The Ajanta Caves are 29 (approximately) rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state of India. The caves include paintings and rock-cut sculptures described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art, particularly expressive paintings that present emotion through gesture, pose and form.
According to UNESCO, these are masterpieces of Buddhist religious art that influenced the Indian art that followed. The caves were built in two phases, the first phase starting around the 2nd century BCE, while the second phase was built around 400–650 CE, according to older accounts, or in a brief period of 460–480 CE according to later scholarship. The site is a protected monument in the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, and since 1983, the Ajanta Caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Ajanta Caves constitute ancient monasteries and worship-halls of different Buddhist traditions carved into a 250-feet wall of rock. The caves also present paintings depicting the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha, pictorial tales from Aryasura’s Jatakamala, and rock-cut sculptures of Buddhist deities. Textual records suggest that these caves served as a monsoon retreat for monks, as well as a resting-site for merchants and pilgrims in ancient India. While vivid colours and mural wall-painting were abundant in Indian history as evidenced by historical records, Caves 16, 17, 1 and 2 of Ajanta form the largest corpus of surviving ancient Indian wall-painting.
Cave 1 was built on the eastern end of the horse-shoe-shaped scarp and is now the first cave the visitor encounters. This cave, when first made, would have been a less prominent position, right at the end of the row. According to Spink, it is one of the last caves to have been excavated, when the best sites had been taken, and was never fully inaugurated for worship by the dedication of the Buddha image in the central shrine. This is shown by the absence of sooty deposits from butter lamps on the base of the shrine image, and the lack of damage to the paintings that would have happened if the garland-hooks around the shrine had been in use for any period of time. Spink states that the Vākāţaka Emperor Harishena was the benefactor of the work, and this is reflected in the emphasis on imagery of royalty in the cave, with those Jataka tales being selected that tell of those previous lives of the Buddha in which he was royal.
The cliff has a more steep slope here than at other caves, so to achieve a tall grand facade it was necessary to cut far back into the slope, giving a large courtyard in front of the facade. There was originally a columned portico in front of the present facade, which can be seen “half-intact in the 1880s” in pictures of the site, but this fell down completely and the remains, despite containing fine carvings, were carelessly thrown down the slope into the river, from where they have been lost.
Cave 2, adjacent to Cave 1, is known for the paintings that have been preserved on its walls, ceilings, and pillars. It looks similar to Cave 1 and is in a better state of preservation. This cave is best known for its feminine focus, intricate rock carvings and paint artwork yet it is incomplete and lacks consistency. One of the 5th-century frescoes in this cave also shows children at a school, with those in the front rows paying attention to the teacher, while those in the back row are shown distracted and acting.
Cave 2 (35.7 m x 21.6 m) was started in the 460s, but mostly carved between 475 and 477 CE, probably sponsored and influenced by a woman closely related to emperor Harisena. It has a porch quite different from Cave 1. Even the façade carvings seem to be different. The cave is supported by robust pillars, ornamented with designs. The front porch consists of cells supported by pillared vestibules on both ends.
Cave 3 is merely a start of an excavation; according to Spink it was begun right at the end of the final period of work and soon abandoned.
Cave 4, the largest cave of Ajanta
Cave 4, a vihara, was sponsored by Mathura, likely not a noble or courtly official, rather a wealthy devotee. This is the largest vihara in the inaugural group, which suggests he had immense wealth and influence without being a state official. It is placed at a significantly higher level, possibly because the artists realized that the rock quality at the lower and same level of other caves was poor and they had a better chance of a major vihara at an upper location. Another likely possibility is that the planners wanted to carve into the rock another large cistern to the left court side for more residents, mirroring the right, a plan implied by the height of the forward cells on the left side.
Cave 5, an unfinished excavation was planned as a monastery (10.32 X 16.8 m). Cave 5 is devoid of sculpture and architectural elements except the door frame. The ornate carvings on the frame has female figures with mythical makara creatures found in ancient and medieval era Indian arts. The cave’s construction was likely initiated about 465 CE but abandoned because the rock has geological flaws. The construction was resumed in 475 CE after Asmakas restarted work at the Ajanta caves, but abandoned again as the artists and sponsor redesigned and focussed on an expanded Cave 6 that abuts Cave 5.
