Chapter 1: Introduction & Past Scholarship
Bagh is a small village located on the banks of the Baghni river, a tributary of Narmada, in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. The village has been famous for its sari prints, popularly known as Bagh Prints or Bagh Blocks, and it is believed that the artists got their designs and inspirations from the paintings adorning the Buddhist caves, located about 4 km from the village. The earliest modern reference to these caves comes from Captain F Dangerfield who visited these caves in 1818 and the account was published in 1820.1 Dangerfield was posted at Mhow as an officer in the Bombay Military Establishment. He tells the wild, mountainous, and woody tract where these caves were located was populated by the Bhils of the wildest description. The town had considerable occupants, of two to three thousand houses, some twenty years back however following anarchy and desolation, the town was reduced to about four hundred houses. The town’s claim to fame was one Jassoo Baumeah, a celebrated freebooter, who made a small fort for his people in the town. Baumead was defeated by the Scindias and he fled to the wilds. Dangerfield tells the hill in which these caves were excavated was composed entirely of horizontal strata of sandstone and claystone alternating with each other. He found the caves in ruins and explains that the claystone layer that runs six feet above the top of the caves is solely responsible for the destruction of these caves. He mentions four caves in total and a few caves carried paintings over their ceilings. 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, the Pandava brothers of Mahabharata. Erskine in his editorial notes to the account of Dangerfield, explains that the caves were Buddhist in nature.
The next account was from Dr. Impey2 in 1857. He tells there were a total of nine caves, not four as mentioned by Dangerfield. Apart from the details and measurements of these caves, his account is also valuable as he described the paintings inside the caves. As the paintings were already much weathered and deteriorated, these details are important in reconstructing the panels. About the dating of the caves, Impey mentions Fergusson dated these caves between the sixth and tenth century CE. He opines as Buddhism was on the decline after the sixth century, therefore, no major work might have been taken up during and after that period, and he dates these caves to the fifth century CE. James Burgress provides two accounts, one in 18793 and another in 18804. In his account of 1879, he talks about the paintings in the cave, describing the figures and themes however he did not attempt any specific identification. Burgess describes all the paintings on the veranda of the cave 4. His other account of 1880 was a part of a larger work initially carried out by James Fergusson and later appended by Burgess. In this account, Burgess improves upon the details however only describes four caves at the site. He writes that the paintings here are not at all inferior to those at Ajanta and indeed rival 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 the sixth century CE.
Mme. Blavatsky5 while traveling in India was writing letters for the pages of the Russki Vyestnik between 1879-80. She mentions, while the facts and incidents in the letters were true however she, taking the author’s privileges, had added some color and drama wherever it deemed necessary. The author visited the caves accompanying her friends and Indian colleagues with backgrounds in architecture and archaeology. She mentions incidents of finding secret rooms and passing to different rooms on different levels going through various secret passages. Her account does not include details on caves, their paintings, and measurement but focused more on incidents and accidents the party encountered during their visit to the caves. C E Luard6 visited these caves sometime between 1907-08 while he was in charge of the compilation of Central Indian Gazetteer. He publishes his account in 1910 and writes the caves took their name from the Bagh village. He mentions the old wall and the settlement at the foot of the hill were once under a king named Mardhaj and later fell to one Raja Bagh Singh, whose descendants live in a nearby village of Girwani. Though Luard did not mention, however, it may be the case that the village took its name after Raja Bagh Singh. The name of the second cave provided was Gussain Cave after a gussain (saint) who then occupied the cave. He mentions the figure of Ganesha in its cave was a later morphing of an earlier Buddha image as the emblem of Buddha was present above the figure. The count of caves provided by him was eight. The name of the fourth cave was provided as Rang Mahal, called so after the mural paintings inside the cave. The importance of this account was because of the accompanying drawings and photographs.
