Historian and writer William Dalrymple, the author of such esteemed and popular works of historical non-fiction as White Mughals, The Last Mughal,and City of Djinns, visited the famed Ajanta caves with his wife.
They wandered into two lesser-known caves in the 31 cave complex numbers 9 and 10.
I saw these extraordinary but unfamiliar paintings. I couldn't recall having seen their photographs anywhere, in any books on Ajanta. recalled Dalrymple during a talk organized by the Tasveer Foundation.
Although badly damaged, Dalrymple could make out that these paintings were in a different style from the better known Ajanta paintings more realistic and humanistic.
It turned out that these murals were from an earlier epoch altogether: at least 600 years older than the more famous ones.
To put that in perspective, Dalrymple added, That is about the same time difference that exists between the monuments of Lodhi Gardens in Delhi and the skyscrapers of Gurgaon.
Dalrymple set out to understand and his search led him to discover this vast treasury of paintings, which he says can arguably be called the oldest Buddhist paintings anywhere in the world.
According to his research, these two caves and their murals fell into obscurity largely because in the 1930s, the Nizam of Hyderabad sent a team of Italian restorers to make them shipshape, and they in all their wisdom, covered them with shellac, which attracted bat dung and other kinds of debris till everyone gave them up for lost.
Dalrymple also found that the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) had re-discovered these paintings about a decade ago, and had been diligently at work restoring them with some accuracy led by a passionate restorer called Manager Singh
In Dalrymple's words, “had not told a soul about this work!“
When the Vatican restored the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, they invited the world's media to come take a look; there were front-page photographs in all the leading newspapers.
The ASI kept completely quiet about finding the oldest representations of Indians anywhere.
He says, that's just what they are.
Despite extensive damage, the paintings in this bunch are more realistic and robust representations of ordinary people than the more stylized forms of Bodhisattvas in the latter period of Ajanta cave paintings.
They date, as far as can be estimated, to 70-90 BCE (Before Common Era).
This pre-dates everything in Indian art.
These are the oldest faces of Indians in existence, said Dalrymple, while pointing to slides showing visual representations of the Jataka tales, which formed the main subject matter of these paintings.
The faces are full of vigour and expression, and each face is individually delineated, the historian pointed out.
The most marvellous thing is, you still see these faces, these same features, and sometimes even the same designs in jewellery and dress, even today in western India.
The people represented here though we don't know if the anonymous artists painted them from life or imagination lived two millennia ago.
The Ajanta caves were first discovered in the summer of 1819 by a British hunting party.
The murals at Ajanta are believed to have been made in two distinct phases.
Most of the work from the second phase of construction at the height of the Gupta dynasty (such as those in caves one and two), were relatively well-preserved and became famous quickly.
The earlier picture cycles, found for example in caves nine and ten, were smoke-blackened, fragmented and largely ignored by almost everybody but vandals.
These ancient paintings, two millennia old, were found scribbled over by ugly graffiti.