Bagh – Mysterious World of Paintings

Introduction – Bagh is a small village located at the banks of Baghni river in the state of Madhya Pradesh. In the olden days, the village lies in obscurity and the approach to it was said to be risky and laborious. However the present situation is quite different. The journey is no more risky and the village is no more obscure. But still, the village is somewhat cut off from the modern tourist circuit.

This little village is famous for its Buddhist caves and Bagh prints, where the latter are derived from the former. These caves are located in the hills overlooking the river Baghni flowing below, at a little distance away from the village. A visitor can buy the entrance ticket for the caves from the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) ticket counter, which is located at one end of the river. In the same compound is located the ASI’s Bagh Museum. A visitor needs to cross a modern bridge to reach the hills in which these caves are excavated.

Before I proceed with description of these cave, it would be a good exercise to look into the accounts which have been survived from past explorers, scholars and occasional visitors.

Bagh in
The Buddhist Caves of Bagh (photo credit is in the image)

Captain F Dangerfield (1818, “Some Accounts of the Caves near Baug, called the Panch Pandoo” paper read in “The Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay vol. II”) – Dangerfield, probably, was the first modern visitor who brought these caves into the light of the modern scholars. He paid a one day visit to these caves. He took his notes mostly relying on the information obtained from the natives and his guides.  Dangerfield was neither a Buddhist scholar nor a student of archaeology or architecture, therefore his account was rather crude but it provides us an eyewitness account of the site.

He tells that the town of Bagh (referred it as Baug) was situated at the foot of a low range of hills about hundred feet high. The town did not claim any antiquity.  Its importance rose about hundred years back because of its becoming occasional residence of Jassoo Baumeah, a celebrated freebooter, who possessed himself of the Kotra district, and who built as places of security for his followers and plunder the forts of Soosaree, Baug and Kooksee. Jassoo Baumeah soon came under the attention of the Mahratta princes, who besieged him by a large army for forty days in the fort of Koosee. Jassoo left for Bagh but he was pursued there and he retreated to the mountains from which period nothing further of him is known. His country was divided among the conquerors and Bagh fell under the Scindias who possessed it till the Indian independence.

Dangerfield further tells that there were four caves in total, and only the first or the northernmost was in some state of preservation. The caves are carved into the range of hills which does reach higher than hundred-fifty to two hundred feet. The hill is composed of entirely of sandstone and claystone alternating with each other. The caves can be reached after crossing the Waugrey (modern Baghmati) river and then ascending up the slopping part of the hill by a flight of seventy rudely formed stone steps.

He writes, “This will lead you to the most preserved cave, which bears the marks of having once been formed into a rectangular veranda, supported by columns, the roof plastered and ornamented, as shown by its fallen fragments. The front of the cave still retains it plaster. At each end of this veranda is a small room containing small ill-covered figures, evidently of modern workmanship, that on the left being a female one much mutilated, that of the right a bad representation of Ganesha”.

In his words, “this cave was very dark inside as it derives its sole light from the two entrance. To examine its remoter parts, the aid of torches is necessary; and as tigers, which abound in this country, have been found in the interior of the caves, this precaution becomes more requisite. The open area of the cave is a square measuring eighty feet each side. The height of the roof is about fourteen feet and a half. This roof is supported on the four range of pillars. There were fragments of paintings on the ceiling, but due to frequent smoke of torches, sufficient of the design is not at present apparent to admit of any judgment on its merits.”

“Passing through the central pillars, you reach to a veranda about twenty feet by twelve feet and supported on two hexagonal columns. There are niches on the three walls of this veranda. On the side niches, south and north, are carved a group of three figures, the central of female figure is about nine feet and a half. The niche on the back wall has two attendants on the either side of the doorway, each nearly nine feet high. The central niche doorway leads you into a room of about twenty feet by seventeen feet. In this room is carved out of solid rock a “Churn” surmounted by a dome and joined to roof by a small square ornament.”

