I was both enthused and disappointed when i visited the Ajanta and Ellora caves last week. I was enthused by the scale of the caves across entire mountain sides; the high quality of sculpture and painting; and the co-existence of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu caves in perfect harmony.
But i was disappointed that the sculpture at Ellora was so broken and eroded that it was nearly impossible to picture the original. Vast stretches of the walls and ceilings at Ajanta, which were once painted in full, now have glaring gaps or discoloured sections. Only fragments of high-quality art are still visible.
Now, ancient, eroded sculpture and faded paintings have a special patina and cultural value of their own. These are, rightly, viewed as precious and inviolable. Archaeologists will clean out dirt and vegetation, and repair broken walls and structures. But they will not replace ancient damaged sculptures and paintings with new replicas.
In stark contrast to these dead monuments are live, functioning shrines that have been repairing, replacing and expanding their structures for centuries. The most beautiful ones in India are, without doubt, the Dilwara temples at Mount Abu. These are verily poetry in marble. The ceilings are the filigree of extravagant dreams, transformed into white stone.
Why is Dilwara not eroded and discoloured like Ellora? Because the Dilwara temples are alive and functioning, attracting millions of worshippers. The temples are maintained by religious bodies, not the ASI. Donations from worshippers, plus the cultural force of ancient tradition, enable the religious trusts to hire the best artisans and maintain the highest quality in constantly repairing and replacing old, damaged sections. The replacements are as exquisite as the originals. This keeps alive ancient traditions and skills in art, which have been lost at dead monuments like Ajanta and Ellora.
The ASI cannot remotely imitate the efforts of the religious authorities at Dilwara, because it has neither the budget nor skills. Critics have lambasted the ASI for its clumsy renovation attempts, some of which have been called perversions rather than restorations. But let’s be fair and recognize that the ASI lacks the funding, academic support from universities, and availability of restoration technologies that archaeologists have in the West.
Archaeologists everywhere are reluctant or dead opposed to replacing damaged sculptures and paintings with new ones. But living shrines do exactly this, not only at Dilwara but also at temples, mosques and churches across India. Dead monuments maintained by archaeologists leave damaged art untouched, for fear of distorting and ruining our cultural heritage. But living shrines repair and replace damaged art, and this too is intrinsic to our cultural heritage. So, we have two cultural traditions that are very different. Both have a strong logic of their own. There is indeed a case for leaving ancient monuments largely untouched, after making basic repairs. And there is indeed a case for living shrines to constantly maintain and even expand their structures.
Can we reconcile these two traditions at places like Ajanta and Ellora? Yes, indeed. We must not try and modernize the ancient caves with brand new replicas. But we can create new living shrines in the neighbourhood — Hindu, Jain and Buddhist — that aim to recapture the spirit and quality of the ancient traditions. These new cave-shrines will have to be sufficiently distant to leave undisturbed the existing ambience of the ancient caves, yet be close enough to become part of the same tourist circuit.
Obviously, the new shrines must not be government run: that would be a recipe for corruption and cultural nightmares. Instead, religious bodies of Hindus, Jains and Buddhists should be invited to set up one new cave apiece. Each cave should be built in the style of the originals, but without slavishly adhering to the original design. The new Buddhist cave, for instance, would have fully painted walls and ceilings, but need not aim to be an exact replica of any existing cave.
As living shrines, the cave-temples must have priests and facilities for thousands to worship. They should be visualized and developed to attract both tourists and worshippers, just like Dilwara and Madurai. These shrines will have to attract and employ artisans that recreate and maintain the ancient traditions of Ajanta and Ellora. This is not impossible: strong artisanal traditions already exist at several living shrines. These will have to be adapted to the traditions of Ellora and Ajanta.
Today, some of our finest artisans are creating marble columns and carvings for a Ram temple at Ayodhya that will never be built. Surely, they will be better employed recreating the ancient traditions of Ellora and Ajanta.