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

Article of the Month - August 2006
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Classification and Architecture of Ajanta Caves

In adherence to over-all Buddhist perception, the architecture of Ajanta Caves is divisible into two classes : the 'chaitya-griha' - prayer-hall, and 'sangharamas' or 'viharas'- abodes for monks. Five of the thirty caves, namely, Caves Nos. 9, 10, 19, 26 and 29 are 'chaitya-grihas' and seventeen, namely, Caves Nos. 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 15, 15-A, 16, 17 and 20 to 24, 'sangharamas' or 'viharas'. The rest eight caves are incomplete or nondescript or are ancillary to the adjacent larger Caves. In Buddhism, 'chaitya' was initially a comprehensive term that denoted any sacred object and the structure that housed it, the 'chaitya-griha', but later the 'chaitya-griha', more often called only 'chaitya', began denoting the prayer-hall with the image of the Buddha installed in it. A 'chaitya' or 'chaitya-griha' usually had an apsidal plan consisting of a central nave, an apse, something like the receding end of the nave for the sacred object - 'chaitya', sometimes separated from the central hall formally and sometimes not, and side-aisles marked out from each other by a row of pillars. Caves 9, 10, 19 and 26 follow this apsidal plan in its exactness, though the Cave 29, a partially unfinished one, has a somewhat rectangular plan. Both the early Caves, as well as the late, have 'stupas' installed towards the remote apsidal ends of their naves but in contrast to the early Caves, Nos. 9 and 10, the 'stupas' in the later Caves are largely show-pieces subordinated by the dominating presence of the Buddha-figures carved on them. The stupas installed in the apses of Caves No. 9 and 10 are without the figures of Buddha. The Buddha figure on the façade of Cave 9 is a subsequent addition. Other Caves of this early phase, namely, Caves No. 8, 12, 13 and 15-A, have Buddha figures carved on the votive stupa as well on other spaces but they are not so elaborately ornamented or marked by a profusion of the Buddha-figures as are the 'chaityas' of the later phase. Similarly, facades of these 'chaityas' do not follow a uniform pattern, but in the form of a huge ribbed horseshoe-shaped window, known as 'chaitya' window, over the doorway, they have a common and perhaps the most dominating feature. In India's subsequent architecture this 'chaitya'-window motif has been widely used as a decorative design an outstanding example of which may be seen in the sixth century brick temple at Sirpur in Chhattisgarh and in the seventh century Brahmanical group of temples at Bateshvara near Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh.

The interior of chaitya 19. Set at the centre of the apse, the stupa enshrines an image of Buddha standing under a torana of monumental door. Architectural elements including ribbing in imitation of roof timbers can be seen at the top.
The interior of chaitya 19. Set at the centre of the apse, the stupa enshrines an image of Buddha standing under a torana of monumental door. Architectural elements including ribbing in imitation of roof timbers can be seen at the top.

The plan of the 'sangharamas' is more consistent. A 'sangharama' consists of an astylar central hall for congregation close to the back-wall of which is the space for the 'chaitya', the sacred presence - a stupa or the image of the Master. On sides, may be two but also three, are excavated a range of cells, which served as the living apartments for monks. Cave 4 is the largest 'sangharama' at Ajanta. It consists of a verandah supported on eight octagonal pillars. The square central hall, with a main entrance in the centre and two side doors and wide windows in between, is supported on twenty-eight massive pillars. Like several others, Cave 4, both its interior and exterior façade, was also elaborately painted, though now only its traces remain. It has, finished and semi-finished, cells on three sides. Cave 6 is a double storey structure, an example of well-evolved cave architecture widely followed in several subsequent cave temples in India and beyond. Both, 'chaityas' and 'sangharamas', have a well-defined spacious interior and an exterior façade, both adorned with pilasters, windows, niches, brackets-type architectural motifs and sculptures. Some of the Caves extend to over a hundred feet in length and width, which denote their massive size and constant devotion of the hands and minds working on them. Roofs, both in 'chaityas' and 'sangharamas', are invariably vaulted carved with deep ribs designed to double, redouble and magnify many more times the sound of 'mantras'- hymns, recited by monks during congregation.

Ajanta Sculptures

Paying homage to the seated Buddha, who is seen in the teaching posture. The details of the garments with their flowing forms are skilfully delineated, reminiscent of Gandhara Art.
Paying homage to the seated Buddha, who is seen in the teaching posture. The details of the garments with their flowing forms are skilfully delineated, reminiscent of Gandhara Art.

