Conservation questions at Ajanta

Print edition : November 07, 1998

Work intended to restore the famed paintings in the Ajanta caves has been halted following fears that the process was causing further damage to the paintings.

THE Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has halted an operation it had undertaken to clean up the 1,500-year-old wall paintings in the Ajanta caves, a site which figures on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

This follows pressure from art historians and conservationists who say that far from helping to preserve the paintings in the Buddhist rock-cut cave temples and monasteries near Ajanta village in north-central Maharashtra, the cleaning operation was leading to the obliteration of details of the world-renowned paintings. Dr. Walter M. Spink, an art historian from the University of Michigan who has studied the caves for 38 years and has been campaigning for a halt to the cleaning process, sent an appeal to ASI Director-General Ajai Shankar requesting him to stop the work. Ajai Shankar confirmed that he had halted the work and had asked the ASI's Director of Science for a review. He said he had chosen such a course of action because he had heard the views of someone as eminent as Spink. But he clarified that this did not necessarily mean that the ASI shared Spink's views, only that the work warranted another look in the light of the art historian's expression of concern. (Spink is now a Professor at the University of Michigan. Earlier at Harvard University, his dissertation was on the history of Indian art. Among his published works are Krishnamandala, The Quest for Krishna (a booklet) and Ajanta to Ellora. He is currently working on, among other things, a six-volume study of Ajanta.)

Spink visits Ajanta with his students from U.S. and Indian institutions regularly. He is distressed at the ASI's "negligence" while trying to restore the paintings: in his view, although the ASI is zealous about the work, its efforts in the caves might be doing more harm than good.

A view from outside of the Ajanta caves, the gallery of priceless paintings, frescoes and sculptures. The Archaeological Survey of India has halted an operation to clean up the paintings following fears that its work was leading to the obliteration of details in the paintings.-BENOY K. BEHL

"The paintings don't sing any more," Spink told this writer, who attended a workshop conducted by the art historian at Ajanta village in August. It appears that the paintings have been scrubbed too clean, and Spink implied that those who sought to restore them had removed details of the art on the walls and ceilings. Spink, 70, who has studied the paintings for decades - his first visit to the caves was as a Fulbright scholar in 1952 - says that although the paintings have deteriorated over time, the most serious damage has been caused in recent months, during the restoration work. As part of the cleaning operation, the soot that had been deposited on the images for centuries was being scrubbed away. The soot, which came from oil lamps and incense used by Buddhist monks during their prayer sessions centuries ago, covered up the newly-finished paintings almost completely.

The challenge before conservationists is to remove the carbon deposits from the paintings, which are defined by black lines of the same material as the grime. With the technology available at present, it is impossible to do this without damaging the paintings. One fact, however, is undeniable: beneath the layer of soot, the paintings are generally in perfect condition (except where the plaster itself is broken). This is because worship started in these caves as soon as they were decorated, and the deposits started to build up rightaway. In fact, the layer of soot that gradually covered them formed a protective coating, which preserved them for 1,500 years. Now, the very act of "unveiling" the paintings is causing them permanent damage. Where the soot is too thick to be removed, it would perhaps be best to leave it untouched until cleaning techniques that will not damage the paintings become available, even if this takes a few hundred years. The delay would be better than attempting conservation without appropriate technology.

HOWEVER, Benoy K. Behl, author of a lavishly illustrated book on Ajanta published recently by Thames & Hudson, has a different opinion. He has painstakingly photographed the paintings, using the minimum of light and employing special techniques. (Frontline reproduced some of his photographs and discussed his photographic techniques in its issue dated September 28-October 11, 1991.) Behl has seen the folio of photographs of reproductions of the paintings by James Surgess done in the 1860s, which are in the India Office collections of the British Library in London, and says that there has been surprisingly little damage to the paintings (in recent times).

Scaffolding put up in one of the caves by the ASI during the restoration effort.-DARRYL D'MONTE

"Till now, I have not seen any damage in Ajanta," he says, but prefers to reserve judgment until after he visits Ajanta again. He is currently making a film on the caves for the tourism authorities.

AS is well documented, it was in 1819 that soldiers from a British regiment, who were on a hunt, discovered the caves, many of which were excavated during the reign of the Vakatakas, between the 2nd century B.C. and the 7th century A.D. According to Spink, the caves, which served as the habitation-cum-religious quarters of Buddhist monks, were abandoned following the collapse of the Vakataka empire and specifically after Emperor Harisena died in the late 5th century. The horseshoe-shaped gorge at Ajanta is located along an ancient trade route; after the 31 caves ceased to be inhabited they were gradually filled with debris and their mouths were all but obscured from view by thick vegetation. In some caves, there is a clear demarcation where the rubble obliterated the paintings up to a few feet from the floor.

