Ajanta: A Journey Into the Religio-Aesthetic Kingdom of Buddhist Art

Article of the Month - Aug 2006

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet.

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Ajanta: The Sunny Pleasure Dome with the Caves of Ice

In his poem 'Kubla Khan' the nineteenth century English poet S. T. Coleridge writes: "It is a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure dome with its caves of ice". Coleridge is not known to have ever seen Ajanta but in his words reverberates the same mystique as one experiences when visiting Ajanta, where he is in life's - 'sunny pleasure dome', as also beyond it, beyond life's turmoil, in the divine quiescence, the 'caves of ice'. At Ajanta, life is in absolute suspension, but at the same time its entire surface - widths, lengths, depths and heights, vibrates with life. Ajanta is a divine experience as also the aesthetic, a poem that riding the wings of rhythm moves from its place and a picture that melts into an unsung-unheard melody; and far more, the life that seeks to renounce and the renunciation that seeks its accomplishment in life, a thing still and as much moving, an entity that has an equal amount of this world and its mundaneness and the transworld and its spiritualism, a composition, still and quiescent, but within which continues the dialogue and the visitor hears it loud .…. Beyond barriers, this composition consists of diverse worlds, and so extends the dialogue from one world to other, from the realm of animals to that of man and to cross-sections of animals - from monkeys to buffaloes and the like. Metaphysical speculations are not Ajanta's theme or thrust. It is instead the warmth of flesh, mesmerism of body, a zeal for life, its transformation into a timeless module of the life-beyond-life that truly defines Ajanta's sectarian, or rather spiritual art.

Lady from the Ajanta Caves

The Ajanta artist, when he emerged on this plateau, had in his hands, chisel and hammer and brush and colours, in his mind, scriptures of Buddhism, and in the heart, faith, but as strongly prevailed upon him the love for life. Hence, when he sculpted rock's hard surface or painted it, the melody of life burst from under its hardness as also from beneath its colours and infused into what illustrated scriptures the element of life imparting to faith a benign humanistic face and emotional demeanour. Mahayanism, which subsequently grew as a far more liberal variation of the Buddha's Middle Path, allowed unending scope to man's fertile inventiveness and inbreeding of imagery. Hence, though the decorative motifs other than those evolved in the proper Buddhist tradition were later deleted or substituted by strict Buddhist imagery - images of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Buddhist deities and devotees, this imagery by itself swelled with greater life vigour and at times was closer to flesh rather than spirit. Now each painting or image that emerged on Ajanta's walls or facades was the artist's prayer and each colour, line and stroke of brush or chisel, expression of his faith, but they all spoke in simultaneity also the language of senses.

Ajanta Murals: Archaeological Survey of India

This synthesis of spiritual and sensuous reveals in every inch of Ajanta's space but with unique thrust in paintings illustrating various Jatakas. Having heard the wise, the Mithila king Mahajanaka announces his decision to renounce the world. His satisfaction is absolute but not of his queen Sivali and the least of her maids and the pain reflects upon the faces of them all. Sivali attempts at distracting Mahajanaka from renouncing the world.

Renunciation and love for life stream thus side by side in the art of Ajanta. Later, the ascetic Mahajanaka comes to Mithila's palace with his begging bowl. Again the sensuous anatomy and swelling breasts of maids rushing to him with offerings speak more the language of senses rather than asceticism or transcendentalism. Even the figure of the monk Mahajanaka has been modelled much on sensuous lines.

Inspired by the Buddha, his cousin Nanda gets converted to his path. Unable to bear the shock his wife Janapadakalyani swoons. Nanda, now a shaven-headed monk in monastery, too, is unable to forget her fully. Her paramount beauty often haunts his mind. Later, Nanda comes begging to her palace. When informed of his arrival, the mind of Janapadakalyani, whose love for him is yet the same as before, turns to exploring the possibilities of bringing him back into her life.

Ajanta Paintings (Unidentified and Misinterpreted)

These and hundreds of other episodes denote that flesh and spirit, mundane and transcendental, the world and the transworld, renunciation and love for life are inseparably entwined in the art of Ajanta and this gives to this Buddhist art its unique religio-aesthetic character. Subsidiary imagery - a devotee figure, maid, attendant, 'gandharva' couple, an animal, or whatever, seems to have been conceived to add to this ascetic world of Ajanta further element of life. Here enter from behind the walls, columns and from all spaces, people and people, more and still more, and cluster together but without intruding upon each other's movement. This reverence for life and freedom of each individual defines Ajanta's perception of the mutuality of the life and the translife.

