Ajanta Cave group is located 100 kms from Aurangabad station towards the northwest and close to Fardapur on the way to Jalgaon.
Ajanta Caves are exclusively Buddhist depicting the Hinayana and Mahayana phase.
What period they belong to :
The cave group was excavated between 2nd century B.C. and 2nd century A.D. first phase. Second phase from 4th century A.D. to 6th century A.D.
First Phase Paintings : The earliest painting traces can be seen in cave no. 10 belonging to 2nd century B.C. and cave no. 9 belonging to 1st century A.D.
Second Phase Paintings : The second phase paintings are seen in cave no. 1,2,16 and 17.
Early History of the Caves and Paintings
The Caves were discovered in 1819 by a British regiment with John Smith who has inscribed his name in Cave 10 on the paintings.
In 1824 Lieutenant James Edward Alexander visited the cave and described the frescoes in excellent preservation.
Mr. Ralph in 1828 who wrote in Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal Journal was there for quite some time explains the painting as in good condition.
Dr. James Bird arrived at the same time as Mr. Ralph. He was a medical doctor and was sent by the Governor to examine and suggest preservation steps.
Lieutenant Blake from the Madras army arrived in January 1939 when the British soldiers drained the rubbish and mud from inside all the caves.
It was only in 1843 that the Court of Directors of the East India Company when James Fergusson a leading architectural historian requested for its preservation that they appointed Major Robert Gill an artist to copy the painting.
The Paintings of Ajanta copied by various Artists
Major Gill reproduced most of the paintings of Ajanta from 1844 to 1871 for 27 years.
Paintings exhibited in Crystal Place in London and most of the collection destroyed in a major London fire,
John Griffith, the Principal of Bombay School of Art copied the paintings from 1875 to 1885 exhibited in Victoria and Albert Museum and burnt in second London fire.
Recopied and brought out two volumes “The Paintings in the Buddhist Caves at Ajanta.”
Lady Herrivgham reproduced water colored painting in 1906.
Restoration of the Ajanta Paintings
In 1920 the Nizam of Hyderabad invited two Italian experts Count Orsini and Signor Lorenzo Cecconi and by injections of casein a great deal of fixing work was done.
In between 1954-9 the ASI who had taken charge of the site in 1953 undertook a campaign to clean the paintings to rid them of the varnish.
Results bad as after the cleaning a whitish cloud appeared on the paintings, obscuring the paintings.
In 1970 expert committee allowed further attempts to remove varnish and more cleaning.
The varnish removed in 1971 -72 contained ammonia which added to the existing problem like wiping out outlines in cave 17.
Varnish was the chief headache of preservation at Ajanta.
Technique of Ajanta Paintings
Binding medium used was gum obtained from ‘babul’ (Acadia) or ‘neem’ (margosa) tree and glue from animal sources.
Colours used both opaque and semi-opaque in nature.
Two kinds of whites used.
One opaque with covering quality like zinc, lead and titanium whites are of this nature.
Semi-opaque whites are whiting, chalk, gypsum, alumina hydrate and kaolin.
When an inert white pigment is mixed there is brilliance in colour.
Ajanta paintings are not buno fresco as they were painted on a ground of dry plaster and are not chemically bonded to the ground.
The presence of gluey binder, absence of lime binder points to its tempera technique.
The Tempera Technique
Support or carrier for paintings at Ajanta were the Rock-Walls.
The surface rough and grainy.
Three types of rock surface for painting.
- i) Most uneven surface – ceilings.
- ii) Moderately uneven surface – vertical side walls.
iii) Very even surface – pillars.
- i) Three layers on uneven surface.
- ii) Two layers on moderately uneven surface.
iii) and only one layer on even surface.
- i) Lime surfacing as a first step.
- ii) Clay mixed with binding materials.
- i) Paddy shin
- ii) Grass seed
- iv) Stone chip
- i) Long grass
- ii) Cotton
- iv) Fine Grass
- Fine sand
- ii) Clay
Layer of Pigments
Over the mud plaster a layer of lime mixed with gum or glue.
Pigments used for these paintings.
