Ajanta is located in Aurangabad District of Maharashtra State and the caves are excavated in the face of an almost perpendicular scrap of rock, about 250 ft. high, sweeping round in a complete semi-circle or horseshoe shape, and forming the north or outer side of a wild secluded ravine down which comes a small stream. Above the caves the valley terminates abruptly in a waterfall of 7 leaps known as the satkund.
As the Deccan forest claimed and shielded the caves, with roots and shoots choking the sculptures, Ajanta remained deserted for about a millennium, unknown for more than a thousand 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. Until 1819 when a British hunting party led by officer John Smith stumbled upon it purely by chance.
In 1843, after a gap of 25 years, James Fergusson presented a paper to the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland and drew global attention to the site. The Madras Army deputed its officer R. Gill to prepare copies of the Ajanta murals. Gill worked from 1849 to 1855 and prepared 30 paintings, but unfortunately they were destroyed in a fire in 1866 and since 1983, the Ajanta Caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The paintings in the caves were exposed to very serious damage, and a substantial section of them was lost forever as areas of the plaster fell from the walls. Yet, it is important to note that they the only surviving example of paintings of the first century BCE. During the Gupta period (5th-6th centuries CE), many more richly decorated caves were added to the original group that presents architecture, sculpture and painting – the three expressions of fine arts, all articulated in place.
During the early period, Buddhism pursued the Hinayana doctrine, which prohibited the worship of anthropomorphic images of Buddha. In the later phase from the fifth to the sixth century C.E. Buddhism had largely shifted to Mahayana doctrine. However, none of the caves in this phase were ever fully completed.
The paintings and sculptures in the caves of Ajanta, inspired by Buddhism and its compassionate ethos, unleashed a surge of artistic excellence unmatched in human history. These Buddhist caves are ornately carved, yet seem quiet and meditative and exude a divine energy and power. Among the most interesting paintings are the Jataka tales, illustrating diverse stories relating to the previous incarnations of the Buddha as Bodhisattava, a saintly being who is destined to become the Buddha. While, 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.
The caves are secluded, yet not completely isolated as the monks had to maintain a distance from worldly life as well as be close enough for their daily rounds of begging alms.
Most of the 5th century caves here were planned together and there was a standard floor plan and a very basic and simple decorative and iconographic scheme. There were little creative facets. In fact, the pace of development was also orchestrated.
Facades of the prayer halls are replete with sculpture, wall face of the interior and residential quarters of monks are painted with scenes from the life of Buddha. Its pillars, architraves and ceilings replicate human and animal figures, auspicious motifs, creepers and flowers, freehand and geometric designs. Even the main object of worship, carved out of rock, was painted.
Material evidence from Ajanta, in the form of images, motifs, and narrative sculptures and paintings, is very important in reconstructing the transition of Buddhism from Hinayana to Mahayana. The ideal image of the enthroned Buddha with two attendant bodhisattvas, the development in the iconography of bodhisattvas, development in the iconography of bodhisattvas like Padmapani,Vajrapani and Maitreya, and so called Shravasti Miracle of the Buddha help us to understand this tradition.
The Viharas which means the residence of monks are of various sizes, often square-shaped. Their designs are varied; some have simple and some have ornate facades, some have a porch and others do not. The early Viharas were not intended to have shrines because they were meant to be used solely as halls of residence and congregation. Later, a shrine, set in the back wall of the Vihara became a norm. The shrines were fashioned to house a central object of reverence, often the image of the Buddha seated in the dharmachakrapravartana mudra. In the more recent caves, subsidiary shrines were added on the side walls, porch or the front-court. The facades were sometimes decorated with carvings, and walls and ceilings were often covered with paintings.
The chaitya comprised a congregational hall with a vaulted ceiling, with an apsidal end gajaprishtakriti containing a stupa cut out of the rock. This hall was divided by a row of pillars going round the hall into a central hall and two side aisles. The side aisles and apsidal were meant for processions and circumambulation of the stupa and the nave was used for congregational service. The chaitya ceilings show a great resemblance to wooden forms. With time the Chaityas evolved and lost the solemnity and serenity of the early chaityas. These appear decorated and ornamented extravagantly. Most caves began having pillars with decorated shafts with cushion capitals and massive bracket.
The Vihara-chaitya caves consist of a pillared veranda, a pillared hall and cells along the walls. The back wall has the main Buddha shrine. Shrine images at Ajanta are grand in size.
