Top draw: Visitors at Ellora, one of the top ten destinations for tourists Image Credit: Nilima Pathak

Mumbai-based architect and concept designer Trilochan Manharray Chhaya and his team have created state-of-the-art interpretation centres, including replicated depictions of four 2,500-year-old rock-cut caves of Ajanta and one of Ellora in Aurangabad, Maharashtra.

The depictions at Ajanta Visitors Centre (AVC) and Ellora Visitors Centre (EVC) are housed in climate-controlled conditions along with auditoria, interactive kiosks, cafes, museum shops, guide stations and games that help visitors understand and translate the majestic structures.

Located away from the original caves, the AVC and EVC have been built in collaboration with Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Considering the dilapidated condition of the original caves that were carved out of mountains, both the MTDC and the architect have reasons to pat themselves on the back. Their experiment of constructing depicted replicas and parallel interpretations of the most visited caves is paying rich dividends.

The MTDC claimed that the tourist turnout at the caves on weekends has gone up by 80 per cent — from 10,000 to 18,000.

Ajanta and Ellora are protected monuments of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. The restoration and conservation of the caves went on from 1992 to 2002 in the first phase of the project. In the second phase, from 2004 to 2013, the focus was on the replications — and is considered the world’s biggest till date.

The Ajanta and Ellora caves are among the top 10 most popular monuments in India, frequented by both domestic and foreign tourists.

The 29 Buddhist caves at Ajanta, situated 166km from Aurangabad, were built between 200BC and 600AD. Depicting the evolution of Buddhist architecture, these served as chapels, monasteries and temples for the monks.

Four caves — 1, 2, 16 and 17 at Ajanta, representing the finest paintings and sculptures, have been depicted to the near exact magnitude in three dimensions — scale, sculptures and digital photography at AVC.

The 34 caves at Ellora are 30km from the city and spread over an area of 2km. Of these, 1 to 12 are Buddhist caves (600AD-800AD), 13 to 29 Hindu caves (600AD-900AD) and 13 to 34 Jain caves (800AD-1000AD).

The most famous is Cave 16, Kailashnath Temple, built over a period of 150 years starting from 760AD.

Considered the largest monolith in the world, the exquisite sculptures depict scenes from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The depiction at EVC is only of Cave 16.

“For building the new structures, physical measurements and photographs of the statues were taken inside the original caves. The photographs were then enlarged in various grids to ensure that designs of the replicas were identical to the original caves,” informs Chhaya, who runs the firm Chhaya and Chhaya Design Consultants.

He adds, “I come from a family of architects and designers and my wife, son and daughter-in-law are all architects. They have provided creative contribution to this project. Our consulting team consists of cultural historians, artists and structural and specialist engineers. At one point, when the project was at its peak, we had 30 design team members working together.”

He gave Weekend Review insights into the project in an exclusive interview.

When did the brainstorming for the Ajanta and Ellora cave replicas begin?

The Limited Competition inviting concepts and designs for the centres at Ajanta and Ellora were floated in 2002. Our entries for the Holistic Design Concepts were chosen as the winners for both Ajanta and Ellora visitors centres. Thereafter, we were commissioned to design and oversee execution of the projects. Since it was not a small project, a number of agencies were involved in the work, including the people of Japan, through JICA, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, and Tata Consultancy Services.

Also, prominent national and international panels of experts, archaeologists, cultural historians, conservation scholars and heritage and tourism management consultants guided and monitored the development of the project at various levels. Aimed at uplifting the economy of the towns and villages around these heritage sites, the venture is a development concept that includes infrastructure, heritage conservation and tourist awareness.


What was the purpose of creating the replicas?

Ajanta and Ellora depict the cultural history of humankind through art and the language of communication of paintings and sculptures. Over the years, the natural impact, wear and tear and human neglect have caused rapid deterioration of these masterpieces. Though the ASI has been meticulously attempting to restore them, the rate of deterioration is much faster. So, showcasing the rich cultural heritage to the present and future generations and balance the difficult task of preservation of the original caves and paintings called for a pragmatic solution.

Now, tourists can visit and study these caves at AVC and EVC for hours and go to the original well-informed, and have the real feel, only if needed. The work was undertaken because of tourists’ presence affecting the natural colours of the statues, due to carbon dioxide generated by them while inside the caves. The concept was to create a place that not only provided visitors the sense of being inside the original caves, but also expose them to a vast array of static and dynamic exhibits describing the art and cultural history of the caves. This would, in turn, help extend the caves’ lives by at least another 100 years.


Should we term the initiative as replicas or depictions? And will more caves be replicated from time to time?

No, there are no plans for further replications. Right from the beginning the initiative was not to design a building, but an “experience” as a prelude to Ajanta and Ellora. The sole intention of depiction has been to educate and not create a copy of the original caves. Also, a masterpiece cannot be replicated, but depicted to a high quality level to impart the joy of understanding without damaging the original.


Would that mean tourists would now be dissuaded from visiting the original caves?

No, this is absolutely not the intention. But, unfortunately, most tourists have little idea of what they need to see to understand Ajanta’s architecture and paintings. Thus they end up spending a lot of time without actually understanding and imbibing the grandeur of the paintings. Increased number of tourists with extended times spent in the caves affect the outer layer of the paintings. In fact, even breathing and noise levels can have a negative impact on the structures. That’s why we would suggest that understanding Ajanta through exhibitions and cave depictions at the AVC before actually visiting it would reduce the time spent at the original caves.


Have the original caves also been restored?

The original caves and paintings are “sensitively cleaned” but not touched or redrawn. The panel of international experts had suggested that the depicted caves at the AVC should represent the architecture and paintings just as the original ones. So, there has been no attempt to hypothetically reconstruct them.


How did you go about designing the structures?

Ajanta is a narrative in the traditional medium and it is this power of the narration which makes it unique. That’s why I considered that an equally lucid narrative in the contemporary medium of expression would be a pragmatic solution. And a built form or architecture, to me, was a medium, to enhance the majestic caves.

We measured and documented all caves both physically and with electronic measuring devices and then studied and developed a hybrid structure with a nonpolluting nonplastic technology for sculpting. Later, international artists and technical experts trained the local contractors and artists to execute this complex piece of depiction art.


Did you face any difficulties choosing the material to match with the original structures?

In the entire AVC project we have used concrete, wood, local stone and crushed stone. The caves are also structured with reinforced concrete and layered with designed mix to receive the sculpted murals and friezes. Use of local materials — both for the new and depicted structure helped match the colour, texture and feel of the original materials.


What materials had been used in the original structures?

Original caves were all “outside in”, excavated and carved in the receptive rock terrain. The columnar structures that looks like wooden architecture is all nonstructural and ornamental. The paintings, which actually are the heart and the “fourth dimension” of Ajanta, use complex techniques with vegetables dyes.


–Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.