preserving a disappearing heritage: the bagh cave paintings at bhopal state museum

Nestled deep in the heart of India, on the banks of the seasonal Baghani river in Madhya Pradesh, are a series of nine rock-cut Buddhist temples covered with jewel-like murals. Known as the Bagh Caves, they date back to the 4th to 6th Centuries AD. According to legend they were built by a Buddhist monk called Dataka.

Contemporaries of the better-known Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, only five survive of its original nine. Very few even know of these five. I for one, did not. Did you?

In Bagh, as in Ajanta, the appendage “cave” is a bit of a misnomer. These temples are not natural caves but rock-cut structures excavated from the perpendicular sandstone faces of the Vindhya mountain range, 150 feet above the river bed. Quadrangular in plan, they are lined with cells surrounding a courtyard and have a stupa-filled chaitya or prayer hall at the back. A colonnaded portico fronts each cave. 1,500 years ago, all nine caves in Bagh were used as viharas or resting places by Buddhist monks.

What makes these caves a masterpiece in India’s ensemble of art and heritage is, however, not their architecture but their tempera murals. Decorated with portraits of bodhisattvas and secular life during the Classical Gupta Period (319 – 605 AD), the powerful line-work bathed with mineral colours are a visual treat, deceptively modern in style and substance.

There are scenes illustrating the lives of the inmates of the monasteries and of the kings and generals who patronized their art. The paintings also had a religious function which explains the air of solemnity and quiet dignity which cloaks them. Fragments of these compositions still exist on the cave walls and ceilings. The most magnificent is in Cave 4, aptly christened Rang Mahal or Palace of Colours.

Time has not been too kind to the Bagh Caves, though. Compounded with the vagaries of weather, the murals, which were once-upon-a-time as exhilarating a sight as those in Ajanta, are dying a slow death. An inspiration to the birth and growth of Modern Indian Art and its masters such as Amrita Sher-Gil and Nandalal Bose, the paintings are now a sorry remnant of their original glory.

But before its downfall could catch up speed, a group of artists and conservationists in the turn of the 20th Century decided to make copies of these artworks for posterity. These watercolour copies are all the more significant because they are painted by 20th Century artists, no different in their love for art from their 5th Century counterparts.

The task of making the copies was initiated in 1920—a task that found completion under the guidance of Captain Gladstone Solomon, principal of Sir JJ School of Art (1918 – 36) in Bombay. Solomon delegated the exercise to two of his students—Bhonsle and Apte—assisted by Bhand, an art student in Gwalior. And hence, three young men were able to give the 1,500-year-old tempera compositions embellishing the Bagh Caves a fresh lease of life, albeit this time in another medium.

These watercolour paintings are today housed in the Bagh Cave Paintings Gallery at the State Museum in Bhopal [also called the State Archaeological Museum]. One hour of revelling in the beauty of these paintings justifies an art-lover’s travels to Bhopal. Mine were. Maybe yours will be too. ❤

Detail, Hallis Lasya [folk dance]: One of the two large-sized reproductions in the gallery, the painting comprises of groups of musicians and dancers, and offers a wonderful glimpse of secular life in 5th Century AD.

A Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have put off achieving nirvana in order to help others attain enlightenment.

Preaching Buddha with a monk seated by his feet.

Another Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas, motivated by great compassion for others, formed an important theme in Buddhist art and literature.

Bodhisattva Padmapani. This painting in the Bagh Caves is considered to be the prototype of the celebrated Padmapani figure at Ajanta.

The rock-cut Bagh Cave temples served as monasteries for Buddhist monks who spent the monsoon months in meditation. Whilst the secular paintings depicted the life of their patrons, paintings such as the above portrayed the spiritual side of the monks’ lives.

A veena player. The original Bagh Cave paintings were made in tempera using mineral colours from ochre, clay, chalk, kaolin line, lamp-black, gypsum green glauconite, and lapis lazuli.

If colour gave life to the Bagh Cave paintings, the fluid vibrant lines gave them vigour. These two key elements of 5th Century Gupta art have been effectively reproduced by Bhonsle, Apte, and Bhand in their 20th Century watercolour copies, ensuring 21st Century audiences also enjoy them. For not all of us can travel to the Bagh Caves and none of us were around in the 1920s. 🙂

Travel tips:

  • Museum address: Shyamla Hills Road, Shyamla Hills, Bhopal – 462002, Madhya Pradesh.
  • Museum timings and fees: 10:30 am – 5:30 pm, Closed on Mondays; Rs. 10 [Indian], Rs. 100 [Foreigners]; Photography charges [without flash] for still camera: Rs. 50, Video camera: Rs. 200.
  • The Bagh Caves are located 97 km from Dhar, and 161 km from Indore, in western Madhya Pradesh.

incredible gujarat: from 4,400-year-old lothal to 120-year-old utelia

I was first introduced to Lothal on my visit to Dholavira, another five millennia old Harappan site across the white salt pans of Kutch in Gujarat. Multiple references had been made to it: of Lothal’s significance in the bigger scheme of things in the Indus Valley civilization and the incredible finds unearthed from its excavations.