Cave 6 is two storey monastery (16.85 X 18.07 m). It consists of a sanctum, a hall on both levels. The lower level is pillared and has attached cells. The upper hall also has subsidiary cells. The sanctums on both level feature a Buddha in the teaching posture. Elsewhere, the Buddha is shown in different mudras. The lower level walls depict the Miracle of Sravasti and the Temptation of Mara legends. Only the lower floor of cave 6 was finished. The unfinished upper floor of cave 6 has many private votive sculptures, and a shrine Buddha.
The lower level of the Cave 6 likely was the earliest excavation in the second stage of construction. This stage marked the Mahayana theme and Vakataka renaissance period of Ajanta reconstruction that started about four centuries after the earlier Hinayana theme construction. The upper storey was not envisioned in the beginning, it was added as an after thought, likely around the time when the architects and artists abandoned further work on the geologically-flawed rock of Cave 5 immediately next to it. Both lower and upper Cave 6 show crude experimentation and construction errors. The cave work was most likely in progress between 460 and 470 CE, and it is the first that shows attendant Bodhisattvas. The upper cave construction probably began in 465, progressed swiftly, and much deeper into the rock than the lower level.
The walls and sanctum’s door frame of the both levels are intricately carved. These show themes such as makaras and other mythical creatures, apsaras, elephants in different stages of activity, females in waving or welcoming gesture. The upper level of Cave 6 is significant in that it shows a devotee in a kneeling posture at the Buddha’s feet, an indication of devotional worship practices by the 5th century. The colossal Buddha of the shrine has an elaborate throne back, but was hastily finished in 477/478 CE, when king Harisena died. The shrine antechamber of the cave features an unfinished sculptural group of the Six Buddhas of the Past, of which only five statues were carved. This idea may have been influenced from those in Bagh Caves of Madhya Pradesh.
The Cave 7 is also a monastery (15.55 X 31.25 m) but a single storey. It consists of a sanctum, a hall with octagonal pillars, and eight small rooms for monks. The sanctum Buddha is shown in preaching posture. There are many art panels narrating Buddhist themes, including those of the Buddha with Nagamuchalinda and Miracle of Sravasti.
Cave 7 has a grand facade with two porticos. The veranda has eight pillars of two types. One has an octagonal base with amalaka and lotus capital. The other lacks a distinctly shaped base, features an octagonal shaft instead with a plain capital. The veranda opens into an antechamber. On the left side in this antechamber are seated or standing sculptures such as those of 25 carved seated Buddhas in various postures and facial expressions, while on the right side are 58 seated Buddha reliefs in different postures, all placed on lotus. These Buddhas and others on the inner walls of the antechamber are a sculptural depiction of the Miracle of Sravasti in Buddhist theology. The bottom row show two Nagas (serpents with hoods) holding the blooming lotus stalk. The antechamber leads to the sanctum through a door frame. On this frame are carved two females standing on makaras (mythical sea creatures). Inside the sanctum is the Buddha sitting on a lion throne in cross legged posture, surrounded by other Bodhisattva figures, two attendants with chauris and flying apsaras above.
Perhaps because of faults in the rock, Cave 7 was never taken very deep into the cliff. It consists only of the two porticos and a shrine room with antechamber, with no central hall. Some cells were fitted in. The cave artwork likely underwent revisions and refurbishments over time. The first version was complete by about 469 CE, the myriad Buddhas added and painted a few years later between 476 and 478 CE.
Cave 8 is another unfinished monastery (15.24 X 24.64 m). For many decades in the 20th-century, this cave was used as a storage and generator room. It is at the river level with easy access, relatively lower than other caves, and according to Archaeological Survey of India it is possibly one of earliest monasteries. Much of its front is damaged, likely from a landslide. The cave excavation proved difficult and probably abandoned after a geological fault consisting of a mineral layer proved disruptive to stable carvings.
Spink, in contrast, states that Cave 8 is perhaps the earliest cave from the second period, its shrine an “afterthought”. It may well be the oldest Mahayana monastery excavated in India, according to Spink. The statue may have been loose rather than carved from the living rock, as it has now vanished. The cave was painted, but only traces remain.
