Published: January 2008

India’s Ancient Art

Indiaart Feature

Faces of the Divine

In 1,500-year-old temples, Indian artists portrayed their gods as visions of perfection.

By Tom O’Neill
National Geographic staff
Photograph by Bruce Dale

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.

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |