Ajanta, Indian Roots of Asia's Buddhist Art

Cave 1 Ajanta. King Mahajanaka riding out from his palace.
  • When India’s is reconnecting with Asian Buddhist countries author’s work on Ajanta has become invaluable. Know how he overcame the darkness of the caves to produce light.

Full caption - The king rides out from the palace, renouncing the pleasures of his royal status and worldly life. The inward look is already in his eyes.  

This is the one photograph which Mr. Benoy K Behl has given to be preserved forever in the Arctic World Archives. 

At a time when India’s connections to all the countries of Asia have become of paramount importance, the work of India’s great International Buddhist Heritage expert Benoy K Behl becomes invaluable.

One of Behl’s masterpiece photographs of Ajanta paintings is being archived in the Arctic World Archives by Sapio Analytica. Arctic World Archives is in the middle of a frozen landscape in Svalbard, Norway. The Archive, protected in a steel vault is meant to preserve important world knowledge for many centuries to come. 

Arctic World Archives is managed by PIQL of Norway and the project is supported by the European Union. Sapio Analytica are conducting a pilot project in India with PIQL, Norway.  

One photograph has been given by Mr. Benoy K Behl till now. There are plans for his giving his unique photographs of ‘The Buddhist Heritage of the World’. Behl’s collection of photographs and films establishes best of all India’s deep Buddhist connections with all the countries of Asia. 

Mr. Behl’s paper on ‘Revelation of Ajanta & Ancient Indian Mural Paintings’ is also being archived along with his photograph of an Ajanta painting


India has one of the finest traditions of painting of the world, coming from
ancient times. 


This early tradition is not generally known, as many of these paintings are hidden in dark recesses in ancient temples and caves. These had not been clearly photographed or sufficiently represented to the world before.  It was generally believed that India did not have a continuous tradition of painting, which came from ancient times.

Benoy K Behl’s photography of the early Indian murals has placed the Indian tradition of paintings in a new perspective. He has clearly established the fact of the continuous tradition of painting, since ancient times, in India. The murals of India have also been established as one of the greatest and most sublime traditions of the art of the world. 


“In 1930, Laurence Binyon, Director of the British Museum and a leading authority on Asian art, wrote, ‘In the art of Asia what a supreme and central position Ajanta owns! Whoever studies the art of China and Japan, at whatever time he begins, starts on a long road which will lead him ultimately to Ajanta.”


Revelation of True Colours of Ajanta

In 1991 and in 1992, I had the privilege of documenting the glorious paintings of Ajanta of around the 2nd century BCE and of the 5th-6th centuries CE. Scholars and institutions around the world responded to state that this was the first time that they were able to see the true details and colors of the Ajanta paintings, which were considered to be the fountainhead of the classic traditions of painting in Asia.


Darkness of the Caves

The ancient caves are dark and strong lights were not allowed to be used inside, as these would damage the invaluable paintings. Photography was normally not allowed in order to save the paintings from the adverse effects of flash lights. Some earlier photography of the paintings, which had been carried out with special permission, was not very accurate, as there was much surface reflection from the painted surfaces. I had fortunately developed a technique of photographing in extremely low light (where you could barely see your hand in front of you in the dark interiors of the caves).

Darkness Conquered

This manner of low-light photography was used by me to document the wall and ceiling paintings of the Ajanta Caves in 1991 and again in 1992, without the use of any strong lights. The then Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India Mr. M.C. Joshi very kindly wrote to me that I had “conquered the darkness of the Ajanta Caves”. 


Worldwide Response to my Work

Scores of the most prestigious universities and museums around the world invited me to speak on Ajanta and to show my photographs of the paintings. National Geographic Magazine were among the hundreds of journals and newspapers around the world and in India, who immediately hailed my photography as path-breaking. In 2008, National Geographic Magazine went on to publish an 18-page story about Indian art as reveled to the world through my photographs. It was the cover story in some of the European editions of the magazine.


In the meantime, many noted international book publishers offered to publish my book on the Ajanta paintings. I went ahead with Thames & Hudson, London as I believed they would have a worldwide reach and would offer the large-format book to the public at a reasonable price. The first edition of the book came out in 1998, with an American Edition by Harry N Abrams. The book was sold out soon and there have been several print runs, as well as a revised paperback edition and an American Edition by Thames & Hudson, New York. I believe this has been the best-selling book on Indian art history in the world.  