Over the years, the ASI has doubtless built up a reputation as an agency that has restored many monuments. It has helped in conservation efforts abroad as well. For instance, the ASI has worked on the huge Buddha statue at Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the Angkor Wat monument in Cambodia (Frontline, July 2, 1993).

Art historian Dr. Walter M. Spink (centre), who has been campaigning for a halt to the cleaning process as it is being done now at the Ajanta caves, with ASI Superintending Archaeologist S.V. Venkateshaiah (left).-DARRYL D'MONTE

In the case of Ajanta, the ASI has been reluctant to seek help from abroad - in the form of funds and knowhow from the best conservationists in the world.

The problems with regard to restoring ancient sites in India are quite different from those encountered in other regions. Every region has fairly unique weather and environmental conditions, which affect stone and paint in different ways. In India, particularly in the rain-shadow areas of the Deccan, there is heavy rain for the three months of the monsoon season, after which the climate is hot and dry. During the rainy season (which is, incidentally, one of the best times to visit Ajanta), the Waghora river cascades through seven hollows in the rock before it flows through the valley. Over millions of years, this passage sculpted out the gorge. The level of humidity is high, which takes its toll on the paintings. There is also the natural wear and tear of the rock, which process has been exacerbated by the excavation of the caves in it.

According to S.V. Venkateshaiah, Superintending Archaeologist of the ASI in Aurangabad, there are heavy fractures in the Ajanta rocks. Recently there was a huge rock-fall. In the West, water trapped within stone monuments freezes in winter and in doing so causes fissures. The technology required for treating stone in these climates is different from that required elsewhere.

Two paintings of the Buddha and Bodhisatvas in Cave 6. Soot from oil lamps and incense used by Buddhist monks centuries ago has covered many of the paintings, and the challenge before restoration experts is to remove the layer of soot without damaging the paintings.-

In the painting below, the face of the Bodhisatva at left has been restored.


In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ajanta and Ellora came under the jurisdiction of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The Nizam, concerned about preserving the priceless paintings, invited Italian restoration experts in 1922-23 to treat the paintings, for Italy probably has the largest number of monuments with painted walls and ceilings. The Italian restorers applied shellac to many of the paintings in the belief that this would form a protective coating. However, in time, the shellac darkened in the hot and humid climate, obscuring the luminous figures. In other words, the solution became part of the problem. In later years, the ASI's experts experienced great difficulty in removing the shellac.

Even granting that any restoration work must take into account the climatic conditions in Ajanta and that Western restoration experts of the past did not always know what was best for the Ajanta paintings, there is no room for chauvinism when it comes to preserving sites such as Ajanta which are, in the best sense, the heritage of the entire world. This is a sensitive issue, for the ASI is known to have reacted adversely to criticism from foreign experts. Only a couple of years ago, British restorer Sir Bernard Feilden caused an uproar when he threatened to write to UNESCO asking it to remove Elephanta, or more accurately, Gharapuri, from the World Heritage List because of the ASI's negligence. ASI officials reacted angrily, and dismissed his "unsolicited advice".

In the 1970s, a similar controversy arose over the threat to the Taj Mahal from the possible effect of pollutants from the Mathura oil refinery, which was to be sited 40 km away. A former head of the ASI's chemistry branch in Dehra Dun, Dr. B.B. Lal (who has in more recent times been in the news for his controversial views on the historicity of the Babri Masjid), was asked to examine whether scientific institutes in India were equipped to conduct studies on the impact of pollutants on a marble monument or whether an Italian consultant, Tecneco, should be hired instead. Lal concluded that while various institutes in India were doing good work, it would be difficult to put together an interdisciplinary team of the kind required to undertake conservation work. A committee appointed by Indira Gandhi under Dr. S. Varadarajan, a distinguished technologist, somewhat reluctantly decided to appoint Tecneco to conduct what was then the most comprehensive study done in the world on how pollutants affect archaeological sites. Tecneco, which had examined how Venice might be threatened by a nearby oil refinery, enlisted the services of the renowned International Centre for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome.

