Born in Bombay, Dev Mehta has worked for the Indian Civil Service for the last thirty years or so. He holds a master's degree in business administration from the University of Connecticut and also a master's degree in economics from the London School of Economics. He studied law and commerce at the University of Bombay. Throughout his career, he has held distinguished positions in social planning and development. He initiated the Ajanta-Ellora Development Plan when he was head of the Tourism Organisation. He has been the Bombay Metropolitan Region Development Authority Commissioner since 1993.
Jane Slate Siena spoke with Mr. Mehta at the Dunhuang Academy in China during the October 1993 GCI-sponsored international conference "Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road." Mr. Mehta's paper on the development plans for the Ellora and Ajanta caves will be published as part of the conference proceedings.
Jane Slate Siena: In your State of Maharashtra, you have authority over two of the world's greatest and most precious cultural sites: India's ancient Ellora and Ajanta caves.
Dev Mehta: Yes, they are two of our country's greatest treasures. The Ajanta Caves, located 110 kilometers from Aurangabad, are an ensemble of thirty caves that were carved and elaborately decorated over a period of seven hundred years-from the 2nd century B.C.E. to the 5th century C.E. These caves are famous for their beautiful paintings and sculpture. Because they predate the spread of Buddism into China and Afghanistan, they are unequaled in their significance as historical records of their times.
The quality of the wall paintings at Ajanta is really astounding because they have been relatively undisturbed through the centuries. The monumental Sleeping Buddha sculpturea regular feature of Buddhist cave art throughout Asiais probably the best of its kind anywhere. Likewise, Ajanta's Preaching Buddha is among the most outstanding in the world.
The Ellora caves are 25 kilometers north of Aurangabad and were carved over a period of 350 years, from the sixth century onward; they include Buddhist monuments (cave nos. 1-12), Hindu monuments (cave nos. 13-29), and Jain monuments (caves nos. 30-34). Cave No. 16, known as Kailasa Temple, is an architectural feat, delicately carved from top to bottom, hewn out of a single rock. Perhaps this is the only monument of this kind in the world. With only one wrong hammer blow, the whole concept could have been ruined. The Kailasa Temple represents the climax of rock-cut caves in India. The Buddhist group of caves has variations on the vihara scheme, and they contain exquisite sculptures. The Jain group of caves is distinguished by intricate carvings.
Since 1988, you have made a personal commitment to bring these remarkable sites to national and international attention. Why had this not been done before?
Though the sites have been appreciated for centuries in India, in the region and of course among specialists from all over the world, no one had actually succeeded in developing their full potential as destinations for visitors and as symbols for the local communities. They were, perhaps, taken for granted. I wanted to change this.
Some say you are changing this by putting together a management plan that is the most radical and far-reaching yet to be developed anywhere.
Actually, I prefer to say development plan, because the plan incorporates all elements that are needed to truly develop the sites' full potential. Our plan is multifaceted; it includes restoration, management operations, tourism, infrastructure development, on-site educational programs, and intense interaction with the surrounding communities. We do not wish to build islands of museums around these monuments. Quite the contrary, we want to live and breathe with our neighbors.
Is there a precedent of this scale among the many master plans developed recently for cultural sites?
I do not think so. You see, we are including every aspect of life to use the monuments as development resources for the whole region. We cannot isolate this effort only for tourism, or for preservation, or for any other single concern. It's certainly a first for India, and perhaps for the world.
What is the overall objective of the development plan?
To bring a sense of dignity to the sites and to those visiting the sitesto help people feel connected to the sitesand to use the inherent power of great monuments as a development tool that respects the local communities.
Please describe your vision of the sites once the development plan is implemented.
At Ajanta, there will be a site museum, a scientific laboratory, a center for the study of rock art, and a wide range of services for visitors. On-site orientation programs will also be fully developed at the Ellora Temple. We believe it is very important to provide visitors with information; otherwise people wander aimlessly around sites with no understanding of what they are seeking, which unfortunately is the situation at most cultural sites the world over. This has to change, and I hope that our experience will stimulate an international movement in this direction.
Your site management objectives are of interest to preservationists everywhere.
We are observing all proper elements of site management. For example, visitors will abandon all cameras, cigarettes, food, and drink before embarking on their respective journeys of discovery. At Ajanta, we are moving the parking lot and all vendors a full four kilometers away from the caves. At Ellora, vendors will be allowed to remain close to the caves because their activities are not disturbing the site's preservation or presentation. Proper orientations will allow visitors to experience the sites within the context of the local landscape, vegetation, history and cultures. Visitor management procedures will direct the flow of traffic so that people will know how to enter, where to go, and how to depart the sites.
I must ask the inevitable. How are you paying for all of this?
This is the big question. In 1988 and 1989, we foresaw an opportunity to attract a consortium of important interests that combine foreign assistance, help from a variety of our ministries, and the private sector. We went to our government and said this is the time. And unlike the Taj Mahal, Ajanta and Ellora have been relatively free of previous developments. We needed to take advantage of the situation and move now.
After achieving consensus fairly rapidly, we put together a development project and, among other things, negotiated low-interest loans from Japan's Overseas Economic Corporation Fund, immediately purchased four thousand acres surrounding the monuments, obtained planning assistance from the U.S. National Park Service, secured funds from the Indian government, and began discussions with hotels and other private industries. We expect to generate fifteen thousand new jobs, revitalize the regional economy, enrich the surrounding communities, and guarantee the survival and preservation of two of our most outstanding cultural sites.
The project is not a charity. Its economic development aspect will ensure the sites' long-term future. Preservation doesn't come cheap. We must learn how to generate funds from sites so that a funding base and a degree of independence can be developed.
You began implementing this ambitious plan in 1993. What are some of your biggest challenges?
First, managing a multidisciplinary project where so many government and private agencies are involved and, second, balancing these many interests so that the project stays on track. Each participating agency, whether public or private, foreign or local, has its own problems, time frames, and financial realities. We have to merge these many priorities into one project.
How are you doing this?
We have set up an independent, international group of specialists to monitor the project's development, guide its direction, and provide the technical and professional oversight necessary to satisfy our national and foreign partners.
What is your projected year of completion, and when can our readers expect to experience firsthand the results of your extraordinary efforts?
The project execution period is five years, and we expect it to be completed by 1998. Some additional period may be required for carrying out afforestation work. By 1996 we may have pollution-free electric vehicles in the "no-development zones" around the caves and may have completed most of the conservation work.