The Ajantha and Ellora caves in Aurangabad are favourite destinations on every tourist’s itinerary. Yet very few people know of the poignant love story that was played out over 27 long years, in the dark, dank Ajantha caves, towards the middle of the 19th century.We travelled by road from Pune to Aurangabad. From there it was a good 106 kms, in the sweltering heat, and through arid planes, until we stood at the rim of a deep semi-circular ravine. In its depths were the 2000 year old Ajantha caves, hewn into the mountainside. The entrance to these twenty nine caves that looked desolate yet spell binding, made a gorgeous spectacle.
The caves were the labour of Buddhist monks, who spent 800 years between the 2nd to 8th century A.D, first creating them, then decorating them with paintings that recounted the life of Buddha, before and after his enlightenment – A vibrant world of princes, princesses, foreign dignitaries, celestial nymphs, dancing apsaras and the presiding presence of the smiling Buddha. Ironically, they were neglected and forgotten after the decline of Buddhism. The chaste and celibate monks would never have imagined that their work of dedication to their Lord would be the scene of a touching love story.
But the caves were rediscovered in 1819 by British soldiers. The discovery was accidental. The cliff face was obscured by overgrown trees and thick foliage. The officers hunting for tigers might have by-passed the ravine had it not been for a wild looking tribal boy grazing his buffalo.
“You want to shoot tigers?” he asked, “Come, I’ll take you to the lairs.” As they hacked their way through the ravines, they came upon these caves with sculptures, gorgeous frescoes and the overpowering presence of Buddha smiling down on them.” Up until 1824, the frescoes in these caves were more or less intact and well preserved, except for small areas of seepage through cracks in the rocks. As news got around, curious British visitors and treasure hunters came to see the caves, leading to much vandalism and destruction of these invaluable frescoes. An ignorant but greedy man called James Bird used a knife to scrape off as many paintings as he could.
So in 1844, Major Robert Gill an artist with a Madras Regiment was sent by the East India Company, to take photographs and make colored drawings of the frescoes before they were completely ruined.
The artist fell under the spell of these enchanting frescoes, and for 27 long years he labored in these dark and forbidding caves, completely isolated from civilization. There he sat, a bearded hatless Englishman clothed in white, bent over his easel, meticulously transcribing each delicate feature on to canvas, in the light of a small magnesium lamp. He was oblivious of the danger from wild animals and hostile Bhils.
And then, there entered into his life a dancing girl called Piro. She had defied her family to befriend this lonely hermit of the caves. Dressed in her traditional finery and bedecked with tribal jewels, she danced like a dream, bringing to life the dances that had been passed down through generations, from the very beginning of the Ajantha civilization. She was his inspiration, the moving force that kept him plodding at his drawings, the fay that brought to life through her dance, those frozen paintings on stone. In the eerie blackness of night, she infused warmth into his bones, and diffused his loneliness. Piro the considerate wife, the ardent lover!
Yet in death, they lie separated, he in a marble tomb at Bhusawal cemetery, wreathed in jasmine and bougainvillae boughs, and she in an unmarked, forgotten grave, somewhere on the edge of this plateau, at a spot overlooking the caves. The locals say that on moonlit nights a wraithlike figure dances on the rim of this crescent rock, and the tinkling of her anklets echoes through the desolate hills.
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