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The Timeless Art of Ajanta

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Item Code: NAP369
Publisher: Aryan Books International
Author: Sudha Satyawadi
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9788173054303
Pages: 362 (42 Color and Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.0 inch X 8.5 inch
Weight 1.30 kg
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Book Description
About the Book

Ajanta caves are well known for their creativeness and artistic excellence. Nowhere else at one place is shown such a grand display of the three disciplines-architecture, culpture and painting-in a highly mature and technically perfect state. In the realm of painting, they are unique. A single painting of Ajanta can communicate better than a thousand words. The paintings are a simple, visual representation of Buddhist ideals and sentiments. It has enthralled every art critic and set him to a desperate search for words in which to convey his impressions.

The period from 2nd century Be to the 4th century AD saw vigorous spread of influence of Buddhist faith in India. The arts of painting and sculpture were inspired and governed by common ideals of religion and culture of that time. The rich repertoire of the carved figures on railings, pillars, panels and cross-bars listed in texts are almost the same as on sculptures and cave temples of that time.

God is 'perfection', and whoever strives for perfection is striving for something divine. This has been displayed in Ajanta paintings. Ajanta came in with a new mode of art forms when new religious systems had grown up. Artists amalgamated all styles they had inherited from generations and produced paintings that were in the 'exclusive Ajanta style'. The guilds had centuries of experience behind them. As hereditary skills die hard in Indian artisan families, there is the undercurrent of continuity in the basic style of Ajanta art though some variations are perceived in details.

These have been illustrated in the about 1300 odd line drawings presented in the book. The volume has been divided into eight chapters on architecture, sculpture, paintings, decorative paintings on ceilings, symbols and motifs and an analytical treatment of motifs. There is also a full treatment of the numerous Jataka tales, visuals of which are present in the paintings. This book is an attempt to put into one volume, as much as possible, everything about the art of Ajanta. This has been achieved by studies in libraries, a stay at the location itself and many discussions with experts on the subject.

About the Author

Dr. Sudha Satyawadi is an artist and researcher working for the last thirty years on ancient Indian art forms. Arts motifs and symbols are her special interests. She is preparing a compendium of ancient art motifs: their origin and evolution and transfer of art forms from folk to classical art.

In the last ten years, exhibitions of her paintings have been held and lectures delivered on rural and folk art at New Delhi, Melbourne, Gaborone, Columbus (Ohio), Universities of Stanford, Berkeley, Louisiana, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Lucknow.

Dr. Satyawadi is placed on files of Division of Arts, UNESCO, Paris, as a specialist of intangible cultural heritage. She heads an NGO called Udayan Public Empowerment Trust created for encouraging the rural artists who work deep inside a village. She spends much time with them and is trying to preserve the dying arts. She has authored two books and published a number of articles on Indian art. Her books are on (i) Proto-Historic Pottery of the Indian Sub-continent (3000 Bc-1775 BC) and (ii) Wadi Paintings.


Ajanta caves are well known for their creativeness and artistic excellence. In the realm of painting, they are unique. When I first saw the paintings, I was overwhelmed with its beauty. A single picture of Ajanta can communicate better than a thousand words. The paintings are a simple, visual representation of Buddhist ideals and sentiments. It has enthralled every art critic and set him to a desperate search for words in which to convey his impressions.

The period from 2nd century BC to 5th century AD saw vigorous spread of influence of Buddhist faith in India. Most Jaina and Buddhist texts were written just before the Christian era in which mythical beliefs, motifs and symbols are mentioned. The arts of painting and sculpture were inspired and governed by common ideals of religion and culture of that time. Wood had been replaced by stone around 300 Be and ancient designs got place in Buddhist sculpture. The rich repertoire of the carved figures on railings, pillars, panels and cross-bars listed in Jaina texts are almost the same as on the stone railings and gateways of Bharhut and Sanchi, pointing to pre-existing wooden prototype.