The Caves: Location

The Caves of Ajanta that house this unique religio-aesthetic Buddhist art - paintings and sculptures, are located in the midst of a lonely glen with the streamlet Waghora flowing down cutting it in front into a horse-shoe form and then emerging finally into an open valley. These Caves, thirty in number, a few of which are unfinished or are minor subsidiary structures, are excavated in the semi-circular horse-shoe shaped scarp of a steep rock, some 250 ft. high, overlooking the sinuous gorge through which the streamlet flows. Now a well-cast flight of stairs takes the visitor to the scarp housing these caves.

Geoscientific Studies For Conservation Of Ellora Caves

As regards the present day geography, Ajanta is in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, 104 kilometers away from it, and 60 kilometers from Jalagaon, the nearest Rail-point. In ancient days, when these caves were excavated, Ajanta fell on the old arterial trade route which connected north, through Ujjain and Mahishmati, with Pratishthana in Dakshinapath, and further with ports on the south-eastern coast through Tagara, now known as Ter, Kondapur, Amaravati, the ancient Dhanyakataka, and the like. Pratishthana, now known as Paithan, was then the capital of the early Satavahanas, the rulers of Dakshinapath, now known as Deccan, and the patrons of the Ajanta Caves of the early phase.

Period of Ajanta Caves

The period during which Ajanta Caves were excavated stretches over eight-nine hundred years from the third-second century B. C. to fifth-sixth century A. D. As regards excavation work, these Caves reveal two distinct phases, the early and the late. Six of the Caves, namely, Caves numbering 9, 10, 8, 12, 13, and 15-A, belong to the early period. Caves 9 and 10, with elements of early Shunga art, appear to have been excavated during the second half of the third or the first half of the second century B. C., while the other four, during the first century B. C. Cave 10 is, however, the earliest. It precedes even the Cave 9 by at least fifty years.

Geoscientific Studies for The Conservation of Ajanta Caves

It was the period when Dakshinapath was ruled by Satavahana dynasty and Buddhism pursued Hinayana doctrine, which initially prohibited making of Buddha's anthropomorphic images and their worship. Cave 9 and 10, the Chaitya-grahas - homes of the Sacred, broadly prayer-halls, do not have Buddha's anthropomorphic images, though on the façade of Cave No. 9 such images were subsequently added. Around the first century B. C. Hinayana allowed making of Buddha's personal images. This shift from non-image to image characterises other Caves of this early phase. This phase is, hence, known as the Hinayana-Satavahana phase.

Caves numbering 1, 2, 4, 7, 11, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20 to 24, 26 and 29 belong to the later phase, broadly the period from the fifth to the sixth century A. D. It was a period when Buddhism had largely shifted to Mahayana doctrine and the region was ruled by Vakatakas who were also the patrons of these Caves. This phase is, hence, usually known as Mahayana-Vakataka phase. As suggest epigraphic records, Caves No. 16 and 17 were commissioned by Vakataka ruler Harishena (475-500 A. D.) through one of his ministers Varahadeva posted at the site for supervising the progress and a subordinate vassal of the area respectively. Ajanta was the centre of the monastic and religious activities since the second-first century B. C. itself and embellishing facades and wall spaces with paintings and sculptures continued all through, but excavation of caves seems to have remained suspended till it re-commenced with the excavation of Caves 16 and 17. Both, Satavahanas and Vakatakas, were followers of Brahmanism in their personal lives, but despite that, they not only generated a liberal climate where all religions could grow and a tolerant mind which had equal reverence for them all but also patronised their shrines, Buddhism being the main. India has approximately 1200 rock-cut cave temples of which as many as 800 are located in her western part, obviously, born of the liberal climate and tolerant mind of which these early ruling dynasties set  examples.