Due to the bad quality of the rock many of the pillars and parts of walls and roofs had crumbled down and most of the caves had been choked up with an enormous mass of their own debris. Many of the door and window openings were blocked up, which made the entry even of light and air into the interior difficult. After the formation of the Gwalior Archaeological Department under the Gwalior State in 1913, the Bagh caves got much-deserved attention. Repair and conservation works were carried out for multiple years where debris was cleared off and arranged into a sort of platform or landing place in front of the caves for ease of access. The decayed walls and pillars were repaired or replaced with appropriate provisions. The most important work by the department was the copy of its paintings. The painting work started in 1920-21 and the services of the best artists were availed. The first phase of the work was carried out by Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar, and Surendranath Kar, artists and art teachers of Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan. The next phase started in 1923-24 and was carried out by A. B. Bhonsle and B. A. Apte, students of the J J School of Arts, Mumbai. They were assisted by M. S. Bhand and V. B. Jagtap, two aspiring artists of Gwalior. These paintings were exhibited in the Archaeological Museum at Gwalior and duplicates were exhibited in the British Museum in 1925.7 Asit Kumar Haldar8 visited Bagh Caves first time in February 1917 and later in January 1921 accompanied by his fellow artists. His account starts with a brief description of the nine caves, however, the most important part was the description of the paintings. He and his colleagues worked for about two months and left Bagh on March 1, 1921. His account consists of one interesting reference to an inscription, on the intervening wall between caves 2 and 3, the letters of which have a roundish character unfamiliar to archaeologists. The travelogue of M C Dey9 includes Ajanta and Bagh caves as the only two Buddhist sites in India containing paintings. He describes all the nine caves of the site telling caves nos 6, 7, 8, and 9 were in a sorry state of dilapidation that nothing much can be inferred of the remains. About the dating, he tells these caves were excavated in about the fifth century CE, though not all were excavated at the same time, there is no doubt that these were all done between the fourth and sixth centuries. Dey opines the artists of that period, who worked on these caves, were probably well taken care of by the king of those times. He compares the situation of those times with his time, narrating a story where the artists, Nanda Lal Basu, Surendra Nath Kar, and Asit Kumar Haldar, sent by the 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.
The first detailed account from the pen of erudite archaeologists comes in 1927 and the contributions were made by John Marshall, J. Ph. Vogel, M. B. Garde, E. B. Havell, and Henry Cousins10. Marshall starts by 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 the 3rd century BCE to the 15th century CE. Marshall was very appreciative of the paintings and he opines though the paintings are faded and had suffered severely however they still constitute a priceless treasure, which no pains or expense should be deemed too great to save for posterity. He 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 a 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 critics.”
The first epigraphic evidence, a copper-plate grant of Maharaja Subandhu, from the caves was unearthed in 1929 in the debris of cave no 2.11 The grant was dated however due to the breaking of a piece of it, only the name of the month now remains. Suggesting the grant was written in the Gupta characters of the fifth-sixth century CE, Garde says there is no difficulty in assigning it to the 5the or 6th century CE on paleographic grounds. In 1939, S Paramasivan12 publishes a paper documenting the painting techniques and methods used in Bagh Caves. He concludes the paintings were executed in tempera technique where the color pigments were mixed with a binding glue and applied on the dry prepared surface. A K Haldar13, who was instrumental in making copies of the Bagh paintings in 1921, publishes his detailed account of these paintings and his excursions in 1952.
By end of the 1930s, enough material was made available on these caves providing descriptions, measurements, and other details on the excavations and paintings. The scholars then started focussing on the preservation, and conservation of these caves and their paintings, dating, and identification of themes of these paintings. In the 1940s-50s, V V Mirashi14 conducted extensive studies of epigraphs of the rulers of Valkha and Mahishmati and concluded that the years in the epigraphs of these rulers were not in the Gupta era as generally believed but in the Kalachuri era. As the Gupta era starts in 320 CE and the Kalachuri era in 249 CE, therefore this study from Mirashi puts the dating of the Bagh caves back about 70 years from the previously accepted dates. P K Agrawala15 largely followed Mirashi and agreed with him in dating the Bagh Caves. In 1972, Marg, a celebrated Indian art books publisher, publishes a magazine dedicated to Bagh caves and it has articles from Mulk Raj Anand and John Anderson. Marg secured the services of Col. Lance Dane to photograph the copies of Bagh paintings in the Gwalior Museum, as well as bits and pieces in the caves. These were reproduced in their magazine of 1972. Both Anderson and Anand, take the opinion that these caves were executed in the fourth century CE and their paintings were the predecessor of Ajanta paintings. Anand16 writes, “Bagh is one of the legends of the once flourishing Buddhist civilization of the classical Gupta renaissance of the 4th-5th century, contemporary with the illuminations of the later caves in Ajanta.” Anderson17 compares the Padmapani painting at Bagh and Ajanta and asserts it definitely illustrates that the Bagh figure must pre-date the figure in Ajanta.
