysteriously abandoned Ajanta to the jungle and moved to a hillside near Eliora, 50 miles away. Hindus and Jains joined them. During the next 200 to 300 years, the three sects carved another 30-odd temple.
I drove up to the Ajanta guesthouse at twilight. Leaving my Sikh assistant, Jai Singh. I walked off alone to see the temples before darkness closed in. Soon I stood in the sweeping crescent Of the wild Waghara River, gazing at the cliff that rose a sheer 250 feet from the stream bed (page 668). My eye was caught by four rock-hewn temples with cyclopean-eyed windows (page 666). Connecting them, massive columns marched 2,000 feet around the river bend. Behind those pillars lay dwelling halls of monks who attended the temples.
As I strolled the path beneath the porticoes, I could imagine the bygone Buddhist monks walking as I walked, meditating, chanting prayers, and teaching students. Visiting a monks’ hall, I trod paths worn in the stone floor by the feet of countless pilgrims. I paused before shrines which showed Buddha in life (page 667) and in Nirvana (page 670). I explored cubicles where austere monks had slept on stone beds and pillows.
But it was not until the next day, When Jai sets up lights for my cameras, that I noted Ajanta’s artistic triumph—the frescoes. Color still glowed from painted walls; flowers a thousand years old sparkled jewels. Vivid figures seemed to move with life. Gift-bearing ladies served godlike kings. Dancing dwarfs Sang carols and played musical instruments.
But time had exacted a heavy price. The frescoes bore the marks oi moisture, insects, and bats. Shellac, applied by restorers after Ajanta’s rediscovery by British soldiers in 1819, had harmed rather than helped.
Later I spoke to an Indian friend about the tragedy Of the paintings. “Yes,” he agreed, “much has been lost, but much has been won, too. The Ajanta frescoes, tattered as they are, have inspired a new school of art in Calcutta.”
Visiting Ellora, we were guided by Living• stone M. Bhaktul, resident archeologist. “During World war 2,” Mr. Bhaktul told us, “your American GIs came to Ellora in such droves that we had to put them up in tents. Our cook worked overtime preparing hundreds of box lunches. But the Yanks were nothing new, for Ellora has had 13 centuries. Unlike Ajanta, it was never lost.”
Ellora’s temples stand out above a broad expanse Of rolling hills. First the Buddhists dug out enormous halls; then Hindu and Jain sculptors fashioned temples next door. Under the talented Hindu artists, Indian sculpture reached a golden age. Their graceful and imaginative female figures have rarely been equaled (illustrations on the following pages).
Dream Of Heaven Endures
We saved the god Siva’s Kailasa Temple to visit last (page 672). I had expected much: I discovered more. Accustomed to stone blocks and mortar joints, I found it hard to believe that not only the great temple itself, but Obelisks, life-sized elephants, and dancing gods were all carved in one piece. Quarrymen, starting work from the top of the cliff, laid bare a huge monolith for the sculptors.
“We estimate that the job took more than 40,000 stonecutters excavating 200,000 tons Of rubble,” said the archeologist. “Then the artists went to work. Finally, plasterers covered the temple walls and sculptures with a fine lime that shone as White as snow and glistened for miles away—a dazzling abode of Siva.” Plaster was peeling and Statues had been chipped by image breakers, but the builders’ bold dream Of a god’s heaven endured.