“Around the cave, on its three sides, are small apartments called “Dookans” or shops, each measuring nine feet in depth, with a separate entrance towards the cave. There are seven of these to the right, six to the left, and four at the end of the cave, two on the each side of the recess. Entering the second to the left of these small apartments, you perceive, at about four feet from the ground in the opposite wall, a small oblong excavation of about three feet by two; creeping through which you enter a small apartment of about twelve feet square, in the opposite wall of which is a similar excavation leading to a like apartment; and so on successively for five small rooms, gradually ascending the hill, the floor of each inner apartment being on level with the lower part of the entrance from the outer one.”

Dangerfield mentions that thought this cave is the best preserved one however it still bears mark of rapid decay. Shafts of various pillars were wanting, resulting in a small terrace created by their ruins. Leaving the first cave, proceeding twenty or thirty paces southward, you reach to second cave which seems to be never completed. This cave is nearly same in length as of first one but about half in depth. Its original entrance is barred with large fragments fallen from the above rock.

The third cave measures eighty feet by sixty but it is much in ruins. Great part of its roof has fallen down along with its several columns. This cave, unlike to the first one, was once decorated with much superiority and is most ancient one. It has similar features as of the first cave and houses a “Churn” in its inner compartments. However there is no veranda here as was in the first cave. The whole of the walls, roof and columns of this cave have been adorned with fine stucco, ornamented with paintings in distemper of considerable taste and elegance.

About the paintings he mentions, “the paintings are not in good state of preservation and much obliterated that only fragments of these remain. At present, there are so much obliterated as to prevent any correct judgment being formed on the merits of the design. By some few parts most perfect than the rest, they appear, however to have been executed with considerable effect and correctness of light and shade.”

The last and the fourth cave is similar to the second cave however it is more complete than the latter. This cave is fast falling to decay. There appears at the extremity of this cave the rude compartment, or perhaps the ruins, of fifth one. It is not sufficiently accessible due to falling debris from the rock above to admit any correct judgment of its former state. About the name and origin of these caves, Dangerfield tells that the natives possessed no knowledge whatsoever except the popular tradition that these were excavated by the Panch Pandoos, famous five Pandava brothers of Mahabharata.

Dr. E Impey (1857, “Description of the Caves of Bagh” published in “The Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society vol. V”) –  Impey was a person with knowledge on Buddhism, its history and architecture therefore his account is of much interest. He read his paper on 28th December, 1854. Impey tells that there were eight caves and remains of another one about a mile distant. The river near the village Bagh is referred as Ooree Wagree, a tributary of Narmada. He further tells that due to these caves known locally as Pancha Pandoo had led a very eminent Buddhist authority, B Hogson, to believe that it was dedicated to Panch Dhyani Buddhas of Nepalese origin.

He described the cave no 2 as, “The series consists of three large Vihars with their usual cells, but each Vihar also has an attendant set of dwellings larger than the cave cells, and differently arranged, which seems to have been meant for titular superiors or elders. To the central and chief Vihar there is, in addition to the above (in one continuous façade 220 feet in length and embraced by the same veranda) a large Shala or schoolroom 94 feet long, with which the large and peculiar caves referred to are connected by a wide passage and doorway.”

Impey provided measurements of all the caves, and corrected the readings of Dangerfield. About the images in the cave no 2, Impey writes, “The figures on the left-hand screen are about one foot smaller, are better carved, and look inwards towards the Daghob, those to the right outwards; all are clothed and cut in a recess which encircles the group. They are raised a cubit from the ground, and, besides this, stand on an expanded lotus which adds half a foot more to their height.”

He tells that one of the dvarpala, right-hand figure, has a seated Buddha in his cap. About the paintings he writes, “The paintings seem to me to have been executed in what we know as distemper, not as fresco, for there is by far too much finish, shading, and detail to be consistent with the rapid execution which paintings on wet surface renders imperative, and from examination of broken portions they seem to have been done subsequent to the final smoothing of the surface”.