Cave 9 (1st century CE)
Caves 9 and 10 are the two chaitya or worship halls from the 2nd to 1st century BCE – the first period of construction, though both were reworked upon the end of the second period of construction in the 5th century CE.
Cave 9 (18.24 m x 8.04 m) is smaller than Cave 10 (30.5 m x 12.2 m), but more complex. This has led Spink to the view that Cave 10 was perhaps originally of the 1st century BCE, and cave 9 about a hundred years later. The small “shrinelets” called caves 9A to 9D and 10A also date from the second period. These were commissioned by individuals. Cave 9 arch has remnant profile that suggests that it likely had wooden fittings.
The cave has a distinct apsidal shape, nave, aisle and an apse with an icon, an architecture and plan that reminds one of cathedrals built in Europe many centuries later. The aisle has a row of 23 pillars. The ceiling is vaulted. The stupa is at the center of the apse, with a circumambulation path around it. The stupa sits on a high cylindrical base. On the left wall of the cave are votaries approaching the stupa, which suggests a devotional tradition.
According to Spink, the paintings in this cave, including the intrusive standing Buddhas on the pillars, were added in the 5th century. Above the pillars and also behind the stupa are colorful paintings of the Buddha with Padmapani and Vajrapani next to him, they wear jewels and necklaces, while yogis, citizens and Buddhist bhikshu are shown approaching the Buddha with garlands and offerings, with men wearing dhoti and turbans wrapped around their heads. On the walls are friezes of Jataka tales, but likely from the Hinayana phase of early construction. Some of the panels and reliefs inside as well as outside Cave 10 do not make narrative sense, but are related to Buddhist legends. This lack of narrative flow may be because these were added by different monks and official donors in the 5th century wherever empty space was available. This devotionalism and the worship hall character of this cave is the likely reason why four additional shrinelets 9A, 9B, 9C and 9D were added between Cave 9 and 10.
Cave 10, one of the earliest cave (1st century BCE)
Cave 10, a vast prayer hall or Chaitya, is dated to about the 1st century BCE, together with the nearby vihara cave No 12. These two caves are thus among the earliest of the Ajanta complex. It has a large central apsidal hall with a row of 39 octagonal pillars, a nave separating its aisle and stupa at the end for worship. The stupa has a pradakshina patha (circumambulatory path).
This cave is significant because its scale confirms the influence of Buddhism in South Asia by 1st century BCE and its continued though declining influence in India through the 5th century CE. Further, the cave includes a number of inscriptions where parts of the cave are “gifts of prasada” by different individuals, which in turn suggests that the cave was sponsored as a community effort rather than a single king or one elite official. Cave 10 is also historically important because in April 1819, a British Army officer John Smith saw its arch and introduced his discovery to the attention to the Western audience.
The Cave 11 is a monastery (19.87 X 17.35 m) from the later 5th century. The cave veranda has pillars with octagonal shafts and square bases. The ceiling of the veranda shows evidence of floral designs and eroded reliefs. Only the center panel is discernible wherein the Buddha is seen with votaries lining up to pray before him. Inside, the cave consists of a hall with a long rock bench opening into six rooms. Similar stone benches are found in Nasik caves. Another pillared verandah ends in a sanctum with seated Buddha against an incomplete stupa, and has four cells.
The cave has a few paintings showing Bodhisattvas and the Buddha. Of these, the Padmapani, a couple gathered to pray, a pair of peafowl, and a female figure painting have survived in the best condition. The sanctum of this cave may be the among the last structures built at Ajanta because it features a circumambulation path around the seated Buddha.
According to Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Cave 12 is an early stage Hinayana (Theravada) monastery (14.9 X 17.82 m) from the 2nd to 1st century BCE. Spink however only dates it to the 1st century BCE.
The cave is damaged with its front wall completely collapsed. Its three sides inside have twelve cells, each with two stone beds.
Cave 13, 14, 15, 15A
Cave 13 is another small monastery from the early period, consisting of a hall with seven cells, each also with two stone beds, all carved out of the rock. Each cell has rock-cut beds for the monks. In contrast to ASI’s estimate, Gupte and Mahajan date both these caves about two to three centuries later, between 1st and 2nd century CE.
Cave 14 is another unfinished monastery (13.43 X 19.28 m) but carved above Cave 13. The entrance door frame shows sala bhanjikas.