Sculptural art in India had discovered its form, style and dimensions before the excavation of caves at Ajanta was begun, and much before Ajanta adorned its façades and wall spaces with sculptures. Not the steatite statuettes or the terracotta figurines of Indus, even the proper stone statues, the votive figures of yaksha and yakshi, as also stone reliefs of which Bharhut, Sanchi, Amaravati and other monumental sites in the subcontinent presented magnificent examples, preceded the earliest of the Ajanta Caves by over two centuries. In these early caves Ajanta had sculptures but it was in the caves of its later phase that they had a more pronounced presence and significant role. With various art traditions and styles - Shunga, Kushana, Gandhara, and such as evolved at Mathura, Sarnath, Nagarjunakonda and various other centres and with champions like Gupta rulers in the north and Vakatakas in the southern part patronising it, sculptural art had touched by now its most glorious heights. Obviously, Ajanta discovered its models and stylistic maturity in these art traditions.


The famous Parinirvana scene which occupies most of the length of Cave 26. Here, in the Final Renunciation, the Buddha leaves his mortal body to achieve divine bliss.
The famous Parinirvana scene which occupies most of the length of Cave 26. Here, in the Final Renunciation, the Buddha leaves his mortal body to achieve divine bliss.

Ajanta sculptures reveal a conscious attempt at capturing the grace, sublimity and spirituality of Sarnath figures, narrative thrust and minuteness of details of Bharhut, Sanchi and Amaravati, robust stature of Kushana figures, fineness of drapery of the Gandhara images, gestures of Nagarjunakonda icons and emotional demeanour, sensuous modelling and finer sensitivity of Gupta sculptures but despite such refined models before them these sculptures hardly impart such collective impact and one apparent reason appears to be their tendency of being ponderous and heavy. The Buddha figure in the Cave 26, representing his 'Mahaparinirvana', does not generate in the viewing mind, not committed to the Buddhism, the feeling which it is expected to generate, and again its bulk is perhaps the reason.

Among the sculpted figures that decorate the capitals of columns in the hall are musicians playing stringed instruments. Here, the instrument is similar in form to a mandolin. Such figures provide us with many valuable insights into the everyday activities of contemporary society.
Among the sculpted figures that decorate the capitals of columns in the hall are musicians playing stringed instruments. Here, the instrument is similar in form to a mandolin. Such figures provide us with many valuable insights into the everyday activities of contemporary society.



It is perhaps because Ajanta artisans were primarily the cave excavators and architects, not pure sculptors. To them, sculpting a figure was incidental to excavating a cave. Moreover, each Cave had a donor patron and such donor had his own taste, team of artisans and preference of what he exactly wanted to create, as also the limit of his funds and means. Deep or shallow, Ajanta sculptures are mostly reliefs.




Subjects That Ajanta Sculptures Portray

The Temptation of Buddha by Mara
The Temptation of Buddha by Mara

Representation of Buddha, an essentiality of both, 'chaitya-griha' and 'vihara', is the foremost theme of Ajanta sculptures. They represent all significant events of his life, from his birth to 'Mahaparinirvana', to include Great Departure, Great Penance, facing Mara and his tempting daughters and invoking Mother Earth as witness to his act of overcoming them, attainment of Enlightenment, setting the Wheel of Law in motion, visit to Thirty-three Heavens and the like, and his different postures - traveling and teaching, imparting 'Abhaya', seated, fasting, etceteras. The Mahayana variation of Buddhism promoted polytheism in Buddhism and with it the cult of worshipping Bodhisattvas emerged with an irresistible appeal. Endowed with humanistic qualities and spirit of self sacrifice, Bodhisattvas comprised more popular theme of Ajanta sculptures. The figures of Bodhisattvas who were subsidiary attendant figures in early sculptures were now in subsequent ones independent entities and objects of worship.

Hariti with a Child in Her Lap.
Hariti with a Child in Her Lap.




Of the other themes that figure in Ajanta sculptures the Nagas and Yakshas are more prominent. Nagas, the mythical kings of waters, and Yakshas, the rulers of Four Quarters and with a hoary antiquity preceding both Buddhism and Jainism and also their arts, figure in various sculptures at Ajanta, though instead of being worshipped their tales are woven around Buddha in the form of Jatakas. As much significant is the presence of the child-eating evil spirited-goddess Hariti with a child, or more, in her lap. As the Buddhist tradition has it, Hariti was converted by the Buddha from the child eating evil spirit to a child protecting goddess.





 Under the row of Manusi Buddhas (or human Buddhas of past ages), the artist has portrayed mithuna or amorous couples with a certain verve and an infinite grace.
Under the row of Manusi Buddhas (or human Buddhas of past ages), the artist has portrayed mithuna or amorous couples with a certain verve and an infinite grace.


