Stories from the Road: Ajanta Caves Stupa’s

Stories from the Road is a collection of stories about my own photographic adventures in South Asia. Sometimes the stories are exciting and sometimes mundane and at times emotional. This section deals with vernacular photography and the way we all experience the photographs we see. What they meant when we took them and what they mean over time.

A Story of Ajanta and her Stupa’s

In 2009, I spent multiple hours explore the cave temples at Ajanta. Ajanta is located in Maharastra and is some miles from another historic site Ellora and the larger town of Aruangabad. This past week I have been thinking about my trip there because of a research project I started. I want to start giving presentations at conferences and schools as part of my endeavor to spread knowledge of photography from the South Asian sub-continent. I started doing online research to find a topic for a proposal and began looking at the American Institute for Indian Studies database through The Digital South Asian Library hosted by the University of Chicago. Within the archive are over 2000 photographs of Ajanta. I have been sorting through the images and narrowing down my thoughts for my proposal. Once the research is complete I will share it with you. If my proposal is chosen, I will share it after the conference in October.

I was so excited to make my first trip to India. I was helping a professor with research and I was going to visit several sites I had studied in an earlier History of India Art course. In fact, where we were doing our research in Ellora was one place I had decided I had to visit if I ever went to India. The day or two before we left Ellora to return to Mumbai we took a day trip to Ajanta. One thing I had been excited to see at Ellora where the Chattya halls or large rock-cut hallways with rock-cut stupa’s inside. A stupa is a Buddhist monument. They are circular buildings with dome roofs. The photograph above shows two carvings of stupa’s on the exterior wall of one of the caves at Ajanta.

I love the idea of the stupa because it is a solid structure, you cannot enter it. It is believed that in the center of each stupa there is a relic of the Buddha or important Buddhist monk. However, to my knowledge no stupa has ever been opened to discover its contents or lack there of. Something of the mystery intrigued me. Ajanta is the pinnacle of Chattya halls. and I was excited to be going. Upon our arrival at Ajanta we actually looked down upon the caves from an opposite ridge. The caves are arranged around a horseshoe bend in a canyon wall created by the river below. These caves were hewn from the rock between the 2nd century BCE and between 480 and 650 CE. They are also world famous for the early Buddhist paintings that can still be seen adorning the walls.

Though I find the paintings to be fascinating and have used the most famous painting in my artwork, it is the stupa structure that continues to intrigue me about the site. The photograph above show a corner of an exterior wall at Ajanta. There is a shallow carving of a stupa on each side of the wall. The stupa on the left is slightly higher than the stupa on the right. I love this photograph and chose to use it here because it is dark inside the caves. As I only had a $100 point and shoot camera with me none of my photographs of actual stupa’s are in focus. Thus this is the best photographic example I have of the stupas at Ajanta.

The research I am giving me has given me further inspiration for a potential art project and I hope at some point I am able to return to Ajanta. During my first trip, Ajanta really did not get a fair shake. It was towards the end of our trip and at the end of days of research. I was tired and it was a hot June afternoon when we reached the caves. I remember circumambulating or walking around the stupas and taking photographs. I also remember being in awe of the well preserved paintings. However, I also remember being ready to go. Ready to return to civilization and non-veg food. Funny the emotions we remember. Now I am much better suited for a visit to the Ajanta caves on a hot June day.

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By |2018-10-11T13:47:11-05:00April 18th, 2017|India|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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