Cave Temples of Ajanta and Ellora

Except a mention of a rock-cut monastery as the abode of the Buddhist monk Achala and the mountain range where it was located, the monastery being for certain Cave No. 26 and Ajanta ridge, the mountain range, in the travel account of the known Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang, who visited India in the seventh century A. D. and stayed here for fifteen years, nothing of Ajanta was known before 1819 when some British officers of the Madras Army made a chance discovery of this magnificent site. They named it Ajanta after the name of the nearest village. The things, however, did not move any farther. After a gap of twenty-five years, James Fergusson presented a paper at the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1843. This ever first scholarly study of the site drew global attention. Now Madras Army deputed its officer R. Gill to prepare copies of Ajanta murals. He worked from 1849 to 1855 and prepared 30 paintings, but unfortunately they were destroyed in a fire in 1866. Now efforts to discover Ajanta progressed into two directions, one preparing copies of murals, and other, researching its other aspects. Mr Griffiths, the Superintendent and Principal of Sir Jamshedji Jijibhai School of Art, Bombay, was deputed to prepare copies of murals, who with a team of his students, was at Ajanta from 1872 to 1885 and prepared copies of its murals, but again the misfortune prevailed and most of them were destroyed in a fire. Finally, Lady Haringham and a team of artists comprising Syed Ahmad and Mohammad Fazlud-din of Hyderabad and Nand Lal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar and Samarendranath Gupta of the Calcutta School camped at Ajanta from 1910 to 1912 and copied its murals. It was, however, in 1956-57 that A.S.I. took up a project and under it authentic copies of these murals were prepared.

The Cave Temples Of India

On the other hand, James Fergusson and James Burgess of Archaeological Survey of India, began in around 1895 a systematic study of Ajanta's art and were able to identify some of the themes and Jatakas illustrated there. In the course of time Ajanta unfolded itself - its theme, mystique and unique aestheticism, and now its magnificence is globally known.

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  • i wanna see indian dress in visical dictonary
    tika October 23, 2012
  • I all so carry some wisdom from my own past lives , there are some things in your article I agree with. girls and the young were kept in caves.the Men were out hunting to kept their women alive .When we can back we use to dance around the fire. The women were chiefs, political leader and keepers of the Dream..this was cause by the passing of a man.or many men. I all so love people, but don't be fool by self. The circle is only in your mind.
    warwick August 08, 2008
  • This is my first feedback on your newsletter. I thank you very much for the amount of work you put into it. It has given me lots of knowledge and inspiration for my spiritual path. Keep up the good work.
    Vishnu Essoo August 20, 2006
  • All caves in India were pre-buddhism and pre-dates buddhism itself... when we go back before 3,000 bc back to 300,000 bc, even before the light records, we all honored the great Goddess Caves. These were limited to women who were guardians of both community and our relationship to nature which is a reflection of woman in relationship to her body. These caves where the holy women and women chiefs political leadership as keepers of the Dream, keeping earth in balance through incarnations. The caves not only of primordial India but the world over. I carry the wisdom from my own karma and my own past lives. I appeared to myself from in my Past form, who was named Chenna of Arjuna in a day vision in 1998 where my past self from 300,000 physically manifested before my present self. This past me sat down with me and shared the secrets of what women used the caves for and the distinct healing and dreaming teachings and why amulets of womans bodies were made. It was a 'waking' dream; no visioning, no sleeping dreaming. Of course this changed instantly the direction of my life into healing myself and reclaiming my gifts of even before my Chenna life into the Primoridal Shamanic Grandmothers realms. I love the Buddhists, but don't let them fool you, they only carried herstory into the present and for that we should all be grateful. All teachings at the core are from woman's enlightenment. Men were sacred, as they still are, but did not own power of leadership for the fears woman held that if man gained too much power over their domain, they would depleting the 'mother' earths resources and the killing of her children in war. Man has manifested this now without Woman to his own self destruction. All is blessed though and everything is perfect, the circle is now returning to its own point or tick mark on the wheel to return us to the garden, where women respect their own bodies and are responsible for them, where woman see's beauty through her own eyes and is responsible for such beauty and treats men with respect, those who respect the earth, woman and children. http://www.LilithSophia.com
    Mary August 19, 2006
  • Of Ajanta was beautiful and very informative, I always enjoy all of your news. I myself am a native of Europe small Country of LUXEMBOURG, with a lot of History, but your Indian History is far more knowledgeable and so very interesting to me.Thank you very much.
    Catherine August 18, 2006