The Caves of Ajanta

Part 14/14 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.

Between the second century BCE and 480 CE, Buddhist monks cut and painted twenty-nine caves on the rock faces of Ajanta. Today, the Ajanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and are widely considered to be among the most spectacular monuments in Maharashtra.

If my travels in India were meant to be an inquiry into the interwoven paths of history and sound, then Ajanta was a perfect place with which to end the visit. Generations of monks lived and practiced inside these caves, and as I wandered from one cave to another, I felt poignantly the differences between our time, and theirs.

The Ajanta Caves attract hundreds (if not many thousands) of visitors per day. But centuries ago, they were known only to their inhabitants. The silence of the mountains, the chirps of birds and the squabbles of monkeys, and the ebbs and flows of the river, filling and emptying with the monsoon: Until recently, these were the only elements of the Caves’ soundscape. When we visited, it was difficult to hear such a time. The caves were smaller than I expected, and the chatter of visitors easily filled the air. In fact, the acoustics of the caves made listening to the sounds of nature harder, not easier. At times, I worried that I would not be able to experience the caves, in a sonic sense. I tried to find time alone with the space, and at times I had great luck.

Find yourself alone in one of Ajanta’s caves, and you will soon realize that they are an acoustic wonder. A simple hum of an “om” carries profoundly. It reverberates off the stone walls, returning to you far more whole. In one cave, which was empty but for a larger-than-life sculpture of the Buddha on the wall opposite the entrance, I sat in a small nook and took deep breaths. I listened to the sound of my inhale, and hummed my exhales. What it must have been like to live here! To experience sound in this way, every day. To feel the reverberation of music, from one’s own body to the surfaces of timeless rock. To participate in a spiritual life where silence is golden, and the subtleties of music, and the Earth, can thus be heard.

This is not the world that most of us live in. And certainly, life in the Ajanta Caves must have had its limitations. Yet to know that such acoustics remain, and that we continue to be in need of them, somehow validates this notion of “soundscapes” in my mind. Perhaps by listening, we will continue to understand more about the ecologies that surround us, about the music that we listen to, and about the complex truths of who we are as human beings. And maybe through all this listening, we will be able to discern what is amiss in our world. In both silence, and in the diversity of the world’s music, there is hope, as it invites us to listen, and move beyond what frustrates us, and revive what is beautiful.

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