Stupas, which are a funeral mounds became a symbol of nibbana or illumination and signified the Buddhas presence as well. Most stupas contain relics of Buddhist monks or saints. Some contain alms bowls, others manuscripts or holy writings. Some commemorate spots and events of religious significance.
Some paintings in Ajanta still retain the original splendor. These frescos have immortalized the gospel and legend of lord Buddha. But Most cave paintings have been damaged so much due to the withering, fading, blurring and degradation that it is practically impossible to decipher what the artists wanted to convey through their brushes. The painting that once covered walls from the ceiling to the floor now remain only the middle portion. These paintings showed remarkable affinities to classical Greek art pointing towards a Greco-Indian culture.
The frescos were classical paintings made on dry plaster surface. The technique and process used to create the Ajanta cave paintings are unique within the history of South Asian art. It involved several stages. First, the uneven rock is smoothly chiseled, then a mixture of hard porous rock, vegetable fibers, paddy husk, grass and other fibrous material or organic origin and cow dung is spread evenly on the surface. The thickness of the mixture was often three to twenty millimeters. The first coat which often tended to be uneven was rectified by a second coat of mud, fine rock powder or sand and fine fibrous material. While the plaster was still wet, the drawings were outlined and the color was applied. Over this was laid a coat of pure white lime. The wet plaster had the capacity to soak up the color so that the color became a part of the surface and would not peel off or decay easily. Contours were reinforced, usually in black or brown. Pallet was limited and colors were obtained from the natural resources of the Indian countryside. White from kaolin, lime and gypsum, Green from glanconite, Blue from lapis lazuli, other colors from locally available residual products of volcanic rocks. Colors were mixed using powerful Indian vegetable gums containing a proportion of drying oil like neem.
Lines are clearly defined and are very rhythmic. Body color gets merged with the outer line creating the effect of volume. The figures are heavy like the sculptures of western India and it may also be observed that various skin colors are used in the paintings such as brown, yellowish brown, greenish, yellow ochre, etc., which represent a multicolored population. Movements in the figures are very rhythmic. Lines are forceful and full of energy. Attempts are also made to give highlights in the figural compositions. The figures are broad with heavy proportion and arranged in the picture space in a linear way. Figures in these caves are painted with considerable naturalism and there is no over-stylization. Events are grouped together according to geographical location. Separation of geographic location has been indicated by using outward architectural bands. Half-closed, elongated eyes are employed. Different guilds of artisans seem to have worked on the paintings of these caves which can be inferred from their typological and stylistic variations. Naturalistic postures and unexaggerated facial features are used as exceptional types.
Shading was used often to create the impression of roundness and relief rather than to give the impression of light and shade. The Ajanta artists drew their design with a free and swift hand, giving bold strokes. The lines drawn aimed more at bold and rounded elasticity rather than calligraphic fineness.
The themes in the paintings include – Buddha, jatakas, devas, Avadanas, kinnaras (half human half bird), damsels, gandharvas, siddhas, vidyadharas, asuras, auspicious and decorative motifs (amorous couples, dryads, creepers, lotus creepers, lotuses, conches, garlands of flowers and precious stones, and griffins and geese) , motifs from everyday life (ceilings of monasteries – cockfight, a wealthy or royal couple being served liquor, jesters or go between lovers, and dwarfs as attendants), geometrical and other designs. Ajanta subjects of sculpture and paintings give quite a good glimpse of Buddhist mythology and contemporary economic, social, and religious life in India. Jataka stories envisage practically every walk of social life and charm everyone, young and old, rustic and urban.
The paintings depict a universe in which aristocratic men and women dwell in harmony with an abundant nature. The exuberance and richness of the painting suggests that the artists were accustomed to painting secular as well as religious works.
Cave 1, a Mahayana Vihara, was one of the last to be excavated and is the most beautifully decorated. A verandah in front leads to a large congregation hall housing sculptures and narrative murals known for their splendid perspective and elaborate detailing of dress, daily life and facial expressions.
A shrine carved on the rear wall houses an impressive seated image of the Buddha, his hands in the dharmachakrapravartana mudra. There are four cells on each of the left, rear, and the right walls. The walls are covered with paintings in a fair state of preservation, depicting mostly didactic, devotional, and ornamental scenes from the Jataka stories, the life of the Gautam Buddha, and those of his veneration notable among them are Padmapani and Vajrapani, Sibi Jataka, Samkhapala Jataka, Mahajanaka Jataka, Mahaummagga Jataka, Champeyya Jataka and so on. The cave also shows three of the four famous sights seen by prince Siddhartha which acquainted him with the painful side of human life: disease, old age and death. After seeing a recluse who did not show any sign of these shortcomings, the prince decided to renounce the world, to escape the vicious circle of birth and rebirth.
