Walter Spink: He Read Ajanta Like a Book

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    For a professor in India, ‘Chachaji’ (beloved uncle) is a coveted prefix, for it validates not only your capabilities as a teacher but it also means you’ve earned the affection of the students who trusted your wisdom and life’s work. Today marks the first death anniversary of ‘Chachaji’ Walter Spink (16 Feb 1928 - 23 Nov 2019), a rare and unusual scholar who devoted more than six decades of his life to a single academic pursuit – studying the magnificent rock-cut caves at Ajanta at Aurangabad in Maharashtra. In fact, many would agree that Ajanta and Spink were made for each other!

    To so very many people across the globe, Spink’s name evokes charm and exuberance, warmth and generosity, poetry and academics, and much more. Above all, he is best remembered for the “Short Chronology” of Ajanta, crisp and precise, which decisively solved the most vexing puzzles about the caves: who created them, when they were carved, and how they represent the zenith of ancient India’s Golden Age. His Short Chronology extended beyond Ajanta, to all post-Ajanta rock-cut caves, and shed new light on forgotten, though glorious, chapters of Indian history.

    Dr Walter M Spink, Professor Emeritus at Michigan University, is very fondly remembered by his students and long-time friends in India, a country he chose for research after graduating with the highest distinction in art history from Amherst College in Massachusetts and then going on to Harvard in 1949 to continue advanced studies in the subject.

    Under the influence of his teacher, Benjamin Rowland, one of the first Western art historians to write about Indian art, Spink developed a deep interest in Indian art. Three days after his wedding in June 1952, Spink and his wife Nesta flew to England to board a ship bound for India. Here, Spink, a Fulbright graduate fellow, wished to pursue his dissertation research on medieval Hindu sculpture in the Lingaraja temple of Odisha.

    However, he was evicted from the temple because he was a non-Hindu and hence a ‘pollutant’, even after he made a spirited but futile attempt to cheat his way through by draping a dhoti, and his young, newlywed wife Nesta a saree, firmly in tow. His fascination with rock-cut forms of architecture developed as he marvelled at it in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. But it was Ajanta in the Waghora valley in the Deccan region of Maharashtra that eventually captured him, and held him inseparably for six decades and more. To quote him from his Ajanta Volume 1, “. . . this deep valley was created, for those who would honor it, as a perfect retreat.”

    But even before stepping into the Ajanta complex, Spink had already sensed the need for, in his own words, “putting the house of caves in order”, because the inscriptions found in India are mostly dated in regnal years of a particular king and placing such evidence on a calendar is often a major challenge. Ajanta too had been a victim of such a guesstimated chronology, which grabbed Spink’s attention and interest.

    Of the prominent incidents named by Spink that triggered his investigations which culminated in his Short Chronology, the first was his visit to the Badami Caves in Karnataka, dated by inscriptional evidence to the late 6th century CE. Having visited Elephanta Caves off the coast of Mumbai just before, his trained art historian’s eye told him that art forms at Badami were later than those at Elephanta, which at the time had been dated to the 8th century CE. He began to suspect that Elephanta had been dated two centuries too late.

    Further, in the Ghatotkach Caves near Jinjala village, 18 km to the west of Ajanta, an inscription announced the name of the cave’s sponsor as ‘Varahadeva’, prime minister of the Vakataka Emperor Harishena, known to have been a mid-5th century ruler. But the carving on a pilaster capital here was almost identical to what Spink had seen at Ajanta, which had conventionally been dated to the late 7th century – once again, 200 years had gone missing!

    This plunged Spink into a painstaking, inch-by-inch scrutiny of the 30-odd cave complex at Ajanta, together with related sites such as Ghatotkach, Bagh, Banoti and Aurangabad, missing no detail, however small and humble. In addition to the beautiful Buddhas, bodhisattvas, nagas, goddesses, yakshas, and stupas, features such as pillars, window sills and underground water cisterns began to be counted as crucial evidence for crafting the Ajanta narrative.

    In time, Spink added to his quest, the hitherto hardly noticed notches on window frames, the soot that had covered the mural paintings in the shrine areas, the plaster around the garland hooks that hung from the ceiling, the door hinges, the small but deliberate holes above the Buddha and bodhisattva panels, the wear in the pivot holes wherein doors had been fixed, one drop of paint from the ceiling intrusively splashed over a painted wall – every single one of these, and many more, acquired the respectable status of historical evidence that told Spink its own story.

    It may seem strange that it was the incompleteness, the imperfections, the failures and the mistakes of the artisans that gave him the most crucial clues to help him reconstruct the history of the site. Spink’s scientific approach also served to demystify such popular imaginations as the “musical” pillars and the “shamiana effect” in the Ajanta caves, which are actually outcomes of structural challenges and compulsions faced by the artisans while battling the recalcitrant rock.

    In his own words, “Ajanta yields it secrets willingly once you’ve earned its respect.” Sure enough, Ajanta began to reveal to Spink all its 1,500-year-old secrets, one after another, and the narrative began to unfold.

