The Ajanta Caves were a sanctuary for Buddhist monks that was forgotten, along with its stunning riches, for nearly 1,500 years. Jonathan Glancey investigates.

The Ajanta Caves, 30 spellbinding Buddhist prayer halls and monasteries carved, as if by sorcery, into a horseshoe-shaped rock face in a mountainous region of India’s Maharashtra state, 450km (280 miles) east of Mumbai, were ‘discovered’ by accident in 1819.

Unknown for more than 1,000 years except to wild animals, insects, flood waters, prodigious foliage and perhaps the local Bhil people, this magnificent work of art, architecture and contemplation, was abandoned by those who created it as long ago as AD 500. In 1983 it was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.

John Smith, a young British cavalry officer, was on a tiger hunt when he spotted the mouth of a cave high above the Waghora (Tiger) River that could only have been man made. Scrambling up with his party, Smith entered the cave and, branding a flaming grass torch, encountered a great vaulted and colonnaded hall, its walls covered in faded paintings. Beneath a dome, a timeless praying Buddha fronted a mound-like shrine, or stupa.

Smith carved his name on a statue of a Bodhisattva, a figure representing one of the past lives of the Buddha before he achieved Nirvana, or union with the divine spirit. Since then, thousands of people have added their names as the Ajanta caves – a gallery of the oldest and some of the finest of all Buddhist art – has gained fame and become a compelling tourist attraction.

News of Smith’s find spread quickly. In 1844, Major Robert Gill was commissioned by the Royal Asiatic Society to create reproductions on canvas of the wall paintings. This was the beginning of measures to reveal and document the prayer halls (chaityagrihas) and monasteries (viharas) that had, it seems, been hewn from solid rock in two phases, the first – five prayer halls – between the 1st  and 2nd  centuries BC and, the second – 25 monasteries, or monks’ lodgings – in the 5th Century AD.

Gill worked in truly difficult conditions. Not only was it often unbearably hot, but this was still tiger country, and the fierce Bhil people had never come to terms with invaders, whether Hindu or Moghul emperors or 19th Century British military.

Lost to time

What Gill and other visitors saw, having climbed ropes and ladders, to reach the caves – the original stone stairs had long gone – was architecture of a very high order and sculpture and paintings that took the breath away. Here, Buddhist monks had gazed on thousands of lustrous images of the lives the Buddha – Siddhartha Gautama – had lived before this 6th Century Indian prince took up teaching and inspired a way of thinking and being practiced by hundreds of millions around the world today.

Between images of the Buddha, were sensuous representations of glamorous princes and princesses, of animals, palaces, silks, jewellery, of lovemaking and life in all its mortal richness. Some of the images shocked Victorian sensibilities and are still condemned by religious zealots unable to comprehend that what these Indian artists saw was a joyous vision of natural fecundity and divine beauty.

Along with the1st Century AD architecture, these paintings showed remarkable affinities to classical Greek art. This was not coincidence, but evidence of a Greco-Indian culture that had spread from the 4th Century BC expeditions of Alexander the Great. It stretched through Hellenistic kingdoms and trade routes from the Mediterranean to Persia, Afghanistan and India – with Ajanta along the way – to distant China and Japan.

Twenty-seven of Gill’s canvases were displayed in the Indian Court of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, south London; in 1866, 23 were destroyed by fire. Newly armed with a camera as well as brushes, Gill set to work again. Meanwhile, the Royal Cave Temple Commission founded by the Royal Asiatic Society in 1848 had led to the foundation in 1861 of the Archaeological Survey of India. Concern for the treasures of Ajanta grew, as did the number of intrepid experts and treasure hunters, some of whom did more than carve their names on statues: they scraped paintings from walls which crumbled into dust. One of the few known surviving paintings to have left Ajanta intact is in the care of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts today. It had been sold in 1924 for £1,000 at Sotheby’s in London.

The Government of Bombay commissioned new copies of the Ajanta cave paintings in 1872 from John Griffiths, principal of the Bombay School of Art. Griffiths and his students produced 300 paintings, only for a third to go up in flames at London’s Imperial Institute in 1885. In 1909, Lady Herringham, suffragette and art patron, began further copies with help from the Calcutta School of Art, and from the late 1920s the Indian art historian Ghulam Yazdani made a comprehensive photographic survey of the art of Ajanta, published in four volumes between 1930 and 1955.

That was the year the surviving Griffiths paintings were put in store by the Victoria & Albert Museum. Inaccessible and forgotten for half a century, in 2005 81 were uncovered and restored.

Searching for understanding

Since 1999, a team led by Rajdeo Singh of the Archaeological Survey of India, using new methods developed in Japan, have revealed the intense colours and sheer beauty of many of the 1st Century AD portraits along with the subtlety of their artists’ use of perspective, shading and other three-dimensional techniques including the use of bright stones, notably lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.

Their meticulous restoration raised anew questions asked many times over the past 200 years. How did the artists paint so well, with such precise use of colour, in the dark recesses of these rock-carved prayer halls and monasteries? Just how many architects, masons, sculptors and painters would have been at work between from circa AD 460-500 when so much of this glorious place, paid for by merchants and courtiers during the reign of the Vakataka dynasty emperor Harisena, was created? And, in those brief years before the fall of the Vakataka empire and its patronage of Buddhist art, could this really have been a place of quiet contemplation when it must have been one vast building site?

The many archaeological ventures over the past two centuries seeking to answer these questions, as well as to uncover, document and conserve this feast of Buddhist creativity have added immeasurably to Ajanta’s fame, along with the tramp of ever increasing tourists. In 2013, four replica caves, created by the Mumbai-based designer Rakesh Rathod, were opened at the visitor centre 4km (2.5 miles) from the rock face. The idea was to reduce numbers heading to the precious chaityagrihas and viharas.

The fake caves, however, have not been a success: evidently, visitors want the real thing even though many clearly revel in the shopping bazaar and food stalls greeting anyone making pilgrimages to Ajanta today.

And, yet the serenity of the sleeping Buddha lying in one of the caves, the summer and winter solstice sunlight illuminating statues of the praying Buddha, the spellbinding architecture and the compelling beauty of the wall paintings lift Ajanta above such worldly concerns. This might be a tourist magnet, yet thanks to generations of conservationists, Ajanta remains a gateway to Nirvana.

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