Cave 2 is a late Mahayana Vihara that resembles Cave 1 with deliriously ornamented columns and capitals and some fine paintings. The ceiling is decorated with geometric and floral patterns. The murals depict scenes from the Jataka tales like Vidhurapandita & Ruru Jatakas and Maya’s dream of a six-tusked elephant, which heralded his conception. The capitals are carved and painted with various decorative themes that include ornamental, human, animal, vegetative and semi-divine forms.
Cave 3 is an incomplete Vihara consisting only of a pillared verandah. It is situated at a higher level and is approached through a modern flight of steps in between caves 2 and 4. It extends only up to the pillared verandah and a rough entrance to the hall which shows that the work here could have been in progress.
Cave 4 is the largest Vihara at Ajanta. Although never completed, the cave has some impressive sculptures, such as the four statues surrounding a huge central Buddha. There are also scenes of people fleeing from the ‘eight great dangers’ to the protection of Avalokitesvara.
In Cave 5, the work did not progress beyond the front verandah and the doorway to the hall. It gives a glimpse into the technique of scooping of such caves. i.e. As soon as a significant portion of the rock mass was given a rough shape like pillar, doorway and window, by one batch of workers, the team of sculptors started work immediately.
Cave 6 is the only two-storey Vihara at Ajanta, but parts of the lower storey have collapsed. Inside is a seated Buddha figure and an intricately carved door to the shrine. Upstairs the hall is surrounded by cells with fine paintings on the doorways.
This two storied structure is referred to as Cave 6 Lower and Cave 6 Upper. It is believed that the upper floor was an afterthought when the excavation of the lower level was well underway and in both the caves, Buddha is seen in various moods.
Cave 7 has an atypical design, with porches before the verandah leading directly to the four cells and the elaborately sculptured shrine. On either side of the entrance to the vestibule is the depiction of the shravasti miracle. Inside is the seated Buddha, flanked by boddhisattvas and on sidewalls by six other Buddhas.
Cave 8 was perhaps the earliest monastery, belonging to the Satvahana phase of excavation, this cave is located at the lowest level and a major portion from the front of the structure has been swept away by a landslide. Few architectural details survive but, importantly, the sanctum does not contain an image of Buddha.
Cave 9 was Excavated in the 1st century BCE. It is one of the oldest chaitya halls in Ajanta and the paintings here belong to two different eras – the first being at the time of excavation while a repainting of the cave interior was carried out in the later phase of activity, around the 5th century CE.
Only traces remain of the narrative paintings on the walls of the ambulatory passage but professor Schilingoff identified 5 narratives – Pandara, Mahagovinda, Shasha, Kunala and Udaya.
Cave 10 is thought to be the oldest cave (200 BC) and was the first one to be spotted by the British hunting party. It is similar in design to Cave 9 but has the largest chaitya. The façade has collapsed and the paintings inside have been damaged.
Having been repainted in the later phase the cave contains paintings from two different periods. The scenes depict worship of Bodhi tree and stories from Sama and Chhaddanta Jatakas. The surface reveals that it was in use together with cave 9 over the centuries, though perhaps not continuously.
The interior of the cave is decorated with paintings including decorative, devotional and narrative only a small number of which survive due to vagaries of nature and man. As it was the first cave to be discovered, visitors have scribbled their names and have done maximum damage here. In fact, the Pillar 13 is has John Smiths’s graffiti.
Cave 11 is a Vihara, supposed to be one of the early caves because of its proximity to cave 10, and some archaic features in its architecture and planning. The verandah gives a glimpse of the decorated ceiling with painted creepers, birds, animals and geometric designs. The back walls had the usual theme of divine bodhisattvas at the entrance. The windows on either side of the single entrance are unlike windows elsewhere. Inside there are many Buddha images of the intrusive phase.
Cave 12 is a Vihara Paleographically datable from the 2nd to 1st century BCE and Cave 13 is a rather small Vihara from the first phase. Cave 14 that was excavated above cave 13 is an unfinished Vihara. Though initially planned on a large scale it hardly progressed beyond the front half.