Cleaning and preservation work on the Bagh cave paintings was taken up by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1954 and the work continued for more than 10 years. The ASI report of the year 1954-5518 mentions the paintings have undergone extensive decay on account of heavy accretions of smoke, tarry and oily matter, and the action of hot gases on the pigments. The painted surface presented a blistered and baked appearance, and large areas were bereft of details of designs on account of the extensive flaking of pigments. The report further mentions it was possible to remove the age-old accretions without affecting the pigments in the number of panels of cave 2. The report of 1955-5619 mentions the success of various experiments on several cleansing agents emulsifying reagents and the team was hopeful that with treatment many unrecorded painted panels would be brought to light. The greater part of the pigments had been lost through flaking or alteration and chemical decomposition. The report of 1956-5720 mentions work was carried out in caves 2, 3, and 4 however it does not mention any new discoveries. The report of 1957-5821 does not add further information except the work continued in caves 2,3, and 4. The report of 1958-5922 mentions comprehensive data was collected from cave 2 and in light of which further work will be planned and executed. The report of 1959-6023 mentions satisfactory results were obtained after eliminating accretions of tarry soot and smoke. It also mentions the problem of heavy deposits of salts on ceilings and walls due to water percolation was studied. The report of 1960-6124 mentions it was decided to carry out structural repairs to caves first and then take up the elimination of salts from the painted surface by physio-chemical methods. The report of 1961-6225 does not add much except that considerable progress was made. The report of 1962-6326 mentions the paintings of cave 2 that were earlier treated were very hazy therefore a few experiments were initiated to determine the right procedure to be adopted to bring out the existing details of the paint layers, the results of which would be made use of in the preservation of these paintings. The report of 1963-6427 mentions almost the entire painted surface was brought under elaborate chemical treatment by the close of the year. The report of 1964-6528, the last on the Bagh paintings preservation, does not add many details except the work was carried out in cave 2 and cave 4. Even after the preservation efforts from ASI, the paintings continue to be impacted due to water seepage issues, and in 1979-8029 the ASI team carried out protection by filleting and fixing the flaking layers with movicol injection after dehydrating the layers with acetone. Work on removing the paintings from the caves started in the same year and a piece of painting from cave 4 was stripped and mounted on a new carrier by using a large number of chemicals and a chopped strand mat of fiberglass. 1980-8130 saw further progress in the removal of paintings, and three pieces of paintings, each measuring about a square meter, on the eastern wall of cave 4 were skillfully detached using the Italian strappo technique. The work on the eastern wall of cave 4 was completed by 81-82.31
The first comprehensive attempt at dating these caves was carried out by Walter Spink in his 1977 paper.32 After comparing the resemblances and evolution of different pillar styles and iconography of Bagh caves with the other Buddhist contemporary caves, especially of Ajanta, Spink assigns the caves at Bagh as 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 opines the work at Bagh started sometime in 465 CE however it gained pace after 470 when many painters and sculptors moved from Ajanta to Bagh due to the abrupt cessation of all art activities at Ajanta. In his later studies, he slightly changes his dates stating both Bagh and Ajanta (main phase) were started in about 462 CE33 and the Bagh caves were probably all completed somewhat before 478 CE34. The big argument from Spink was that Maharaja Subandhu whose copper-plate grant was found in Bagh and elsewhere was the hero Vishruta of the Dashakumaracharita of Dandin and he established a new royal house at Mahishmati that may be equated with the early Kalachuri Dynasty. He was a Gupta scion and married a Vakataka princess, the latter fled to Mahishmati after the death of the Vakataka king Harisena, the latter was instrumental in the development of the Ajanta cave complex.
