It was about 200 B.C., in Maharashtra State, in Central India, that a community of Buddhist monks began building Ajanta. For almost a thousand years, they dug and carved out of the sides of a steep ravine about thirty caves and temple halls, leaving besides a gallery of frescoes and sculptures that continue to beggar the imagination to this day.
The work was completed circa 650 A.D. For centuries this legacy was lost to the world: the jungle is never ill-disposed to take over. But then one day, in 1819, a tiger emerged from behind a tangle of vines in the area and by sheer happenstance came in the sight of a British soldier's rifle. Before he could fire, however, it vanished and was never seen again.
In "Tiger of Ajanta", a short preface to his book Work on the Mountain, the novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez recounted the accidental rediscovery of the Ajanta Caves in India. He himself visited the place along with other Filipino artists and writers in 1962, a few months after the Sino-Indian border conflict. Before the group visited the temples of Ajanta, they were almost attacked by some Indians as they were mistaken for Chinese nationals. The tensions brought about by the conflict had clearly not subsided by that time.
The visit to the cave, a much needed diversion after the traumatic incident, became emblematic of the novelist's search for meaning and inspiration. He wrote about it to underscore what he admitted was his "slow grasp of the significance of Ajanta." He supposed that "the encounter at the park had been meant to remind us of our fervid quest for identity."
Unlike the tiger that vanished in the wink of an eye, my experience of Ajanta has stayed with me for years. I remember entering one of the large cave temples: a path beneath a waterfall leads to it. With the sputter, indeed, still on our arms and faces, we reach a large prayer hall. There we come upon two benches that are empty but there is a feeling that they are to be occupied shortly. The feeling grows as it dawns on us that at our back is a choirloft with banisters. Could it be that singing is about to begin? We wait and look around; the ceiling is markedly arched and our line of sight is quietly directed toward a Buddha figure at the far end of the hall. At this time of day, a beam of sunlight has descended upon the head: it is pointless to be awed any further! There is enough wonder here to last a lifetime. The Buddha's lips have broken into a smile ...
The singular experience of a Buddha bathed in light had etched itself into the mind of the writer. The writer had brought home with him "a sense of fullness and the oneness of things." The unity brought by staggering intricacy of design.
For this is the message inscripted in the frescoes, and the ample walls of the cave temples appear to have taken the vegetable dyes and colors so well. Time seems to have done little to diminish the love of life that the ravishing and voluptuous men and women of that age celebrated and now invite us to share.
Perhaps the meaning I am giving to Ajanta, my sense that it is as quintessential a metaphor as any for the writer's task, is too idiosyncratic, even perverse. But countless have been the times when my memory of those cave temples so inspired my writing that I feel certain that the only logical and honest way an artist may deal with Reality is to aspire to the dedication and faith of those workers at Ajanta. How fortunate of that one monk, perhaps the last of several who had been committed to the task, into whose cubicle a tiger once turned for shelter and safety.
Stupefied and overwhelmed by the temple frescoes and monuments, Gonzalez was grasping for meanings carried by the visible objects. He defaulted praise for the ancient workers. The dedicated workmen, or creators, of Ajanta were wonder workers. They were the vanguards and classicists of the cult of art, shaping the cliffs into an abode of worship and workmanship.
A classic work of art, said J.M. Coetzee, is "what survives". It is what remains. Like the caves complex of Ajanta, it is what endures. Forgotten and hidden for centuries by dense forest, the flash of a tiger's stripes appears to direct the way to Ajanta's sacred temples and figures.
Inspiration and art were no mere accidents. The anonymous creators were no longer unsung. But their life's work outlasted their finite stay on earth. Toil and dedication transformed into pyramids and carvings. Into great walls and rice terraces.