Cave 15 is a Vihara excavated around the middle of the 5th century CE and traces of painting can be noticed on the ceiling. The cave is presently used as a laboratory by the chemical branch of ASI making its condition rather tragic.
Cave 15A has a peculiar numbering due to the fact that this was hidden under the rubble when the caves were being counted. This is the smallest Vihara in Ajanta belonging to the early phase of excavation and it lies lower level than cave 15.
Cave 16, a Vihara, contains some of Ajanta’s finest paintings is thought to have been the original entrance to the entire complex. Narratives here include various Jataka stories such as Hasti, Maha Ummagga, Maha Sutasoma, miracle of Sravasti, dream of Maya and other incidents from the life of Buddha.
Cave 17 has Ajanta’s best-preserved and most varied paintings. Famous images include a princess applying make-up, a seductive prince using the old trick of plying his lover with wine, and the Buddha returning home from his enlightenment to beg from his wife and astonished son and the Jataka stories include Chhaddanta, Mahakapi, Hasti, Hamsa, Vessantara, Maha Sutasoma, Sarabha miga, Machchha, Mati Posaka, Sama, Mahisa, Valahass, Sibi, Ruru and Nigrodhamiga Jatakas.
Cave 18’s excavation was not very remarkable, is a rectangular hall of modest proportions, entered through two pillars and leaving to a cell. It was mistakenly counted as a cave and is in fact a porch with two pillars having molded bases and octagonal shafts.
Cave 19 is a magnificent chaitya with a remarkably detailed façade, outside which sits a striking image of the Naga king with seven cobra hoods around his head. His wife, hooded by a single cobra, sits by his side. The façade of this chaitya is splendidly decorated with various carved figures and decorative motifs and the aisle walls still preserve some very beautiful mural paintings. Interestingly, the courtyard outside is flanked by two side porches.
Cave 20 is a tiny residential unit consisting of a courtyard, pillar-fronted verandah, hall, vestibule, and sanctum. There are only six cells in all, two at the extremes of the front verandah and two each in the sides of the astylar hall.
Cave 21, is a Vihara consisting of a verandah with restored pillars, a hall with 12 pillars accompanied cells in equal numbers. Out of these 12 cells, four are supplied with pillared porches. Buddha in dharmachakrapravartanamudra is sculpted in the garbhagriha and traces of paintings on the wall show Buddha preaching a congregation.
Cave 22 is a small residential unit situated between caves 21 and 23 but at a slightly higher level. Painted on the wall are seven earlier Buddhas and maitreya. The label inscriptions identify the Buddhas and their trees. There are traces of the Shravasti miracle. The dedicatory inscription on the wall explains in eloquent terms the glorious fruits resulting from making paintings or stone images of Buddha.
Cave 23, 24 and 25 are unfinished. If completed cave 24 would have been the largest Vihara at Ajanta.
Cave 26 is a largely ruined chaitya that is dramatically lit and contains some fine sculptures. On the left wall is a huge figure of the reclining Buddha, lying back in preparation for nirvana. Other scenes include a lengthy depiction of the Buddha’s temptation by Maya. The cave must have been painted but these were replaced by sculpture. It is overladen with decoration and detail, which have marred its charm.
Cave 27 is virtually a Vihara connected to the cave 26 chaitya, though it is not accessible. Its upper storey partially collapsed while the lower storey consists of an inner hall with four cells, an antechamber and garbhagriha with an enshrined image of Buddha.
Cave 28 too is presently difficult to approach. It is incomplete and has only a pillar fronted verandah. While Cave 29, situated at a higher level, between caves 20 and 21, this cave can be approached only by climbing the hill from a different side.
Through the paintings and sculptures of the people inhabiting on the walls talk about the design and patterns seen on costumes. And a dress is a vital clue to the mood and taste of every society, their aesthetic temper, the art and skill to adjust to their social and geographical environment. A tangible flood of architectural details are also exposed. Musical instruments are disclosed in the dancing panels or processions and they can be easily identified as dhol, mridangam, flute, sahnai, horn shaped trumpet and conch shell among others. All of this can be inferred from the paintings on the walls of Ajanta.
Thus, after over a century and a half since comprehensive scholarly studies were first undertaken at Ajanta though much has been irreparably damaged, a few debatable and, in all possibility, misplaced inferences have been drawn, it is through the combined efforts of many artists, archaeologists, historians, conservationists, geologists and antiquarians that the caves of Ajanta with all its grandeur and compassionate attitude continue to enthrall many.
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