- i) Black lamp black
- ii) All other colours mineral in origin
iii) Indian red, light red
- iv) Yellow ochre
- v) Terre verte (green earth)
- vi) Orpiment yellow all locally available
vii) Lapis lazuli blue only imported colour from
There are two departments working at Ajanta
- i) Conservation Department : in charge of maintenance
of the caves as a tourist site.
- ii) Chemical Department : in charge of cleaning and
repairing the paintings and sculpture.
The interests of both the departments are different and the territorial battles between them as they work separately.
The conservation office or Archaeological Survey of India’s main office is in Delhi.
Central lab of the chemical department in Dehradoon.
The problem earlier was the regular transfers of young officers who came as fresh recruits, background in chemistry but none in art, archaeology or conservation.
Natural Causes of Damage
Due to cracks in the rock and seepage of rain water.
Due to moisture there is relative humidity of atmosphere and high humidity is conducive for the growth of micro organisms such as molds and fungi on the paint surface.
Beads of rain water percolated causing swelling and bulging of the paintings.
Seepage through the wall is causing a complete detachment of a film and blisters and wrinkles.
Heavy human pressure of exhaling carbon-di-oxide is another cause.
Vibrations due to electricity generator, expansion work causes harm.
The natural climatic processes, agents of weathering like wind, water, temperature variations, bio-organisms have affected macro as well as micro structures in the rock and brought a gradual deterioration in the rock mass quality.
Scientific Causes of Damage
Micro organisms 100 times smaller are eating into the world famous Ajanta painting.
Two types of micro – organisms – bacteria and fungi.
Several types of bacteria pose threat to the paintings.
Bats that used to reside in large number leave their excreta that creates a white film on the paintings.
High humidity is another cause of deterioration as it is conducive for the growth of micro organisms such as moulds and fungi on the paint surface.
Another cause is excessively dry conditions that cause the binding medium to become brittle and loose its adhesive strength which leads ultimately in the loss of pigments by flaking.
Humans Responsible for Damage
Human vandalism in the form of scratching or touching on the paintings in the most common cause for damage.
Huge clouds of dust from humans has been settling on the paintings since decades.
Earlier tourists ate food near the caves leaving food particles that invited micro bacteria harmful for the paintings.
Noise pollution due to expansion work and the work created vibration.
Blasting work for road development, ninety to ninety five blasting bars were exploded for road winding.
Heavy human pressure during peak season.
The Period Between 1828 to 1920
Visitors explorers who passed by had no control.
Mr. Ralph lit dry grass to see the paintings.
He also threw water for better visibility.
One Dr. Bird scraped off paintings with a knife.
James Griffith pupils applied cheap varnish in order to bring out the paintings.
With time varnish turned yellow, cracked and broke away from the wall taking the paint with it.
Some enthusiasts brunt naked lamps, which darkened the ceiling with soot.
Some amateur restorers filled the holes with plaster of paris.
The walls were washed with dirty water.
Monument Conservation Under ASI with the JBIC funds.
Protection of rock mass.
Prevention of water seepage in the caves.
Slope stability of caves and adjoining hills.
Conservation of sensitive paintings.
Surface water management.
Landscaping the adjoining region.
Italian Team in Conservation Process
Keeping records of every tourist entering, time of entrance and exit and total duration inside cave no. 17.
Sensor machine to measure noise pollution created due to tourist.
Pitch of voice contributed.
Breathing of every tourist is also measured as it increases humidity inside the cave.
Sudden entrance of the group inside the cave that disturbs the room temperature.
Two monitors to measure suspended particles in air.
Four data loggers to measure temperature and humidity.
Conducting a non-destructive test through X-ray fluorescent equipment worth Rs. 1 crore.
These tests were conducted by Central Institute for Research, Rome (Italy) with a team including biologist, chemist and restores.
Chemical Department of ASI
The Deputy Superintendent, Chemical Department has done substantial experiments earlier.
Since nearly last 10 years the same colours as used by the Ajanta artists were used.
In cave No. 10 on the right wall on the extreme top of the wall the painting was cleaned.
368 million will be spent on conservation work.