Frozen in time: A queen, her attendants and a new way to save art
The oldest known painting of the Hindu tradition is being preserved at the Arctic World Archive. Photographed and digitally restored by art historian Benoy Behl, Queen and Attendants is a 6th century painting found in the Badami caves
In the 6th-century rock-cut cave temples at Badami in Karnataka, amid the sculptures representing the Hindu and Jain traditions of the time, are the earliest known paintings of the former
Paintings of the Hindu tradition are those found in Hindu temples. They can be of deities or of associated stories. The temple paintings at Badami were crafted during the Chalukya dynasty.
“Originally, the ceilings and the walls of the caves would have been completely covered with these works. What remains now is a small fraction , 1%, of what existed,” says art historian and photographer Benoy Behl. “Even writings from the 1950s include a lot more than what was there by the time I first visited in 2001.”
What Behl captured on that first trip and later ones, however, is now being immortalised. A digitally restored photograph of a section of the Badami paintings has been selected as the third Indian-origin deposit at the Arctic World Archive, a doomsday vault in Svalbard, Norway, designed to preserve a record of some of humanity’s most treasured artefacts for a post-apocalyptic world.
The deposit is being made by the heritage arm of Sapio Analytics, a government advisory firm that previously deposited a selection of digitally restored photographs of India’s oldest cave paintings, the ones at Maharashtra’s Ajanta caves. Those images, of Buddhist art that dates back to the 2nd century BCE, were also by Behl. (The third, and earliest, Indian deposit was a digital excerpt of the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, Hindi and English, handed over in 2018.)
Titled Queen and Attendants, the Badami photograph depicts a regal figure being waited upon by attendants. The original has suffered so much wear and tear, over its 1,500 years on the stone wall, that there are still brown patches in the digital restoration, where Behl says there just wasn’t enough evidence of what colours or lines to use.
When you have been studying a work for decades, he adds, “you reach a point where you are able to make a genuine attempt to restore the art and retain the gentleness with which it was made, but not a scratch more than the evidence points to”.
He selected this painting as his subject, Behl says, because, even though very little of it survives, it is enough to establish a continuous tradition of painting in ancient India. “It is evidence that the painting tradition continued in India after the Buddhist paintings at Ajanta.”
These paintings are believed to have been created by successive generations of the same painters’ guilds as those who worked at Ajanta and Ellora. “That is why we see the same inward look and gentleness of expression in the paintings in the Badami cave, as we saw in Ajanta,” Behl says.
“Ajanta signifies Buddhist culture and opens the door to key cultures across Asia. This work, Queen and Attendants, focuses on the Hindu tradition, and establishes the deep influence of the Hindu faith in the various traditions we see today,” says Hardik Somani, director and COO of Sapio Analytics. “From the context of Indian culture, this earliest surviving painting of the Hindu tradition is important enough to be preserved forever.”