In April 1819, Captain John Smith, an officer with the Madras regiment of the British Army, was on a hunting trip in Aurangabad. Chasing a tiger, he found himself near the edge of a deep ravine. On the other side was a huge arch of what seemed like a cave. Intrigued, he beckoned his fellow officers to follow him, leading to the discovery of the showpiece Ajanta caves.
Nearly two centuries later, a small part of this history will repeat itself as another Smith arrives at the Ajanta caves, and stands at the edge of the same ravine to catch a glimpse of what is now a world heritage site. Retired Colonel Martin Smith, Captain John Smith’s great great grandson, will visit the caves on Friday, eager to retrace his ancestor’s steps and see for himself the wonder he uncovered.
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“Until very recently, we had absolutely no idea that it was our ancestor who had discovered the Ajanta caves. About two years ago, we received a letter from India from someone researching the Ajanta caves to confirm if we were the descendants of Captain John Smith. We were really fascinated,” said 74-year-old Margaret Smith, who would be travelling with husband Martin Smith to Ajanta. The couple lives in their family home in Norfolk, United Kingdom, and has been touring India for the last three weeks.
The 32 caves of Ajanta stand out distinctively amid the nearly 800 ancient Buddhist caves in Maharashtra for their magnificent murals, sculptures and architectural splendour.
The caves were excavated between the 2nd century BC and 6th century AD in a horseshoe-shaped bend of a rock surface, nearly 76 metres in height. Buddhist monks retreated to these caves, each one connected by a flight of steps to the Waghora stream, during the monsoon. The caves are a prime tourist attraction in Maharashtra.
It is said Captain John Smith chanced upon the Cave 10, which is known to be the earliest chaityagriha, or prayer hall, in Ajanta, where he marked his discovery with a hunting knife, inscribing his name and date on a mural. The point from where Captain Smith spotted the cave has also now evolved as a tourist attraction,giving a bird’s eye view of the caves.
Margaret said, “Unfortunately, this has not been one of the stories that is passed on within the family from one generation to another. It was a long long time ago. Ours is a military family, with my husband Martin, his father and grandfather all having served in the army. All we knew is that Martin’s great great grandfather was also in the army.” He was known as ‘Tiger Smith’, she added, since he was known to hunt down man-eater tigers.
So far, Martin and Margaret Smith have extensively travelled in India, touring Delhi, Agra, admiring the iconic Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, Gwalior, the sculptured temples of Khajuraho, Bhopal and the Satpura National Park.
After spending a night in Mumbai, the Smiths will leave for Aurangabad on Thursday and visit the Ajanta caves on Friday, before returning to the state capital on February 28.
Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government is making every effort to make Martin and Margaret Smith’s visit memorable.
A senior official from the state tourist department said the Aurangabad office had been alerted about the visit, and officials would receive the Smiths and show them around. Besides, the tourism department is also planning to host a dinner for the Smith family when they arrive in Mumbai on Sunday.
Margaret said, “We were very surprised. I think they are really welcoming us very well.”