1982 brought out one of the biggest discoveries at Bagh when a casket containing twenty-eight copper-plate grants was found by farmers in a field. The farmers sold these plates to different dealers however with the efforts from the Madhya Pradesh Archaeological Department, all the grants were safely recovered and deposited at the Gwalior museum. These grants were published in 1990 by S. P. Tewari and K. V. Ramesh.35 All these grants were issued from Valkha and dated in years with no era specified. The years vary from 47 to 134. Tewari and Ramesh assign the years mentioned in these grants to the Gupta Era. They identify Valkha with Balkhad, a village about 30 km from Maheshwar, the ancient Mahishmati.
The start of the twenty-first century brings very productive studies in Bagh scholarship. In 2001, Monika Zin36 tries the first serious attempt at the identification of Bagh paintings. She only takes the scenes on the veranda of caves IV and V, the largest painting at the site. She suggests the narrative of the painting was of the story of Mandhata, the earthly king who went to the heavens and sat next to Indra to rule the universe. in 2002, two different scholars worked in the field of interpretation of cave paintings without knowledge of each other. Anupa Pande37 takes note of Saundarananda of Asvaghosa and interprets the main male figure of the painting in the veranda of caves IV and V as Nanda and the lady in remorse in the next painting with Sundari, the wife of Nanda. Meena Talim38 worked on six panels on the veranda of caves IV and V and provides her interpretations which were very different from the earlier scholars. In the same year, 2002, Ritu and Phanikant Mishra39 publish a paper in Marg describing the conservation and preservation efforts and activities carried out at Bagh Caves. They conclude, “In the thirty-year history of restoration and conservation of Bagh Caves, the ASI has deployed huge resources, expertise, and manpower in the damage control exercise, but there had been little improvement. Although experts have worked day and night on the gargantuan task of saving caves, also entailing huge expenditure, their incessant efforts have been drowned under continuous seepage and disintegration of rocks.”
Later in 2007, Archana Verma40 identifies Valkha with Bagh. Taking note of various copper-plate grants issued from Valkha, she asserts that the Valkha was essentially a non-Sankritised region during the pre-Gupta period and was transformed into a predominantly Brahmanised cultural region in the Gupta period with the earlier Buddhist forms continuing to be patronized in a significant way. In 2014, Meena Talim41 takes another attempt at the identification of themes of the paintings at Bagh, and this time she covers all the paintings at the site. taking due note of the Jataka tales and other avadana stories.
1 Dangerfield, F (1820). Some Account of the Caves near Baug, called the Panch Pandoo published in the Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay, vol. II. pp. 206-214
2 Impey, E (1857). Description of the Caves of Bagh, in Rath published in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. V. pp. 543-573
3 Burgess, James (1879). Bauddha Rock-Temples of Ajanta, their paintings and sculptures, and on the paintings of the Bagh Caves, Modern Bauddha Mythology, &c. The Government Central Press. Bombay. pp. 94-96
4 Burgess & Fergusson (1969 reprint). The Cave Temples of India. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. Delhi. pp. 363-366
5 Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna (1908). From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan. The Theological Publishing Society. London. pp. 234-249
6 Luard, C E (1910). Gazetteer Gleanings in Central India published in the Indian Antiquary vol. XXXIX. pp. 225-235
7 Garde, M B (1927). Miscellaneous Notes on Bagh Caves in The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London. pp. 24-25
8 Halder, Asit Kumar (1921). The Paintings of the Bagh Caves published in Rupam – An Illustrated Quarterly Journal of Oriental Art chiefly India, No 8. pp. 12-19 | Haldar, Asit Kumar (1923). The Buddhist Caves of Bagh published in the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 43. no. 247. pp. 159-167