Impey described the paintings of the main cave in details. The paintings at the time of his visit were, of course, in better conditions as compared to today. Therefore, his descriptions are of very much importance. On the dating of these caves, Impey writes, “The only author who has pronounced a decided opinion on the age of Bagh caves is Mr. Fergusson, and he places them between sixth and tenth century AD.” Impey assigns the date to a century earlier than Fergusson’s dating. His main argument is that as the religion was witnessing a decline by the end of sixth century, therefore such a work would have been commenced at least a century earlier when the religion was still in vogue.

J Burgess (1880, The Cave Temples of India) – One whole chapter in this monumental book, by James Fergusson and J Burgess, is dedicated to the Bagh caves however Burgess only described three caves at the site. His description is more on the merits of measurements, count of pillars and cells, and relief sculptures. About the cave no 2, he tells that the dvarpalas are in fact Bodhisattvas, one may be Padmapani and other who is holding a bottle or water-gourd cannot be identified satisfactorily. He also provided measurements of the stupa inside the chamber.

He mentioned about paintings of the cave no 4 however not at all in details. It was like a passing reference however he writes that the paintings here are not at all inferior then those at Ajanta and indeed rival with those specimens. He also mentions that in absence of any inscription or other means to date the caves, it is hard to assign a period to these excavations. But he expressed his opinion and dated these to be between 450-500 CE and its paintings to be of sixth century CE.

C E Luard (1910, Indian Antiquary vol. XXIX) – I do not have this volume with me. What I recollect from others is that Luard’s account is in fact a repackaged edition of Impey which Luard also mentioned and accepted. But he of course enriched it further with plan and other drawings.

A K Haldar (1923, “The Buddhist Caves of Bagh” published in “The Burlington Magazine vol. 43, no 247”) – I do not have access to this article except its first page. Haldar was instrumental in carrying out copies of these paintings on the behest of the then Gwalior Archaeological Department. Haldar visited this caves with one of his colleague on January 1921. He mentions the name of the river and village as Bagh. He tallies total of nine caves, none of these of type “chaitya” but of type “vihara” except one which seems to be a “pathshala” or “school-room” and this not falling the former two categories.

M C Dey (1925, My Pilgrimage to Ajanta and Bagh) – This travelogue of M C Dey includes Ajanta and Bagh caves. The reason of the inclusion of these two sites would be that these were the only two Buddhist sites at that time where paintings were found. Dey writes that, “in the whole Indian empire, there are only three places where wonderful Buddhist wall paintings are still in existence, these are Ajanta, Bagh and Sigiria (in Sri Lanka)”. He wrote about the route and road, from Mhow to Bagh, in very detailed and fascinating style.

Dey tells that the caves were situated at the banks of the Baghmati river. These caves were locally known as Panch Pandu. He writes, “These caves became known to the officials some hundred years ago as an especial abode of tigers, but to-day, strange to say, Bagh, which means “tiger”, is more famed to the natives for its pottery and lacquer bangles than for the fact that it is close to the great Buddhist temples.”

During his visit, one Hindu saint had made his dwellings in one of these caves. He pictured the yogi as, “this slender naked figure, with long unkempt hair and body rough and grey with ash-dust, known as Gonsai Babaji, gets simple offerings from villagers. He remained outside day and night but his predecessors had penetrated inside this cave and had ruined the paintings by smoke and fire.”

Unlike to Dangerfield, Dey enumerated nine caves at the site. He tells that each one is a vihara, and there are no chaityas in this series. About the dating, he tells that these caves were excavated in about the fifth century CE, though not all were excavated at the same time, but there is no doubt that these were all done between the fourth and sixth centuries.

The cave number 1 of Dey was a small vihara cave, encountered before the larger cave, cave number 2. He explains that its front veranda along with its pillars were fallen away. There is a single entrance and no windows. The portico which once stood in front of the door is now utterly destroyed. The interior is an absolutely plain room, twenty-feet wide, having no cells, sanctuary, statue or painting, and it was therefore most probably a dwelling house for the head priest of its neighbor, cave 2.

