When you see a sculpture or a statue of a God in a temple nearby, what is the emotion you see portrayed? Joy? Anger? Guilt? Probably not. Gods, these days, are portrayed as solemn and majestic beings. This richness of emotions and stories conveyed in sculptures and paintings of the temples of the old is what separates them from the temples built today. The empires of the old left us art and beauty in structures that were meant to last; we unfortunately are leaving our descendants dull serious dolls in bricked walls that will not outlive the generation that built them. Here is the story behind our journey to one more of the great temples of the old - The caves of Ajanta.
|The horse shoe shaped cave temples of Ajanta|
After visiting the breathtaking cave temples of Ellora, Ajay and I returned to Aurangabad and chose a budget hotel to spend the night. Ajanta is around 104 kms from Aurangabad and bus services are frequent, unlike the services between Ellora and Ajanta. From the cave entrance, we had wait for half an hour to travel a further 4 kms by CNG buses as diesel buses are not allowed in the vicinity of the caves to avoid pollution. Along with a couple of French students touring India, we hired a guide just before entering the first cave. Our guide hardly bothered about explaining all relevant details and kept repeating the few details he knew. I suspect he who woke that morning, decided to become a guide and read a couple of pages about Ajanta in his son’s history book. One more good reason to push for audio guides across all UNESCO world heritage sites in India.
There are 30 caves in Ajanta and all are a product of Buddhism. Five of the caves are Chaitya halls (Prayer halls) and the rest are Viharas (Lodging places for the monks and artist-monks). The caves were built across two entirely different time periods.
More than 2200 years ago, the Mauryan Empire was at its zenith extending from present day Afghanistan to Southern India and the first phase of the Ajanta caves were supposedly built under the patronage of their feudatories – The Satyahana Empire. The oldest caves excavated in 2nd century BC are a creation of the Hinayana sect of Buddhism. In the Hinayana sect, Buddha was never portrayed in human form in the paintings and sculptures.
|Stupa in Ajanta cave 10|
Five caves belong to the Hinayana period - Chaitya caves 9 and 10 and Vihars 8, 12, 13 and 30. The pictures paint an image of an austere and frugal time. There are themes and motifs from everyday life as well as the life of Buddha(without actually portraying him).
The rest of the 25 caves, excavated centuries later in the 5th and 6th centuries make the Mahayana series. Researcher Walter M. Spink declared that most of the work took place over short time period, from 460 to 480 CE, during the reign of Emperor Harishena of the Vakataka dynasty. By this time, the effects of idol worship prevalent in Hinduism were seen on Buddhism and Buddha was portrayed in human form. Yet there were strict rules regarding how he was to be portrayed. Buddha's long earlobes are a sign that he came from a noble family and the tight curl of the hair is a sign of an important man. These rules did not hinder or limit the imagination of the artist-monks of that time. As a result, not only does Buddhism teach us simplicity, peace and the meaning of life, it has also passed onto us a treasure trove in the world of art.
|Ajanta Cave 1: Bodhisattva Padmapani and his wife|
When compared to other rock caves in India built primarily by the Rashtrakuta and Chalukya dynasties, the Ajanta caves are not only the oldest but also boast of an art form not found in other caves - Paintings. The technique and process used to produce this kind of artwork is unlike any other artwork found in the art history of other civilizations, including within the history of South Asian art. Various natural substances were used to create colours and the place is world famous for "Ajanta type" paintings - vivacious figures of men and woman with elongated eyes, adornment and the history of the bodhisattvas and the avatars of Buddha.
|Ajanta Cave 2: Epiphany of Buddha - The wheel of Dharma.|
The central themes on the walls are either about Buddha's life or the Jataka tales - tales about the previous births of the Buddha where he was a Bodhisattva (either in the form of a human or animal) in search of enlightenment. The Jatakas are portrayed across all Buddhist monuments and I’ll cover a few of these in further detail in one of my next blogs on Sanchi.
The Mahayana caves:
One of the most famous paintings of Ajanta is the image of the serene looking Bodhisattva Padmapani and his attractive dark wife to his right, amidst a scene of festivities. On the right there is an image of Buddha in hundred different attitudes. The Jataka tale of King Sibi protecting a pigeon from a hawk also finds prominence.
There is a panel depicting the birth of Buddha and the prediction that the boy born would either become the greatest ascetic Buddha or the Monarch of Monarchs. Legend has it that Buddha cleared up the confusion when he was born by proclaiming that he would attain the highest release and cross the ocean of existence. Robust pillars ornamented with designs support the cave and the ceilings of the caves contain paintings of ornamental flowers.
|Buddha with various postures and emotions|
This is the only two two-storeyed structure in Ajanta, unlike Ellora where there are a few three-storeyed structures.
This is one of the most imposing caves. Though very few paintings inside have survived, a few masterpieces have withstood the ravages of time. The famous painting of the "The dying princess" depicts Sundari; the heart broken wife of Buddha's cousin Nanda who gave up his royal lifestyle to became an ascetic. The picture depicts the princess' pain and anguish at seeing her husband one last time.
|Ajanta Cave 16: Dying Princess|
This temple has the largest number of paintings in good conditions. The theme of self-sacrifice is prominent among the Jataka tales painted in this cave. One famous Jataka tale called the Matropaksha Jataka tells the story of a Bodhisattva born as a six tusked white elephant that is attacked by warriors commissioned by the queen of Banaras. The Elephant-Bodhisattva removes his own tusks to present them to the queen.
|Ajanta Cave 17: Matropaksha Jataka|
This is a Chaitya hall with a colossal reclining Buddha figure. The wall also depicts Gautama's final test before becoming Buddha - one where evil Mara sends his own daughters to seduce the great ascetic and break his penance. Buddha of course does not give in to temptation and touches the ground bidding mother earth to bear witness to his enlightenment.
|Ajanta Cave 26: Reclining Buddha|
At the end of the 7th century Buddhism began to decline in the land of its origin and the Ajanta caves were abandoned and later forgotten. For more than thousand years, the caves lay buried under the forest canopy until 1819 when Sir John Smith of the East India Company did something every archaeologist dreams of. While out hunting tigers in the region, he re-discovered a lost city - the awe inspiring caves of Ajanta. A long time ago, sacred chants of monks reverberated across these caves. Those artist-monks are long gone but etched in the walls of these consecrated caves, their stories live on.