9 Dey. M C (1925). My Pligrimages to Ajanta & Bagh. Thornton Butterworth Limited. London. pp. 199-240
10 Marshall, John, et al (1927). The Bagh Caves in the Gwalior State. The India Society. London.
11 Annual Report of the Archaeological Department Gwalior State for Samvat 1985, Year 1928-29. p. 15
12 Paramasivan, S (1939). The wall paintings in the Bagh caves—An investigation into their methods published in the Proceedings of Indian Academy of Sciences, Section A, vol. 10. pp. 85-95
13 Haldar, A K (1952). Art and Tradition. The Universal Publishers Ltd. Lucknow. pp. 105-120
14 Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum Vol. IV – Inscriptions of the Kalachuri-Chedi Era, Part I. pp. 5-21 | Mirashi, V V (1945). The Age of the Bagh Caves published in Indian Historical Quarterly, volume 21, no 2. pp. 79-85
15 Agrawala, P K (1966). The Date of the Bagh Caves and their Paintings published in Bharati, volume 9, no 2. pp.9-16
16 Anand, Mulk Raj (1972). Rhythm of Dance and Music in the Bagh Caves published in Marg – A Magazine of the Arts, Volume XXV, Number 3. pp. 1-6
17 Anderson, John (1972). Bagh Caves – Historical and Descriptive Analysis published in Marg – A Magazine of the Arts, Volume XXV, Number 3. pp. 15-56
18 Indian Archaeology 1954-55 – A Review. p. 48
19 Indian Archaeology 1955-56 – A Review. pp. 53-54
20 Indian Archaeology 1956-57 – A Review. p. 65
21 Indian Archaeology 1957-58 – A Review. p. 109
22 Indian Archaeology 1958-59 – A Review. p. 119
23 Indian Archaeology 1959-60 – A Review. p. 117
24 Indian Archaeology 1960-61 – A Review. p. 107
25 Indian Archaeology 1961-62 – A Review. p. 144
26 Indian Archaeology 1962-63 – A Review. p. 100
27 Indian Archaeology 1963-64 – A Review. p. 121
28 Indian Archaeology 1964-65 – A Review. p. 102
29 Indian Archaeology 1979-80 – A Review. p. 156
30 Indian Archaeology 1980-81 – A Review. p. 158
31 Indian Archaeology 1981-82 – A Review. p. 141
32 Spink, Walter (1977). Bāgh: A Study published in Archives of Asian Art Vol. 30. pp. 53-84
33 Spink, Walter M. (2017). Ajanta: History and Development Volume 7, Bagh, Dandin, Cells and cell Doorways. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004321922. p. 31
34 Spink, Walter M. (2017). Ajanta: History and Development Volume 7, Bagh, Dandin, Cells and cell Doorways. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004321922. p. 18
35 Tewari & Ramesh (1990). A Copper-plate Hoard of the Gupta Period from Bagh, Madhya Pradesh. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp. iv-xi
36 Zin, Monika (2001). The Identification of the Bagh Paintings published in East and West, volume 51, Nos. 3-4. pp. 299-322
37 Pande, Anupa (2002). The Buddhist Cave Paintings of Bagh. Aryan Books International. New Delhi
38 Talim, Meena (2002). Bagh Paintings: Identification and Interpretation. Somaiya Publications Pvt. Ltd. ISBN 8170392512.
39 Mishra, Ritu & Mishra, Phanikant (2002). Bagh Caves: A Predicament for Conservation published in Marg Volume 53, No 3. pp. 46-55
40 Verma, Archana (2007). Cultural and Visual Flux at Early Historical Bagh in central India. Archaeopress. Oxford. ISBN 9781407301518. p. 23
41 Talim, Meena (2014). Bagh Caves: Paintings and Sculptures. Buddhist World Press. Delhi.
Acknowledgment: Some of the photos above are in CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain from the collection released by Tapesh Yadav Foundation for Indian Heritage.