Cave 15 is a more complete monastery (19.62 X 15.98 m) with evidence that it had paintings. The cave consists of an eight celled hall ending in a sanctum, an antechamber and a verandah with pillars. The reliefs show the Buddha, while the sanctum Buddha is shown seated in the Simhasana posture. Cave 15 door frame has carvings of pigeons eating corn.
Cave 15A is the smallest cave with a hall and one cell on each side. Its entrance is located just to the right of the elephant-decorated entrance to Cave 16. It is an ancient Hinayana cave with three cells opening around a minuscule central hall. The doors are decorated with a rail and arch pattern. It had an inscription in an ancient script, which has been lost.
Cave 16 occupies a prime position near the middle of site, and was sponsored by Varahadeva, minister of Vakataka king Harishena (r. c. 475 – c. 500 CE). He devoted it to the community of monks, with an inscription that expresses his wish, may “the entire world (…) enter that peaceful and noble state free from sorrow and disease”. He was, states Spink, someone who revered both the Buddha and the Hindu gods. The 7th-century Chinese traveler Xuan Zang described the cave as the entrance to the site.
Cave 16 (19.5 m x 22.25 m x 4.6 m) influenced the architecture of the entire site. Spink and other scholars call it the “crucial cave” that helps trace the chronology of the second and closing stages of the entire cave complex’s construction. Cave 16 is a Mahayana monastery and has the standard arrangement of a main doorway, two windows, and two aisle doorways. The veranda of this monastery is 19.5 m x 3 m, while the main hall is almost a perfect square with 19.5 m side.
The paintings in Cave 16 are numerous. Narratives include various Jataka tales such as Hasti, Mahaummagga and the Sutasoma fables. Other frescoes depict the conversion of Nanda, miracle of Sravasti, Sujata’s offering, Asita’s visit, the dream of Maya, the Trapusha and Bhallika story, and the ploughing festival. The Hasti Jataka frescoes tell the story of a Bodhisattva elephant who learns of a large group of people starving, then tells them to go below a cliff where they could find food. The elephant proceeds to sacrifice himself by jumping off that cliff thereby becoming food so that the people can survive. These frescoes are found immediately to the left of entrance, in the front corridor and the narrative follows a clockwise direction.
The Mahaummagga Jataka frescoes are found on the left wall of the corridor, which narrates the story of a child Bodhisattva. Thereafter, in the left corridor is the legend surrounding the conversion of Nanda – the half brother of the Buddha. The story depicted is one of the two major versions of the Nanda legend in the Buddhist tradition, one where Nanda wants to lead a sensuous life with the girl he had just wed and the Buddha takes him to heaven and later hell to show the spiritual dangers of a sensual life. After the Nanda-related frescoes, the cave presents Manushi Buddhas, followed by flying votaries with offerings to worship the Buddha and the Buddha seated in teaching asana and dharma chakra mudra.
Cave 17 (34.5 m x 25.63 m) along with Cave 16 with two great stone elephants at the entrance and Cave 26 with sleeping Buddha, were some of the many caves sponsored by the Hindu Vakataka prime minister Varahadeva. Cave 17 had additional donors such as the local king Upendragupta, as evidenced by the inscription therein.
The cave features a large and most sophisticated vihara design, along with some of the best-preserved and well known paintings of all the caves. While Cave 16 is known for depicting the life stories of the Buddha, the Cave 17 paintings has attracted much attention for extolling human virtues by narrating the Jataka tales. The narration includes an attention to details and a realism which Stella Kramrisch calls “lavish elegance” accomplished by efficient craftsmen. The ancient artists, states Kramrisch, tried to show wind passing over a crop by showing it bending in waves, and a similar profusion of rhythmic sequences that unroll story after story, visually presenting the metaphysical.
The Cave 17 monastery includes a colonnaded porch, a number of pillars each with a distinct style, a peristyle design for the interior hall, a shrine antechamber located deep in the cave, larger windows and doors for more light, along with extensive integrated carvings of Indian gods and goddesses. The hall of this monastery is a 380.53 square metres (4,096.0 sq ft) square, with 20 pillars. The grand scale of the carving also introduced errors of taking out too much rock to shape the walls, states Spink, which led to the cave being splayed out toward the rear.
