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Tadrart Acacus, Libya Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, China
Bagh Caves, India - Cave Paintings
487    Dibyendu Banerjee    30/06/2023

Apart from the pre-historic Bhimbetka cave paintings dating back to 12,700 BC or earlier and the famous cave paintings of Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta, another striking and significant example of cave paintings of India can be found in the Bagh Caves in central India, believed to have been excavated during the 5th-7th century. However, the term 'cave' is misleading in this particular case, as these are not natural caves, but rather examples of Indian rock-cut architecture. They are the group of nine rock-cut monuments, located on the southern slopes of the Range of Vindhyas in central India and situated at a distance of 97 km from Bagh, a census town in Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh, renowned for mural paintings created by master painters of ancient India.

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In reality, they were Viharas or monasteries, quadrangular resting places of the monks, along with a small chamber at the rear, serving as the Chaitya or the prayer hall. Like the famous caves of Ajanta, all of them were excavated by the primeval master artisans on the vertical sandstone rock face of a hill on the far bank of the Baghini or Bagheshwari, a seasonal stream of the area. Estimated to be quarried in the last phase of the Buddhism in India and long after most of the Indian Buddhist Caves had been built, the Bagh Caves were first discovered in modern times in 1818 and were restored by the Archaeological Survey of India over 17 years.

bagh caves india

It is believed that after the extinction of Buddhism in Central India by the 10th Century AD, those man-made caves were gradually erased from human memory and during the intervening centuries they became the habitats of tigers, locally called Baghs and earned the present name associated with tigers.

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After excavation, it was revealed that out of the nine caves, all were severely damaged, except four, numbering two to five.

bagh caves india

While the first cave, known as Griha, served as the residence of the chief priest, the best preserved second cave, known as Pandava Cave, has the most elaborate plan, containing a large monastic hall in the centre, with an imposing six pillared portico adorning its front. It also has a large recessed cell enshrining a Stupa, standing at the rear in the centre, providing an atmosphere of absolute silence and peace, for the sacred meditation of the monks. The cave, a combination of a Chaitya and Vihara, also has a central hall, supported by massive pillars, decorated with spiral fluting, serving the purpose of the prayer hall, where the Buddhist monks used to assemble for prayers and religious discourses.

bagh caves india

Although the third cave, locally called Hathi Khana, is purely a Vihara or monastery, It was also very elaborately carved and designed. However, the fourth cave, the largest of the group and known as Rangmahal, is the most remarkable in several respects. Equipped with three entrances and two windows, the roof of its hall has the support of twenty-eight pillars which are square at the base, changing to octagons and then to polygons and finally changing to octagons again at the summit. The fifth cave, locally called Pathashala, was neither a Chaitya nor a Vihara.

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Its plain hall, devoid of any ornamentation, was probably used as a meeting place or a lecture hall. The fifth and the sixth caves are connected by a large corridor, forming the sixth cave. Unfortunately, the seventh, eighth and ninth caves collapsed over time and are not accessible anymore.

bagh caves india

The paintings on the walls and ceilings of the Viharas of Bagh were executed in tempera, with a permanent fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium. Before painting, a thick mud plaster of a brownish orange colour was used to cover the walls and ceilings, followed by lime priming over the plaster. Several murals, adorning the walls, include depictions of the Bodhisattva Padmapani, Mushroom and others, while the pillars of the caverns are adorned with bracket capitals portraying various images, usually animals, some with riders and others without. Characteristics of these paintings strongly resemble the paintings of the Ajanta Caves.

bagh caves india

Nevertheless, to prevent further loss of the invaluable artworks, which exemplify the golden age of Indian classical art and are more worldly than spiritualistic, the paintings from the collapsing caverns have been shifted and conserved in the Archaeological Museum of Gwalior and the on-site museum at Bagh.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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