Now at Lothal three years later, as I sat under a tree in the deserted site, the sun bounced off the satin-silk waters of the dock lined by 4,400-year-old sun-dried bricks. I could almost hear the banter between the dock-hands in the 24th Century BC as they loaded and unloaded the boats with bags full of carnelian and steatite beads, ready to set out for distant lands beyond the seas. Over the distance of time, traders, both rich and poor, in the nearby market haggled with buyers using stone weights and gold discs based on the first ever instance of the decimal system. In the intersecting narrow side lanes, little children played with clay animal figurines, marbles and cowries, punctuated with gleeful peals of laughter. Continue reading

beyond the obvious: lucknow beyond its heritage precinct

Lucknow had still not fully woken up as I took a rickshaw from my hotel in the chaos surrounding the railway station to classical Chattar Manzil built by Frenchman Claude Martin, hidden behind the wide leafy avenues of Qaiser Bagh. “We start at 7:30 am,” the guide at Uttar Pradesh Tourism had informed me over the phone.

I was the only person on the walk which revealed a Lucknow far removed from its iconic Nawabi heritage precinct—a side of Lucknow brimming with lesser recounted stories and unsullied beauty. From this one walk, further stemmed, a series of explorations to equally lesser known parts of the city, spanning a few centuries and a few geographies.

The sum of all these detours was an affirmation that there are two parts to every place’s lure. One, those that get touted, and have travellers and tourists alike clambering to check them off their list. These are the ones which make it to backdrops of selfies, travel guides, and blogs galore. And then there is the other part. The ones which often remain forgotten in the pages of history or are so embedded in local life they remain hidden from the casual outside eye.

This post is about those hidden gems and travel experiences in Lucknow. The Lucknow beyond its obvious attractions. Read on and you’ll know why they made it to this list. 😊 Continue reading

why the carnival mexico cruise tops america’s must-do travel list

There is something about a cruise which meanders through the oceans, stopping en route at exotic ports of call, as I discovered last month. I don’t know when I last ate so much, laughed so much, or bonded so much with my fellow-travellers—my mother and sister in this particular instance. To top it, I got to explore magical places every day.

The cruise was a 5-day extravaganza by Carnival Cruise Line with stops at Santa Catalina Island just off the coast of Southern California and Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico. A Las Vegas-styled liner with a guest capacity of 2,056, the 14-storey ship prides itself on giving its passengers unforgettable holidays filled with carnival-like fun. And no, it is not just a marketing spiel.

Don’t fret, I am not going to bore you with pictures of the three of us eating and laughing ourselves silly. What I would like to share is what the cruise was all about and what made it one of my most memorable travels to date. Hope you enjoy the post as much as I enjoyed my five days at sea. 🙂 Continue reading

#7 beyond the obvious: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

So, you’ve ticked off Agra’s major sights, the raison d’êtres for your visit. Or maybe it is your umpteenth time to the city. What now?

After marvelling at Agra’s treasures [listed from 1 to 6 in this series in no specific order] I wanted to experience yet more of it. Beyond the Agra the travel and history guides enthused about. And I was not disappointed. Digging and wandering through its centuries old lanes, having heartfelt conversations with its present residents, I saw sides of it which further justified its place in a traveller’s bucket list, equal to its more celebrated attractions. Don’t believe there is more to Agra than its UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Mughal masterpieces? Read on and be pleasantly surprised, like I was. 🙂

1. Dig into a Pay-What-You-Want meal at Cafe Sheroes Hangout

Continue reading

#6 colossal sikandra: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

After getting all sentimental at Shah Jahan’s expression of love for his beloved, departed wife and marvelling at the artistic nuances of Nur Jahan’s token of devotion towards her doting parents, I am ready to be bowled over by Sikandra, Akbar’s tomb for his own self.

Here was a monument made by, and for, one of India’s greatest rulers—befitting his stature and achievements. I wondered what it was going to be like. Continue reading