The pictorial art in the caves extends probably from the 1st century Be to 6th-7th century AD. It started from Amravati period of art and passed through succeeding centuries of Indian art. Some elements of the Greco-Buddhist art, as also Iranian art, are recognizable. There are Iranian figures and also people of Chinese origin. Ajanta came in with a new mode of art forms when new religious systems had grown up. This book is my humble effort to present my admiration for Ajanta paintings through line drawings. These are spread over in eight chapters. The first chapter is an introduction to Ajanta. The caves were discovered by a British soldier in 1819. Since then, they have attracted art lovers, historians and archaeologists. At a quiet secluded spot, at the edge of the Deccan plateau and on the border of Khandesh, there are 30 rock-cut Buddhist temples and monasteries, forming a majestic amphitheatre. The technical excellence and extraordinary powers of artistic expression of the artists left behind in the chaityas and viharas of Ajanta a record of human endeavour that can only be described as a supreme inspiration of man. Paintings show the artist's intense love for nature and spiritual devotion. The second chapter deals with architecture and sculpture that are of the highest standard. Around 200 Be, the sculptures of Sanchi, Bharhut and Amravati became known. Since then, a continuous flow of art is seen in three directions, i.e., painting, sculpture and architecture in all parts of India. Ajanta, too, is a combination of three arts - architecture, sculpture and paintings. There are two categories of architecture at Ajanta: the cave itself and the architecture as shown in the paintings. The caves afford an excellent opportunity to trace the development of Buddhist cave architecture.

The third chapter deals with sculpture that possesses classical excellence. Elegance of the sculpture is overshadowed by the beauty of paintings. Yet, sculpture is important as it shows the development of plastic art in the Deccan. Sculptural beauty can be found in facades, doorjambs, pillars, porch and shrines with a variety of designs.

The fourth chapter is on paintings. They are on walls and ceilings of caves and are the real beauty of Ajanta. Half the caves, finished or unfinished, were once adorned with paintings. Most have now faded. Paintings fall into different periods, from 200 BC to AD 650. Paintings in Caves I, 2, 16 and 17 are a vivid record of the life of that period. Three themes are dominant in the paintings-(i) life of Gautama the Buddha, (ii) Jataka tales, and (iii) ceiling decoration.

Ajanta is better known for its extraordinary paintings on incarnations of the Buddha and Jataka stories.

The fifth chapter is on Jataka tales. Buddhists monks, in order to devise ways and means to popularize their religion, led to the weaving of a large number of Jataka tales and avadanas. These are presented in the form of paintings. The colourful display of murals especially attracted travellers and local population and thus helped in popularising the religion of the Buddha. The Jataka tales bring home to a devout the importance attached to acquisition of virtues (paramita) in one's life as was done by the Buddha in his earlier lives as Bodhisattva. The intention behind the depiction of Jataka narratives was to include the importance of virtuous living rather than a doctrinal aspect of Buddhism.

The sixth chapter brings in decorative paintings on ceilings, pillars and on doorjambs. Paintings on walls and ceilings are lavishly ornamented with richly carved columns in verandahs and halls. Decorative paintings open up a panorama of endless patterns, woven with flowers, plants, fruits, birds, beasts, human and semi-divine beings. Roundels with concentric bands of variegated colours and patterns round a central lotus with gandharva figure or couples at corners amidst clouds were a very common pattern of ceiling decoration.

The seventh chapter discusses auspicious symbols and motifs. Ajanta caves are full of designs and symbols in paintings and sculptures that cover the transitional phase from Hinayana to Mahayana Buddhism. Ancient motifs are closely connected with water cosmology and have given a religious touch to this art. One also finds yaksha, naga, vriksha, devata, apsaras and kinnaras, some of which were deeply rooted in ancient folk cults. Composite animals emerging from connections with West Asia proliferate considerably as also celestial beings floating in the air. Dwarfs are seen playing upon musical instruments, dancing, holding pillars, peeping from a chaitya window, holding garland and creepers and so on.

The eighth chapter is on a comparative study and development of some art motifs in ancient Indian art. Ajanta is dominated by art that emerged from a long traditional experience and technical skill practiced for thousands of years. The aniconic symbols in Ajanta art are not a Buddhist invention but represent an older tradition that survives till the present day. Decorative motifs in early Indian art are exceptionally rich in ancient traditions for many centuries in clay, wood, ivory, semi-precious stones, glass, textiles and metal The art of Ajanta was original in theme, content, colour, presentation and scheme. The artists were open to include sporadic elements from some neighbouring countries. I feel obliged to many experts for including some of the line drawings that I have taken from their publications. They include James Burgess, James Fergusson, Dieter Schling off and Monica Zin. The material taken from them has added weight to my book. I am really thankful to them. Through about 1300 line drawings, which are nearer to the paintings, I have tried to emphasize some details which are not clear there. The coloured photographs have been taken from published material, internet and my private collection.

