More than two dozen man-made caves perforate the sweep of a dark basaltic rock face, their facades unexpectedly grand with pillars and statuary, reminiscent of the sculpted tombs and temples in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. The lavishness of the Ajanta complex reflects its royal patronage; most of the cave temples were carved during the reign of a king named Harishena, who ruled a large swath of central India in the mid-fifth century A.D.
Most of the figures inhabit crowded, intricately composed murals that tell stories, called jatakas, from the many past lives of the Buddha. Others depict incidents from the life of the historical Buddha, an Indian prince who lived a thousand years earlier. The paintings serve as illustrated classics, fifth-century style, meant to awaken devotion and heighten spiritual awareness through the act of seeing. For most visitors today, the tales are arcane. Yet the sensation of watching the images emerge from the dark in all their grace and beauty links then and now. A vision of paradise never grows old.
Few visitors have been affected more powerfully than Benoy Behl. When he first visited the cliffside caves in 1991, he posed himself a challenge. Was it possible to photograph the cave murals using only available light? By then Ajanta had gained international fame as a UNESCO World Heritage site, but decades earlier, misguided conservators had applied shellac to the murals, distorting their colors. More recent efforts to clean the surfaces have improved their condition. Even so, when seen or photographed with artificial lights, the colors and scenes often appeared flat, drained of vitality.
Behl had already succeeded in creating nighttime images of the Portuguese-era cathedrals in Goa, on India’s west coast, with only moonlight for illumination. He set out to try a similar technique at Ajanta, using the dim natural light in the caves to dispel the darkness. For two years Behl photographed every human, animal, plant, and deity on the walls and ceilings, in close-up or as parts of larger compositions. Working with a tripod, often standing on a simple wooden table, he would leave his shutter open for minutes at a time. The results were a revelation.
When the director of the Archaeological Survey of India saw Behl’s images, he exclaimed, “You have really conquered the darkness.” Art historians reacted as if they were seeing a great work of art for the first time. Behl proceeded to publish a book of his Ajanta photographs and exhibit them around the world. He also undertook an ongoing series of films on Indian painting and sculpture, making high-quality photographs of other premodern paintings, including ones from the remote Buddhist monastery at Alchi in the Himalaya and the monumental Brihadishvara temple in Thanjavur in southern India, a Hindu site.