Cave number 2 is also known as “Gonsai Gumpha” and its entrance is visible from far off fields as a dark hole in red sandstone hill piercing the thick trees. The veranda outside the cave was full of ruins, making a heap as high as the cave. A portico originally protected the entrance, but that too has fallen in, scarcely a trace remaining. At each end of this veranda is a small recess, that on the right contains a very modern figure of Ganesh, usurping the place of the earliest figure of Buddha, which is shown to have been there originally by the Buddhist emblem of flying figures holding garlands.

The paintings on the walls and ceilings of the cave have been terribly injured by the smoke and soot from the fires of the holy fathers, who lived there for centuries. But in spite of this, were an artist to take sufficient trouble, he would be sure to discover some wonderful paintings unknown to the world, for many traces are still to be found on the dark walls and ceilings. Dey’s details on the cave was same as of Dangerfield except that he identified the images on the side niches of the central chamber as Buddha with disciples.  He tells that this cave is especially interesting as combining both the vihara and chaitya.

He describes the cave 3 as, apparently, an appendage to the preceding cave, because by reason of its high finish to the ceilings of the cells and frontage of cave, it is most probable that it was excavated for the accommodation of some particular or higher class of the priesthood. He provides the measurements same as of Dangerfield. The ceiling of the entrance passage have been decorated with paintings shaded in black and white. This entrance passage is a twenty-eight feet square and its roof is supported on six pillars. The back wall of this cave, three doors lead to a hall about thirty-nine feet square. This makes the total length of the cave from front to back to about one hundred and thirty feet and general height of sixteen feet.

The next cave, number four, is the largest cave in the series, measuring ninety-four feet square. It is also referred as “Rangmahal”, on its superiority in many aspects like that of construction, design and paintings. Dey tell that connected with this cave, in one unbroken front, which originally was covered with paintings uninterruptedly, is the path-sholla, or school-room. A splendid colonnade, two hundred and twenty feet in extreme length and connected by twenty octagonal pillars fourteen feet in height, embraces the façade of the both caves.

Dey mentions the colossal image of Buddha carved in relief to the left of the veranda, to be about thirteen feet high. The next chamber or recess to this image, contains two figures seated together, with a cobra hood over the right figure. Dey was not able to identify these but suggests that these might be Buddhas. He tells that the walls of the recess were painted with eight rows of seated Buddha, over these, within an archway, are remains of another seated figure of Buddha, having a chakra or praying wheel, beneath him between two antelope’s heads and flying garland bearer above.

About the veranda, Dey describes that it is fourteen feet wide throughout its length and ten feet high.  Its roof appears to have been painted with flowers and intricate patterns. The back wall has been plastered and painted continuously  through its whole length in double rows, portions of the upper only remain and even these are scribbled with names and foolish inscriptions.

About the windows on this cave, two in number, Dey tells that these are nearly square and have on the inside holes for sockets of wooden shutters  and also for a bar to fasten and shut them. The roof inside the cave is supported on twenty-eight pillars. Dey tells that the arrangement of pillars is very unusual however it might be necessary to have it due to weakness of the rock. The rear pillars, plain octagon in shape, were once painted with figures of Buddha on their inner faces, but these figures are all vanished.

Dey mentions that the other caves, no 6, 7, 8 and 9 were in sorry state of dilapidation that nothing much can be inferred out of the remains. He further tells that the artists of those period, who worked on these caves, were probably well take care of by the king of those times. He compares the situation of those time with his time, narrating a story where the artists, Nanda Lal Basu, Surendra Nath Kar and Asit Kumar Haldar, sent by Gwalior State Government in 1921 to copy the Bagh frescos, were very badly treated that they had to leave the task much before the assigned period of the three months.

Dey described few of the painting scenes, as a queen grieving over some sorrow is surrounded by maidens in a palace chamber and two blue pigeons sit cooing to one another on the top of the roof, a king is holding a discussion with bhikshus and monks, a group of beautiful and half-nude Nautch dancing girls led by two foreign looking men probably Persian.