To Prof. B.B. Lal, Padma Bhushan and former Director General, Archaeological Survey of India, I owe a deep sense of gratitude for his encouragement and guidance. I am indebted to Late Shri M.N. .Deshpande, former Director General, Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi, for his keen interest and encouragement in the production of this book. His in-depth knowledge of the subject was amazing. Some portions of the caves are not accessible to the public and researcher now. This drawback to my work was overcome through my meetings with him. In his usual gentle way, he persuaded me to complete this study.

I owe my grateful thanks to Late Dr. S.P. Gupta, Director of Indian Archaeological Society, New Delhi for a perusal of the manuscript. I have incorporated the suggestions given by him. I am also grateful to Prof. Lokesh Chandra, Padma Bhushan for his help.

I am thankful to the staff and libraries of many institutions, such as Archaeological Survey of India, International Academy of Indian Culture, National Museum, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Indian Archaeology Society and Ohio State University. Special thanks to the Librarian of Department of Art History, University of Pittsburgh, USA, for making available relevant material that enabled me to draw up many line drawings.

I am thankful to my dear friend Margaret Cope of Ayr, Scotland for providing material from the Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland and other libraries in England. To the library executives of India International Centre, New Delhi, I am really thankful for all the assistance in the compilation of the book.

From my husband Dr. N.C. Satyawadi, I received constant encouragement and support in the production of this book. My sons Alok and Amit and especially my daughters-in-law, Reena and Swati, helped me a lot. I am thankful to them all. I am grateful to my publisher Shri Vikas Arya, Aryan Books International, New Delhi for bringing out very ably the book that contains quite a number of coloured photographs and more than 1300 line drawings.


The art of Ajanta caves is well known for its creativeness and artistic excellence. It is, perhaps, the greatest art centre of ancient India. Nowhere else at one place is shown such a grand display of the three disciplines-architecture, sculpture and painting-in a highly mature and technically perfect state. In the realm of painting, it is almost unique and unparalleled in the contemporary world of art. The importance of Ajanta in the history of Indian art is great. Any attempt to state it in precise terms would appear exaggerated and yet be inadequate. No other source, including literature, would be equal to it. A single picture of Ajanta can communicate better than a thousand words. It is a simple visual representation of Buddhist ideals and religious sentiments that are present in today's world record of paintings in Asia.

Ajanta is located at a quiet secluded spot, at the edge of the Deccan Plateau and on the border of Khandesh, in an atmosphere that is at once serene and yet vibrant with the vitality of nature. There are 29 rock-cut Buddhist temples and monasteries, forming a majestic semicircular amphitheatre. Ajanta caves were discovered by British soldiers in 1819. The caves are in the form of a string of pearls around the waist of a mountain and are located near the source of river Vaghora near Aurangabad, a district town about 400 km east of Mumbai. It turned out after some research that these were Buddhist monasteries. Soon after the discovery, the caves attracted attention of eminent archaeologists and art historians from all over the world.


Emergence of cave temples is an offshoot of the Buddhist movement in 2nd and 1st century BC. During this period, caves were excavated at several places in Deccan. Some of these places are, Bhaja, Kondane, Pitalkhora and Nasik. Among them, Ajanta paintings are original as they are matured in a style of their own. The earliest paintings date back to the second century BC while the latest may have been excavated over seven hundred years later. The caves of Ajanta were excavated during the time of the Satavahanas (225 BC-AD 225), the Vakatakas (AD 250-450), the Guptas (AD 320-500) and the Chalukyas (AD 550-757). During this span of time, the murals underwent stylistic changes that are visible when one compares one cave with another and also one panel with another within the cave. Here is an example. Cave 10 holds the oldest paintings as well as latest. The earliest paintings of Hinayana faith bear resemblance in composition to contemporary sculptured reliefs of the stupa at Bharhut and Sanchi. The Mahayana spirit crystalised itself in ritualistic details and many-faced life. The paintings of this period are more ornamental. The colour scheme on earlier paintings was rather formal and limited to different hues of ochre. But in later ones they are more distinguishable and vivid with the addition of lapis lazuli, a blue colour, probably from Iran. Its limited use made its brilliance self-evident.

