Published: January 2008 India’s Ancient Art
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

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.

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.

Behl’s work has helped scholars see early Indian art in a fresh light, as part of a more extensive and continuous tradition. The Ajanta paintings were once viewed, Behl says, as a “flash in a pan,” an isolated, extraordinary achievement. His photographs and films make it clear that the splendors of Ajanta emerged from earlier trends, and their influence spread far and wide. “Because of Benoy’s photographs,” says Joan Cummins, curator of Asian Art at the Brooklyn Museum, “we no longer see the art of Ajanta as a solitary island; now we see it as part of a long archipelago.”

Developments in sacred imagery fed the artistic blossoming at Ajanta. This was the era when the figure of the Buddha achieved an idealized, perfected human form. At first, artists had relied on symbols—footprints, a tree, an empty throne—to represent the historical Buddha. But followers wanted a more personal focus for their devotion. The likeness invented on the Indian subcontinent in the first centuries A.D.

That this flowering took place simultaneously within both religions is not surprising. The essential tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism arose from similar ideas, best described in the Upanishads, a set of Hindu treatises set down in India largely between the eighth and fourth centuries B.C.