Dey mentions that many paintings at Bagh were left unfinished. He explains, after comparing the technique used at Ajanta, that the artists of these paintings first sketched the outline with Indian red and brush, after which they gradually modeled the figure. Then came the colors and, once more, on top of all, another outline. The highest lights, deepest shadows and the most delicate touches of colors then applied, and finally black was used for details such as eyebrows, hair etc. Dey tells that this last stroke of black is missing at Bagh.

John Marshall (1927, The Caves of Bagh) – Marshall starts with lauding the cave temples of India, stating, “Of the whole vast galaxy of monuments that antiquity has bequeathed to India, none are more remarkable or more interesting to the archaeologists than her rock-hewn shrines and monasteries”. He explains the importance of these shrines which witness the art and architecture of about 1600 years, starting from 3rd century BCE to 15th century CE.

About the paintings in cave temples, Marshall tells that these are found only at three places in the Indian subcontinent, which are, at Ajanta, at Bagh both in India and at Sigri in Sri Lanka. Though the paintings at all these places are faded and have suffered severely however they still constitute a priceless treasure, which no pains or expense should be deemed too great to save for posterity.

About the Buddhist paintings of Ajanta and Bagh, Marshall writes, “Nor are these paintings to be appraised only in relation to the art in Asia. They will bear comparison with the best that Europe could produce down to the time of Michael Angelo. This is strong statement, no doubt, to make and one which many may be disposed at the first sight to challenge. Nevertheless, it is the considered opinion of perhaps the greatest living authority on Italian fresco painting. I refer to Signor A Cecconi, the expert who has carried out the work of conserving the Ajanta paintings, and it has been fully endorsed by many other eminent critic”.

Marshall mentions all the previous attempts describing these caves in various journals and reports. He tells that these caves get their name from the neighboring village, Bagh, which is situated near the Bagh river. He mentioned nine caves at the site, which were in various states of preservation. He writes that most of the damage was caused by the water percolating through the superimposed layer of claystone over sandstone.

J Ph Vogel tells that the monastic caves at Bagh belong to a transitional stage, when though the images of Buddha appeared on the scene however the ancient way to worshiping stupa was still in practice.

Walter Spink (1976, “Bagh: A Study” published in “Archives of Asian Art vol. 30”) – This article of Spink was more focused on the date of the caves rather than its architecture and paintings. He draws parallel from Dasakumaracharita, a poem of Dandin, to propose the identity of its characters Visruta with that of Subandhu, whose copper-plate charters are found at Bagh. He tells that the reign of Subandhu can be placed between 485-510 CE.

Studying resemblances and evolution of different pillar styles and iconography between Bagh and other Buddhist contemporary caves, especially at Ajanta, Spink concludes that the caves at Bagh represents a transitional phase between the earliest phase of Mahayana work at Ajanta (462-467 CE) and the later Mahayana activities at Ajanta (475-480 CE).

He professes that during a small gap of inactivity at Ajanta, the artists left to Bagh in search for work as per their merits. Once the work at Ajanta restarted, those artists came back to finish what they had started during the earlier phase. The aerial distance between these two sites might not be that big however the two sites are quite far and not easily navigational via roads even in today’s times. Therefore Spink’s migration theory, though may be true, but not that easy to believe.

Anupa Pande (2002, The Buddhist Cave Paintings of Bagh) – I do not have this book with me, therefore cannot comment much on what all new discoveries are explained in it.

Meena Talim (2014, Bagh Caves – Paintings and Sculptures) – This is the latest work on the caves. As the name of the work suggests, the focus is primarily on the paintings and sculptures, their identification and interpretation.

Talim start with the mention of almost all the previous accounts on the site. She them describes all the caves and the moved to the description of paintings and sculptures. From her accounts it appears that she never visited the site in person and therefore heavily dependent on the other scholars accounts.

In spite of this, she is the one who successfully attempted to identify the paintings at the site. Being a recognized scholar of Pali and Sanskrit, she is well acquainted with Buddhist texts. She explains the paintings and also identify those with Jataka tales and other avadana stories.

Next Chapter – Caves