The Ajanta Cave Paintings are some of the most well-known pieces of Indian art history. These murals are one of the earliest surviving depictions of India and its people, dating back to the 2nd century BCE. The paintings narrate the stories of the multiple lives of Gautama Buddha through the 550 renditions in the Jataka Tales. The creation of these murals can be observed in two distinct phases: the first dating back to the 2nd century BCE, and the second extending from the 5th century until the 8th century.
These paintings were painted in the tempera style and filled with stories and illustrations of human figures, alive with drama. Outlines were usually drawn using red ochre or carbon black, while organic substances such as plant fibres, plant seeds and rice husks were mixed into mud to create a mortar. These paintings showcase the creativity and artistic sensibilities of the artists during the golden age of India.
As these paintings are part of an outdoor cave system, they cannot be preserved under controlled conditions and are thus susceptible to damage caused by environmental factors. The major problems affecting the Ajanta caves are high temperature and humidity, water seepage, bird and insect nests, damage caused by bats living in the caves, and vandalism.
Join Rooftop in learning about the techniques and measures taken in an effort to preserve the Ajanta Cave paintings for posterity.
1. Digital Preservation Of Ajanta Cave Paintings Through AI
Conservation is an ongoing process, and the murals at Ajanta continue to resist the ravages of time. Along with the restoration of the original paintings, the digital records of this cultural marvel are being preserved at Svalbard, Norway, as a part of the Arctic World Archive project. Sapio Analytics, a data management company undertook this digitization initiative. They used a dataset of reference work to develop an AI mannequin called Ancient AI, that uses mathematical inference and pixel-level scanning to restore damaged areas of the murals.
Benoy Bahl is an Indian art historian who photographed several of the Ajanta murals using special lowlight photography techniques. He says, “The centuries have taken their toll on the paintings, and their magnificence has been obscured by gawking visitors and conditions inside the caves”. High-end pixel-level scanning nanotechnology was used to convert his photographs into an ultra-high-resolution film. It is designed to be safe from the threats of cybersecurity attacks, terrorism and natural disasters and preserved using silver halide.
Also read: Know All About Vakataka Paintings
- Continued Research On Indian Art Restoration Methods
It may seem obvious, but research is the first step towards conservation efforts. The mortar used in the original murals has been heavily researched in order to create new mortar for the restoration process.
According to Japanese copyist Mr Kanpo Arai, the British covered the entire wall surface with varnish as part of their conservation efforts. This made the surface appear greasy and altered the colours used in the original compositions. The Nizam of Hyderabad employed two Italian conservators in 1920, who added shellac varnish over the previous coats of varnish, further affecting their ageing process. Indian art conservators used organic solvents and micro emulsion techniques to remove old layers of varnish and carry out an extensive cleaning process.
3. Restricting Public Access To Cave Sites
The conservation of Indian art and monuments did not start until the forties, and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) undertook the protection and preservation of the Ajanta cave paintings in 1953. By then, considerable damage had been done to these structures.
The ASI is responsible for the 300m radius surrounding the caves, whereas activities in the prohibited and regulated zone (100m and 200m) are monitored jointly by the ASI, Forest Department, and the Government of Maharashtra through legislation such as the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (1958), Rules (1959), Indian Forest Act (1927), and Forest Conservation Act (1980). The Ministry of Environment has declared Elephanta island and its surrounding waters as a protected zone. The ASI has suggested that a radius of 5 km surrounding Ajanta be designated as a Green Belt, but this has not been implemented yet.
4. Protecting Ajanta Cave Paintings Against Environmental Factors
As these cave paintings were painted thousands of years ago, they are extremely susceptible to damage due to air, water, sunlight and other environmental factors. The surfaces of several rock shelters have developed cracks, causing water to seep through. This causes paint to start peeling and rock pillars to crumble and fall into the cave interior. Conservation measures such as constructing new support pillars and filling in cracks in the walls with cement were taken to preserve the structural integrity of the caves. Suitable illumination and fibre optic lights were installed in the caves along with canework shades, in order to prevent direct sunlight from damaging the paintings. Cave 10 is illuminated by reflecting light off a metal sheet, a technique that was used by archaeologists in the past.
The organic mortar used in the murals attracts insects like silverfish that feed and live on it. Regular spraying, dusting and fumigation activities are undertaken to completely eradicate insect activity. Bats were another issue that plagued the caves, but they have been removed as well. The removal of faecal matter and urine was a heavy cause for concern as it had seeped deep into the paint and earthen layer beneath the paintings. Currently, the usage of Cyclododecane (CDD) a hydrophobic binder and consolidant is being researched as a method of conservation to clean the water-sensitive surface of the Ajanta cave paintings.
5. Implementing Visitor Management And Public Awareness Programmes
There exists a lack of sensitivity and knowledge in the minds of the general public. Visitors do not know how to interact with the Ajanta cave structures, thus causing them considerable damage. Worship inside the caves is prohibited, visitors are not allowed to linger or use electric/ mobile torches. To prevent tourism from further damaging the paintings, access to certain areas is restricted and the introduction of guided and supervised tours is being discussed.
Additional measures have also been taken by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to reduce the problem of graffiti and vandalism of the Ajanta cave paintings. As the presence of too many visitors can increase humidity in the caves, two causeways have been constructed for the proper distribution of visitors. Tourists need to abide by the regulations put in place as it will help in the conservation of the paintings and allow them to continue to remain open to the public.
The Ajanta cave system is a collection of Buddhist chaityas (prayer rooms) and Viharas (monasteries). It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and is a popular tourist attraction in Maharashtra. Students, creative professionals, photographers, art lovers and tourists continue to visit these caves to gain a deeper understanding of Indian art and heritage. The Ajanta cave paintings are not just a part of Indian art history, they also offer an in-depth insight into the cultural and social aspects of ancient Indian civilization.
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By Melissa D’Mello