World Response: Finest Art of Humankind 

There was a unanimous response of the leading art critics and art historians at the great capital cities of the world, where I was invited by the leading art institutions.


They all felt that the Ajanta paintings “were surely the finest art of humankind”. The finest art, not just for paintings of their period, but among the highest achievements of art coming right up to modern times. Experts around the world commented in detail on the great technical virtuosity found in these paintings. They saw qualities in them which appeared in Western art only in the High Renaissance, Impressionist, Expressionist and Modern periods. 


20th Century Attempts of Photograph Ajanta

Numerous attempts of the reproduction of the Ajanta paintings with colour photography were made. In the earlier part of this century, photography was not developed enough to capture the colours of the paintings accurately. In recent years, the Archaeological Survey of India has not permitted the use of photographic lights as these would damage the 2200 to 1500-year old paintings.  Strictly limited attempts to photograph some of the panels with lights were allowed, but these too failed to capture the colours accurately. 


Thus, the exquisite and haunting beauty of these paintings seemed fated to remain in the dark interiors of the remote caves.


Revelation of Ajanta to the World

In 1990 while I was visiting the Department of Culture of the Government of India at New Delhi, it was first brought to my attention that the world-famous paintings of the Ajanta Caves had never been photographed comprehensively or in accurate colour. It was also told to me that the true and luminous colours and the depth and richness of detail of the murals were not seen even when one visited the site. This is because, for the protection of the ancient paintings, the Archaeological Survey of India have installed only dim lights in the caves, which exclude much of the light of the upper end of the colour spectrum. Thus, the paintings are seen to be very orangish as compared to their real colours. The blues and greens in particular are largely lost in the viewing and the colour cast which is created takes away much of the sense of depth in the painting as well as the luminosity of colour Photography in low light has long been a passion with me.


Hearing about the unseen exquisite beauty of Ajanta, I was drawn immediately to take up the challenge of photographing these murals in complete detail and to capture the full richness of their colours in all their nuances and shades.  Here was the greatest treasure of India’s heritage of painting, cloaked in of darkness around it. Truly this was the task for which the patient hours spent over many years of photographing in low ambient light conditions had prepared me. I applied for permission to photograph the paintings to the Archaeological Survey of India and was granted the same as I was not going to use lights which may damage the paintings.  An assignment to photograph them could not be obtained as, quite naturally, many among the authorities thought that the project I was embarking on was an impossible one. 


In 1991 and 1992 I made two separate visits to the Ajanta site. In each visit the murals of the caves were documented in as exhaustive detail as possible. Having benefited greatly from the experience of the first visit and having come to know the paintings of Ajanta intimately through many viewings of the pictures, the results of the photography of the second visit (of which one photograph has been given for archiving in the Arctic World Archives) proved to be finally satisfying. 


When these colour transparencies were first shown at New Delhi, the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India remarked, “You have really conquered the darkness”. His words made all the effort over the long hours in the dark caves, the care and all the pains, seem worthwhile. Over the coming months, and till now, those who have loved Ajanta, scholars and curators of art from the world over, have expressed their happiness at being able to see the details of Ajanta and the many subtle nuances in the paintings, which they had never seen before. I am humbled before the abundance and warmth of the appreciation of this photography which I had not anticipated in this measure. The keen interest with which Ajanta has also been received by the audiences at the fine universities and museums where these transparencies have been shown has given me a deep sense of fulfilment.


10th cent. Brhadiswara Murals. Establishing a Continuous Tradition of Painting in Ancient India


To read about my discovery & photography of Murals of Brihadesvara Temple click Here


Ancient Murals of India

I had the good fortune to go on to photograph other Indian mural paintings of the fifth and the later centuries of the ancient and medieval periods, clearly establishing and presenting a continuous tradition of painting. Between 1993 and 2020, a few hundred cultural institutions, universities and museums have invited me to speak on ‘The Murals of India’. The American National Geographic Magazine have also done a major story on this documentation and revelation of this artistic tradition.


The murals of India have been established as one of the greatest and most sublime traditions of the art of the world. 


Author is a noted art historian and photographer 


To read all articles by author 


Also see albums of India’s Painting tradition

1. Bundela Paintings Orchha

2. Bundi Fort

3. Nagaur Fort ie near Bikaner

4. Nayak Palace Madurai

5. Maratha Palace Tanjore

6. Mud Paintings Bhungas Kutch 


To visit Indian Art section  


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