The caves are narrow stone fissures, until saffron-clad monks squeeze into spaces where they can’t even stand.
Hammers and chisels work for centuries – carving external stairways up from the river way below. Buckets dipped in the river, are carried two at a time, slung from poles across aching shoulders, carted up the countless stone steps in relays, to the sound of groans and heaving chests gasping for air in the furnace of the gorge.
Cave floors are flooded with sheets of water, mirrors that reflect daylight from the sky outside, throwing light to help with the meticulous work. The caves are transformed to gigantic spaces, some that could lose an army. Work begins on intricate stone carvings inside, the symbols and stupas. The chanting begins in earnest. Work begins on the statues.
This place’s remoteness saves it from marauding armies and thieves, and centuries of scrubby growth hide these wonders from prying eyes. Centuries come and go before historians, restorers, artists, pilgrims – and travellers like me – come this way.
In the early 19th century, the colonial days of the British Raj, a team from the East India Company is on a tiger shoot along the floor of this horseshoe gorge. They lose sight of the big cat, for the entire valley is heavily forested then. Looking up and along the cliff face, one man notices an unnatural arch on the rock face. The officers clamber up through thick bushes. The arch is chiseled by human hands, the tiger nowhere to be seen.
Photo: The Two of Us - Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra, India _ Ian Cochrane