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Ajanta Caves, India, January 14, 2013

Ajanta Caves, India, January 14, 2013

These young blokes, like so many in India, were itching to have their photo taken and to take a photo of me. It can get a bit much at time, just how often one is asked for “just one photo, sir!”, but of course, it’s done in the nicest spirit and in the hope of making a connection, however briefly. I do wonder what the purpose is – like collecting westerners! – but then I think, hang on, am I not collecting Indians, so to speak? What I do love is that I mostly enjoy taking portrait photos, especially candid ones, but always feel somewhat guilty about pointing my camera at strangers. These guys made it so easy.

This shot is taken at the Ajanta Caves, a series of 31 rock-cut Buddhist cave temples and monuments in Maharashtra, India. The caves were carved out of a rock-face between the 2nd century BC and, roughly, the 5th to 7th centuries AD in two distinct phases. The location in itself is a sight to behold; a horseshoe-shaped valley, the handiwork of the Waghora River, curved around a high, central rocky outcrop, that rises sheer from the valley like an acropolis. The caves are accessed by walking along an at-times narrow path carved mid-way up the cliff face, which can be very crowded and difficult to move along.

The caves contain, according to the Archaeological Survey of India, “the finest surviving examples of India art, particularly painting.” They are not exaggerating. Whole temples, complete with all the architectural features of free-standing structures, have been shaped inside the dark and comfortingly cool interiors. The paintings, in the form of frescoes and murals, are difficult to see in the dim, protective light, but well worth the effort of squinting. They are mostly elaborate depictions of the Jataka tales, a large body of stories that tell of the previous lives of the Buddha. Smaller, and ultimately more intimate than the larger caves at Ellora, the Ajanta caves might be difficult to get to, but they are a true archaeological, artistic, logistical and geographical wonder and not to be missed on a visit to India.

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