    Tracing the evolution of multiple architectural forms from simple to complex, Spink was able to divide the entire onsite archaeological evidence into roughly 17 ‘layers’, the equivalent of stratigraphy, which is the chief determinant of chronology in an archaeological dig. This established the internal sequence at Ajanta, and it revealed the order in which work had progressed in all the caves from beginning to end. This eventually became the rock-solid foundation for his famous Short Chronology, which states, simply, that all the Vakataka caves at Ajanta were created in a matter of two decades, not a day more.

    On strong circumstantial evidence, Spink attributed the sponsorship of Cave 1, the most splendid cave of the complex, to Emperor Harishena of the Vakataka dynasty, even though there is no inscription that states it in so many words.

    According to Spink, Ajanta is the only site in the world that offers itself to be read like a text, to narrate its own history. “Ajanta's brief development, from c. 462 to c. 480, is so crowded both with forms and with transformations that, more than any other site in the world, it can be picked apart (in order to be put together), with what many will see as a hardly believable precision.” And it was the hard-core political history of the times, choc-a-bloc with dramatic events, that Spink found mirrored in surprising detail in the nooks and crannies that he rummaged into at the site, for decades.

    Starting with Emperor Harishena’s accession to the Vakataka throne in about 462 CE, the sequence of political events unfolded by Spink’s research included the beginning of excavation at the Ajanta complex during his reign, the skirmish between the Rishikas and Ashmakas – the two feudatory kingdoms of the Vakatakas; the Rishika victory and the eviction of the Ashmakas; the war between the same contenders again; the Ashmakas’ triumph and expulsion of the Rishikas; the sudden death of Emperor Harishena; the mutiny by the treacherous Ashmakas in collaboration with other feudatories; the defeat and death of Harishena’s inept son Sarvasena III; the resultant anarchy in the Vakataka imperium that stretched from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea; the flight of Sarvasena’s widow, heir-apparent son and daughter to Mahishmati to seek safety; their betrayal by the rulers there; and, finally, the successful machinations of one Subandhu to usurp the Vakataka imperial throne to establish the Early Kalachuri dynasty on the ruins of the Vakataka Empire.

    Even though Spink’s micro-detailed analysis had established, with near zero-error accuracy, the relative chronology at Ajanta, it could not address the task of assigning calendar dates to the political events because there are no inscriptions at Ajanta with such calendar dates. For this, Spink integrated his conclusions with evidence from other historical sources and this integration finally crystallised in the Short Chronology.

    The Short Chronology, first announced by Spink at a conference about 12 years after starting work at Ajanta, effectively closed the 200-year-gap in the chronology, not only at Ajanta but at all post-Ajanta rock-cut caves. Ironically, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has accepted and used Spink’s revised dates on the signboards of Elephanta, but not at Ajanta, where they emerged forcefully through material remains. His remaining years were spent in defending, fine-tuning and teaching the Short Chronology to art history students all over the world, and who are today in senior positions at institutes, universities and museums.

    The iconoclastic Short Chronology raised a storm, to put it mildly, in academic circles, because in one stroke it shrunk the lifespan of Ajanta from an arbitrary 200 years to 20 years. Detractors led by such stalwarts as Karl Khandalawala, A P Jamkhedkar and Brahmanand Deshpande engaged in a prolonged debate on Spink’s postulates. The entire discourse was published subsequently as Volume 2 of Spink’s seven-volume magnum opus titled Ajanta: History And Development. It reads like a lucid and fascinating court verdict, wherein every argument is replied to, with Spink’s characteristic meticulous perseverance, point by point.

    The fact that such a humongous amount of work in quality, as well as quality, was accomplished in so short a period, entitles the 17-year reign of Emperor Harishena to be considered, argues Spink, as the apogee of the Golden Age of ancient India, against the conventionally so honoured Gupta regime.

    Although dominated overwhelmingly by Ajanta, Spink’s interest in India was varied and expansive. His Axis of Eros (1988) is a unique volume in which through an immense wealth of reproductions of paintings, sculpture and photographs, together with poems, ancient hymns, aphorisms and quotes from psychologists, philosophers and other thinkers, and linked by the author's own commentary – he explores the basic differences between the cultures of the East and the West in sexual imagery, highlighting that in India human love is always a metaphor for divine love, while in the West, human love is associated with the original sin and guilt. His Krishnamandala (1971) is considered one of the most authoritative works on Krishna, the most beloved dark hero across India, and he would illustrate his art history lessons at Michigan University with recitations of Vaishnava devotional poetry.

    A recipient of numerous fellowships, grants and awards, Spink also held the top position in over 30 scholarly organisations. His intensive site seminars were immensely popular with Indian and foreign students alike. His warmth and deep concern for those around him — students and colleagues – may be judged, among countless episodes recounted by his admirers, by the fact that he has dedicated his Ajanta: History and Development: Volume 6 to Sadiq, his personal assistant during the last three decades of Spink’s life, at the Fardapur MTDC resort near Ajanta.

    Cover Image: Walter M Spink, courtesy: Dr Shreekant Jadhav


    Shubha Khandekar, author-illustrator of ArchaeoGiri – The Bridge between the Archaeologist and the Common Man, received guidance from Prof Walter M Spink through the last one year of his life, for simplifying and disseminating his study of the Ajanta Caves. She has a diploma in archaeology from the School of Archaeology, Archaeological Survey of India, and has worked as a journalist and editor for many years.

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