Cave 18 is a small rectangular space (3.38 X 11.66 m) with two octagonal pillars and it joins into another cell. Its role is unclear.
Cave 19 (5th century CE)
Cave 19 is a worship hall (chaitya griha, 16.05 X 7.09 m) datable to the fifth century CE. The hall shows painted Buddha, depicted in different postures. This worship hall is now visited through what was previously a carved room. The presence of this room before the hall suggests that the original plan included a mandala style courtyard for devotees to gather and wait, an entrance and facade to this courtyard, all of whose ruins are now lost to history. Cave 19 is one of the caves known for its sculpture. It includes Naga figures with a serpent canopy protecting the Buddha, similar to those found for spiritual icons in the ancient Jain and Hindu traditions. It includes Yaksha dvarapala (guardian) images on the side of its vatayana (arches), flying couples, sitting Buddha, standing Buddhas and evidence that its ceiling was once painted.
The Cave 19 drew upon on the plan and experimentation in Cave 9. It made a major departure from the earlier Hinayana tradition, by carving a Buddha into the stupa, a decision that states Spink must have come from “the highest levels” in the 5th-century Mahayana Buddhist establishment because the king and dynasty that built this cave was from the Shaivism Hindu tradition. Cave 19 excavation and stupa was likely in place by 467 CE, and its finishing and artistic work continued into the early 470s, but it too was an incomplete cave when it was dedicated in 471 CE.
Cave 20 is a monastery hall (16.2 X 17.91 m) from the 5th century. Its construction, states Spink, was started in the 460s by king Upendragupta, with his expressed desire “to make the great tree of religious merit grow”. The work on Cave 20 was pursued in parallel with other caves. Cave 20 has exquisite detailing, states Spink, but it was relatively lower on priority than Caves 17 and 19. The work on Cave 20 was intermittently stopped and then continued in the following decade.
The vihara consists of a sanctum, four cells for monks and a pillared verandah with two stone cut windows for light. Prior to entering the main hall, on the left of veranda are two Buddhas carved above the window and side cell. The ceiling of the main hall has remnants of painting. The sanctum Buddha is in preaching posture. The cave is known for the sculpture showing seven Buddhas with attendants on its lintel. The cave has a dedicatory Sanskrit inscription in Brahmi script in its verandah, and it calls the cave as a mandapa.
Caves 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25
Cave 21, 22, 23 and 24 are all monasteries, representing the final phases of Ajanta’s construction. Cave 21 is a hall (28.56 X 28.03 m) with twelve rock cut rooms for monks, a sanctum, twelve pillared and pilastered verandah. The carvings on the pilaster include those of animals and flowers. The pillars feature reliefs of apsaras, Nagaraja and Nagarani, as well as devotees bowing with the namaste mudra. The hall shows evidence that it used to be completely painted. The sanctum Buddha is shown in preaching posture.
Cave 22 is a small vihara (12.72 X 11.58 m) with a narrow veranda and four unfinished cells. It is excavated at a higher level and has to be reached by a flight of steps. Inside, the Buddha is seated in pralamba-padasana. The painted figures in Cave 22 show Manushi-Buddhas with Maitreya. A pilaster on the left side of the Cave 22 veranda has a Sanskrit prose inscription. It is damaged in parts, and the legible parts state that this is a “meritorious gift of a mandapa by Jayata”, calling Jayata’s family as “a great Upasaka”, and ending the inscription with “may the merit of this be for excellent knowledge to all sentient beings, beginning with father and mother”.
The Cave 23 is also unfinished, consisting of a hall (28.32 X 22.52 m) but a design similar to Cave 21. The cave differs in its pillar decorations and the naga doorkeepers.
Cave 24 is like Cave 21, unfinished but much larger. It features the second largest monastery hall (29.3 X 29.3 m) after Cave 4. The cave 24 monastery has been important to scholarly studies of the site because it shows how multiple crews of workers completed their objectives in parallel. The cell construction began as soon as the aisle had been excavated and while the main hall and sanctum were under construction. The construction of Cave 24 was planned in 467 CE, but likely started in 475 CE, with support from Buddhabhadra, then abruptly ended in 477 with the sponsor king Harisena’s death.
