Enchantment has many faces, but few compare with one painted 1,500 years ago on a cave wall in India. To see it, the eyes must first adjust to darkness. Soon it becomes impossible to turn away. The figure is of a bare-chested man; he wears a tall crown and holds a delicate lotus flower in one hand. His torso is curved as if swaying to music only he hears. His face is tranquility itself, eyes half-closed, lips pursed in a faint smile, his whole being absorbed in the sweetest dream possible.
This face has radiated serenity since the fifth century, when Buddhist monks inhabited a set of remarkable hand-cut cave temples built for them at Ajanta in central India. The name of the beatific figure is Bodhisattva Padmapani, a Buddhist deity who represents infinite compassion. Appearing near the entrance of one of the shrines, Padmapani stands as guardian, offering a vision of peace to all who enter. “The painting is a mirror,” whispered my guide, Indian photographer and filmmaker Benoy Behl. “It shows us the divine part of ourselves.”
To see it, Behl and I drove out of Aurangabad, a provincial city east of Mumbai. We passed fallow cotton fields, the soil black as ink; swerved around cattle, their bells tinkling, their horns painted in bright blues and reds; and, after an hour or so, pulled into an overlook above a gorge of the Waghora River.