The bulk of the paintings is representative of middle and late middle periods when Ajanta paintings were at their height. Most prolific phase of this movement synchronised with the supremacy of Vakatakas, the contemporaries of Imperial Gupta of north India, the two families being matrimonially related. Some of the finest caves, along with the paintings, owe their origin to the munificence of officials and feudatories of the Vakatakas of Vatsagulma (Basim). Thus, Varahadeva, the minister of the Vakataka king Harishena (AD 475-500), dedicated Cave 16 to the Buddhist sangha, while Cave 17 was the gift of a prince (who subjugated Asmaka), feudatory to the same king. The most vigorous period of architecture and artistic activity seems to have coincided with the second half of the fifth century AD and the first half of the sixth century AD. There was considerable decline in the creative impulse from seventh century AD onward. The only reference to the caves in ancient literature is that by Huan Tsang, a Chinese pilgrim who stayed in India for fifteen years in the first half of the seventeenth century. He has left a graphic description of the flourishing Buddhist establishment in Ajanta. His description is interesting: 'In the east of this country (Mo-ha-la-cha- Maharashtra) was a mountain range. Here was a monastery. This monastery was built by Avche-Io of west India. Within the establishment was a large temple above 100 feet high in which was a stone image of the Buddha above seventy feet high. The walls of this temple depicted on them the incidents of the Buddha's career as Bodhisattva, including the circumstances of his attaining bodhi and the omens attending his final passing away, all great and small were here delineated. Outside the gate of the monastery, on either side north and south was the stone elephant.

After centuries of neglect, the caves were discovered in the first quarter of the 19th century by soldiers of Madras Regiment, who named the caves as Ajanta after a village Ajintha at a distance of five kilometres from the caves. Soon after their discovery, the caves drew attention. of art historians to the special position of the Ajanta paintings in the world of art. The first scholarly report on the caves was by James Fergusson, who presented his paper describing the rock-cut 'temples' of western India (including Ajanta) at the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in the year 1943. He concluded that Ajanta demanded immediate attention. Various attempts by individuals were then made from time to time to copy some of the wall paintings that had withstood the ravages of time. Earlier, between the years 1855 and 1859, R. Gill of Madras Army was appointed with adequate assistance to prepare copies of Ajanta art. He prepared about thirty paintings of Ajanta murals in oil. Most of them were destroyed by a fire in 1866 at Sydenham, UK. Five remaining copies were sent to the Indian Museum, South Kensington, UK.

Between the years 1872-1885, the Government of Bombay asked Griffiths, the principal of J.J. School of Arts, to arrange coloured copies of Ajanta paintings under his direction. But misfortune once more overtook Ajanta copies when in 1885, many of Griffiths' works were again destroyed by fire in South Kensington. The remaining copies were published in 1886 in two volumes. Thereafter, many scholars and artists like Herringham, Syed Ahmad and Muhammad Fazhid-Din of Hyderabad and Nand Lal Bose, Asit Kuma-r Haldar and Samarendranath Gupta of Calcutta School of Art were engaged to make some" copies of Ajanta paintings. In 1915, the Indian Society published fifty-five of them. In 1895, S.F. Oldenburg identified eight Jatakas in the Ajanta paintings and in 1919 Alfred Foucher studied Ajanta paintings and about a dozen of Jataka stories were noticed in them.


Preface vii
Acknowledgements x
Description of the Plates xv
History 1
Religion 3
Description of Caves 3
Early Buddhist Cave Art 27
Cave Architecture at Ajanta 27
Ajanta Paintings and Ancient Architecture of Palaces in Literature 30
Yaksha 44
Facade 46
Shrine 49
Motifs on Shrine 52
Chapels 54
Doorjambs 54
Description of Doorjambs 55
Motifs 61
Parallel Motifs in Other Sites 64
Doorjamb Motifs, Lintel Motifs 66
Pillars 71
Technique 89
Artist 90
Composition 90
Subjects 91
The Life of the Buddha 91
The Buddha's Life in Paintings 92
Liberation of Nanda 103
Mother and Child 107
Temptation and Assault of Mara 108
Vyala 315
Lotus 316
Creepers 316
Acanthus Motifs 317
Kirtimukha 317
Hansa 318
Vikrit 319
Decorative Motifs 320
Winding up 320
Glossary 323
Bibliography 327
Index 335


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