Cave 24 is significant in having one of the most complex capitals on a pillar at the Ajanta site, an indication of how the artists excelled and continuously improved their sophistication as they worked with the rock inside the cave. The artists carved fourteen complex miniature figures on the central panel of the right center porch pillar, while working in dim light in a cramped cave space. The medallion reliefs in Cave 24 similarly show loving couples and anthropomorphic arts, rather than flowers of earlier construction. Cave 24’s sanctum has a seated Buddha in pralamba-padasana.
Cave 25 is a monastery. Its hall (11.37 X 12.24 m) is similar to other monasteries, but has no sanctum, includes an enclosed courtyard and is excavated at an upper level.
Cave 26 (5th century CE)
Cave 26 is a worship hall (chaityagriha, 25.34 X 11.52 m) similar in plan to Cave 19, but much larger and with elements of a vihara design. An inscription states that a monk Buddhabhadra and his friend minister serving king of Asmaka gifted this vast cave. The inscription includes a vision statement and the aim to make “a memorial on the mountain that will endure for as long as the moon and the sun continue”, translates Walter Spink. It is likely that the builders focussed on sculpture, rather than paintings, in Cave 26 because they believed stone sculpture will far more endure than paintings on the wall.
The cave drew upon the experiences in building Cave 10, with attached wings similar to the ancient Cave 12 Hinayana-style vihara. The Cave 26 complex has two upper stories and it shows evidence that four wings of the cave were planned, but these were abandoned and only the carved Buddhas on the right and left wall were completed.
Caves 27, 28 and 29
Cave 27 is a monastery and it may have been planned as an attachment to Cave 26. It is damaged two storeys, with the upper level partially collapsed. Its plan is similar to other monasteries. Cave 28 is an unfinished monastery, partially excavated, at the westernmost end of the Ajanta complex and barely accessible.
Cave 29 is an unfinished monastery at the highest level of the Ajanta complex, apparently unnoticed when the initial numbering system was established, and physically located between Caves 20 and 21.
In 1956, a landslide covered the footpath leading to Cave 16. In the attempts to clear and restore the walkway, a small aperture and votive stupa were noticed in the debris by the workers, in a location near the stream bed. Further tracing and excavations led to a previously unknown Hinayana monastery cave dated to the 2nd and 1st century BCE. Cave 30 may actually be the oldest cave of the Ajanta complex. It is a 3.66 m x 3.66 m cave with three cells, each with two stone beds and stone pillows on the side of each cell. The cell door lintels show lotus and garland carvings. The cave has two inscriptions in an unknown script. It also has a platform on its veranda with a fine view of the river ravine below and the forest cover. According to Gupte and Mahajan, this cave may have been closed at some point with large carefully carved pieces as it distracted the entrance view of Cave 16.
Over 80% of the Ajanta caves were vihara (temporary traveler residences, monasteries). The designers and artisans who built these caves included facilities for collecting donations and storing grains and food for the visitors and monks. Many of the caves include large repositories cut into the floor. The largest storage spaces are found, states Spink, in the “very commodious recesses in the shrines of both Ajanta Cave Lower 6 and Cave 11”. These caves were probably chosen because of their relative convenience and the security they offered due to their higher level. The choice of integrating covered vaults cut into the floor may have been driven by the need to provide sleeping space and logistical ease.
Paintings and the cave artwork have become eroded due to decay and human interference. Therefore, many areas of the painted walls, ceilings, and pillars are fragmentary. The painted narratives of the Jataka tales are depicted only on the walls, which demanded the special attention of the devotees. They are didactic in nature, meant to inform the community about the Buddha’s teachings and life through successive rebirths. Their placement on the walls required the devotee to walk through the aisles and ‘read’ the narratives depicted in various episodes. The narrative episodes are depicted one after another, although not in a linear order. Their identification has been a core area of research since the site’s discovery in 1819.
Impact on modern paintings
The Ajanta paintings, or more likely the general style they come from, influenced painting in Tibet and Sri Lanka.
The rediscovery of ancient Indian paintings at Ajanta provided Indian artists examples from ancient India to follow. Nandalal Bose experimented with techniques to follow the ancient style which allowed him to develop his unique style. Abanindranath Tagore and Syed Thajudeen also used the Ajanta paintings for inspiration.
Source From Wikipedia