In the case of Ajanta too, there has been foreign intervention in the form of massive funding from Japan which is concerned about the preservation of Buddhist heritage sites. In 1991, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) drew up a Rs. 195-crore scheme for the conservation of the monuments at Ajanta and Ellora and the promotion of tourism, and the Government received a $26-million loan from the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF) of Japan. At the time, the ASI's Superintending Archaeologist in Aurangabad, P.N. Kamble, told this writer that only Rs.3.5 crores was being provided for conservation, and that it was not much use spending money to beautify the areas surrounding the caves if there was going to be nothing left to see inside the caves in a few decades.

Dev Mehta, former Managing Director of the MTDC, who played a major role in pushing the scheme through, is critical of such "scepticism". "The ASI," he says, "thinks that these are its own monuments and is resisting the plan. But the monuments are too precious to be left to a few officials. We asked Kamble what he needed and he only asked for Rs. 3.5 crores." Of this, the ASI has spent only Rs.78 lakhs, mostly in sealing cracks in the stone, preventing seepage and erecting barriers to stop visitors from touching the paintings. At present, every sample taken from the caves has to be sent for analysis to the ASI's laboratories in Uttar Pradesh.

ONE of the major problems at Ajanta today is the huge number of tourists. An estimated six lakh tourists visit the site every year. According to Mehta, uncontrolled tourism can harm the wall paintings, owing to the increase in the level of humidity and the accumulation of garbage and other pollutants nearby. Many tourists touch the paintings. In only four caves - Cave 1 (which Spink believes is Emperor Harisena's and is universally considered the most glorious), Cave 2, Cave 16 and Cave 17 - are the wall paintings still fairly well preserved. If the number of tourists is regulated, there will be no more than a thousand visitors a day to each cave, or three lakh tourists a year. (The caves are closed on Mondays.) By issuing tickets in four different colours for these four caves and pricing them separately, the number of people going to these four caves and to other caves could be reduced. Anyone who is interested in seeing more than one cave could queue up again and buy another ticket.

Couple, Cave 17. The right half of the painting has been cleaned up.-WALTER M. SPINK

The MTDC development plan seeks to lead visitors to a pathway along the river that will take them first to the most ancient caves that are situated midway, instead of an entrance which now takes them to Caves 1 and 2 first. In fact, Spink suggests that visitors be encouraged to descend to the caves from the lookout point from across the gorge, from where British officers first saw the caves in A.D. 1819.

As part of conservation and preservation efforts, it is proposed to put up a tourist reception centre 4 km away from the caves; it will house a museum where replicas of the wall paintings will be displayed for people to photograph (and be photographed against them). Tourist buses and cars will not be allowed beyond the reception centre. Tourists will be taken to the caves in environment-friendly electric buses. (At Ellora, one of the proposals is to divert traffic away from a State highway which passes just 150 metres from the caves.) At both Ajanta and Ellora, shops and eating houses in the vicinity of the caves would be relocated; a 4-km belt around Ajanta, and a 500-m-wide area around Ellora would be declared no-development zones.

The surrounding hills have been well reforested. The generator now installed in Cave 8, which should be opened to public view, ought to be replaced by portable sets. There is a lack of toilets: a VIP block is closed to ordinary people, and many visitors use the riverside.

A painting from the Mahajanaka Jataka series, Cave 1, a 1992 photograph. The paintings in Cave 1, Cave 2, Cave 16 and Cave 17 are fairly well preserved.-BENOY K. BEHL

The first phase of the project has been completed; a total of Rs.73 crores has been spent, mainly on improving the Aurangabad airport and the approach roads on both sites. Only 1 per cent of the amount was allocated for conservation. According to Tata Consultancy Services, the Indian agency hired to supervise the implementation of the scheme along with a Japanese firm, in the second phase a sum of Rs.36 crores out of the total of Rs.327 crores will be allocated for conservation efforts. In addition, a site museum will be built at Ajanta at a cost of Rs.3.5 crores and another at Ellora at a cost of Rs.2.5 crores.

The ASI has not submitted to the funding agency details of expenditure incurred in the first phase of the project. It has also delayed the appointment of an expert committee to supervise the conservation work, which the Japanese funding agency have specifically wanted done. Originally, the ASI wanted to monitor the work on its own but finally agreed to an eight-member team consisting of four ASI officials and four experts from Japan and Italy.

Real progress in the conservation effort can be made only if the concern expressed about the clean-up methods is taken note of and acted upon. Perhaps an international body of experts could help establish once and for all the best way of cleaning the paintings.

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