Amongst other celestial beings that are the subjects of Ajanta sculptures yakshas, yakshis, kinnaras, gandharvas and their female counterparts and vidyadharas are more significant. The river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna with their vahanas - vehicles, makara and kurma - crocodile and tortoise respectively, also figure in Ajanta sculptures. Mithunas - the youthful couples in amorous postures, and vrikshikas - graceful maidens standing under trees, humane or celestial, are also the subject of some sculptures carved over less significant spaces. Besides, Ajanta has a fascinating variety of decorative sculptures comprising various animals - jubilant elephants, fighting buffaloes, swans sporting in lotus pools, crocodiles and the mythical kirttamukhas, besides various plants and floral motifs.




Most magnificent and glaring aspect of Ajanta is its mural art, which endowed with poetic imagination, unique lyricism and great aesthetic quality, arrived at by accumulated skill of ages, has been the fountain-head of the entire painting tradition in India including the art of Mughals, and the major inspiration of the art of mural painting in Ceylon, Baniyan in Afghanistan, Khotan and Miran including Tun-huang and Turfan in Central Asia falling along the ancient silk route, Tibet, Bhutan and China in their cave paintings and beyond. Not only that the tempera technique of Ajanta murals has been for centuries now the ideal technique of mural painting all over, but a kind of Ajantaism is seen revealing in several new forms, different spheres, not painting alone, and remote climes. It is in the scheme and grandeur of its paintings that this Ajantaism is manifested.

Cave 6: The only example of a double-storeyed cave at Ajanta. On each floor the walls of the antechamber to the main shrine are elaborately carved with sculptures, some of which retain traces of the original paint.
Cave 6: The only example of a double-storeyed cave at Ajanta. On each floor the walls of the antechamber to the main shrine are elaborately carved with sculptures, some of which retain traces of the original paint.




If the Ajantaism to be fully appreciated, Ajanta needs to be looked beyond what survives. Then one discovers painted sculptures and sculpted paintings, that is, sculptures would appear discovering their form in the paintings and the paintings also doing what the sculpted spaces did. The painting was thus Ajanta's prime thrust and perhaps the most essential condition of being, as when the non-violent mind struck the stone - the dead, with nothing more than a chisel and hammer and one after the other solid states began melting giving spaces for dwellings and prayer-halls but not without huge vacuums emerging along with, painting was the means to fight it out and to let it vibrate with the pulse of life. The excavator, tired of striking the stone - dead, could not perhaps think of discovering life in it, in its uncompromising hardness, but rather he saw it in the softness of colours and instead of the strokes of chisel and hammer in the strokes of brush. Hence, after he had excavated his spaces he handed them over to the painter to let him vibrate them with life and love - the life of the Master and love of the commoners. It is not difficult to see that initially paintings defined all wall spaces, ceilings, facades, columns, other architectural members and even sculptures.




In the Caves of the later phase sculptures attempted at substituting paintings but in spirit they only pursued their iconography, models and thematic thrust. With the passage of time most of these murals, except what survives in Caves No. 1, 2, 16 and 17 and some fragments here and there, have now vanished but even from behind the patches their grandeur peeps. Every bit of these paintings, whether it is a decorative motif embellishing a subsidiary space, portrayal of likeness or a narrative running into a long chain of scenes and episodes, is the result of masterly stroke of brush and the outcome of an ages long tradition of painting skills and aesthetic perception. The Ajanta artist has apparently portrayed broad generalisations but out of them reveal surprising details of individuals, costumes, jewellery and other things, and they are made to define also the status of various individuals. The principal group of these paintings - the pride of the place and the entire art world, comprises the narratives illustrating the Jatakas - the stories of the Buddha's previous births, and incidents of his life in the present birth as Siddhartha, Gautama or Sakyamuni. The Ajanta painter has used just six pigments but has created out of them the vocabulary of the entire colour range, each speaking its own language and at the same time giving meaning to others.

References and Further Reading:

  • Behl, Benoy K. The Ajanta Caves – Ancient Paintings of Buddhist India: London, 1998.

  • Burgess, James and James Fergusson: The Cave Temples of India: New Delhi, 2000.

  • Ghosh, A. Ajanta Murals – An Album of Eighty-Five Reproductions in Colour: New Delhi, 1996.

  • Mitra, Debala. Ajanta: New Delhi, 2003.

  • Nou, Jean-Louis and Amina Okada. Ajanta: New Delhi, 1995.

  • Pant, Pushpesh. Ajanta and Ellora: New Delhi.

  • Schlingloff, Dieter. Guide to the Ajanta Paintings (Vol. 1. Narrative Wall Paintings): New Delhi, 1999.

  • Schlingloff, Dieter. Guide to the Ajanta Paintings (Vol. 2. Devotional and Ornamental Paintings): New Delhi, 2003.

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  • i wanna see indian dress in visical dictonary
    by tika on 23rd Oct 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.
    by warwick on 8th Aug 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.
    by Vishnu Essoo on 20th Aug 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.
    by Mary on 19th Aug 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.
    by Catherine on 18th Aug 2006
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