The Ajanta Caves are a series of 29 Buddhist cave temples in Ajanta, India, some of which date from the 2nd century BC. Encompassing both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the Ajanta caves preserve some of the best masterpieces of Buddhist art in India. Many visitors explore the Ajanta Caves in conjunction with the nearby Ellora Caves.
The Ajanta Caves were carved in the 2nd century BC out of a horseshoe-shaped cliff along the Waghora River. They were used by Buddhist monks as prayer halls (chaitya grihas) and monasteries (viharas) for about nine centuries, then abruptly abandoned. They fell into oblivion until they were rediscovered in 1819.The caves are numbered from east to west, 1 through 29.
Today, a terraced path connects the cave, but in ancient times each was independently accessed from the riverfront. A viewing platform across the river affords an excellent view of the entire Ajanta site. The natural beauty of the area makes it clear why the monks chose the site for their spiritual pursuits.
Preserved inside the caves are many masterpieces of Buddhist art. Some reflect the earlier Theravada tradition of depicting the Buddha only in symbolic form such as a throne or footprints. Others, the Mahayana caves, feature colorful murals and statues depicting the life (and former lives) of the Buddha and various Bodhisattvas. The caves also depict scenes from everyday life and many include inscriptions indicating a prince or noble who gifted the cave to the monks.
It is most practical to explore the Ajanta Caves in reverse numerical order, so they are presented in this way below.
Cave 26 – A Mahayana prayer hall (chaitya). The highlight is a large carved statue of the reclining Buddha, representing his moment of death. Below him, his followers mourn his passing; above, celestial beings rejoice. The cave also contains a stupa with an image of the Buddha in a pavilion.
Cave 17 – A Mahayana monastery covered with many well-preserved wall paintings. Maidens and celestial musicians are on the ceiling, and Buddhas, celestial guardians, goddesses, lotus petals and scroll work adorn the doorway.
One mural in Cave 17 shows Prince Simhala's encounter with the man-eating ogresses of Sri Lanka, where he'd been shipwrecked. Another shows the king of gods flying amidst clouds with his entourage of celestial nymphs (apsaras) and musicians. The panel above the doorway depicting the seven Manushi Buddhas (Buddhas in human form) together with the Maitreya or future Buddha, seated under their respective Bodhi trees.
Cave 16 – A Mahayana monastery featuring a beautiful painting of the princess Sundari fainting after learning that her husband (the Buddha's half-brother, Nanda) was going to become a monk.
Cave 15, 13, 12 – Theravada monastery caves. Cave 10 – Theravada prayer hall, thought to be the oldest cave temple at Ajanta, dating to the 2nd century BC.
Cave 9 – One of the earliest prayer hall caves, notable for its arched windows that let softly diffused sunlight in the cave. This Theravada cave also features a large stupa. Cave 8 – Theravada monastery cave. Cave 4 – Incomplete, but the largest of the Ajanta monasteries. Cave 2 – The façade of this Mahayana monastery cave shows the kings of Naga and their entourage. Inside, a glorious mandala dominates the ceiling, held by demons and decorated with birds, flowers, fruits and abstract designs. The ceiling gives the effect of a cloth canopy, right down to the sag in the middle.
Cave 1 – The most popular of the monastery caves at Ajanta. Every inch of the cave was originally painted, though much has worn away over the centuries. The doorway to the antechamber is flanked by murals of two great bodhisattvas. On the right, holding a thunderbolt, is Avalokitesvara (or Vajrapani), the most important bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. On the left, holding a water lily, is the bodhisattva Padmapani.
The sidewalls of Cave 1's antechamber show two scenes from the Buddha's life: his temptation by Mara just before his enlightenment and the miracle of Sravasti, where the Buddha multiplied himself into thousand images.
Above the left porch of Cave 1 are friezes of the Three Signs (a sick man, an old man, and a corpse) that the Buddha saw on his fateful journey outside the palace that led him to become a monk. In the sanctum is a colossal sculpture of the Buddha in the preaching pose. Murals on the walls of the main hall depict numerous Jataka Tales, stories of the previous lives of Gautama Buddha.
The Ajanta Caves (Ajiṇṭhā leni; Marathi: अजिंठा लेणी) in Maharashtra, India are comprised of 31 rock-cut cave monuments which date from the 2nd century BC. The caves include paintings and sculptures considered to be masterpieces of both Buddhist religious art (which depict the Jataka tales) as well as frescos which are reminiscent of the Sigiriya paintings in Sri Lanka. The caves were built in two phases starting around 200 BC, with the second group of caves built around 600 AD.
The first sanctuaries (known as chaytia-grihas) were built during the Satavahana dynasty in the canyons of the Waghora River. Murals preserved from this time belong to the oldest monuments of painted art in India.
Scholars disagree about the date of the Ajanta Caves' second period. For a time it was thought that the work was done over a long period from the fourth to the seventh century AD, but recently long-time researcher Walter M. Spink declared that most of the work took place over short time period, from 460 to 480 AD, during the reign of Emperor Harishena of the Vakataka dynasty. Some 20 cave temples were simultaneously created, for the most part viharas: monasteries with a sanctuary in the structure's rear centre. Each of cave temples seem to be patronised by influential authority, numerous best available artists have been involved in the work with fruitful rivalry between the neighbouring construction sites.According to Spink, the Ajanta Caves appear to have been abandoned shortly after the fall of Harishena circa 480 AD. Since then, these temples have been abandoned and gradually forgotten. During the intervening centuries, the jungle grew back and the caves were hidden, unvisited and undisturbed.
On 28 April 1819, a British officer for the Madras Presidency, John Smith, while hunting tiger, accidentally discovered the entrance to one of the cave temples (Cave No. 9) deep within the tangled undergrowth. Exploring that first cave, long since a home to nothing more than birds and bats and a lair for other, larger, animals, Captain Smith wrote his name in pencil on one of the walls. Still faintly visible, it records his name and the date, April 1819.
Shortly after this discovery, the Ajanta Caves became renowned for their exotic setting, impressive architecture, historic artwork, and long-forgotten history.
The first cave was built on the eastern end of the horse-shoe shaped scarp. According to Spink, it is one of the latest caves to have begun on site and brought to near-completion in the Vākāţaka phase. Although there is no epigraphic evidence, it has been proposed that the Vākāţaka kingHarisena may have been the benefactor of this better-preserved cave. A dominant reason for this is that Harisena was not involved initially in patronizing Ajanta.
This cave has one of the most elaborate carvings on its facade with relief sculptures on entablature and ridges. There are scenes carved from the life of the Buddha as well as a number of decorative motifs. A two pillared portico, visible in the 19th-century photographs, has since perished. The cave has a front-court with cells fronted by pillared vestibules on either side. These have a high plinth level. The cave has a porch with simple cells on both ends. The absence of pillared vestibules on the ends suggest that the porch was not excavated in the latest phase of Ajanta when pillared vestibules had become a necessity and norm. Most areas of the porch were once covered with murals, of which many fragments remain. There are three doorways: a central doorway and two side doorways. Two square windows were carved between the doorways to brighten the interiors.
Each wall of the hall inside is nearly 40 feet (12 m) long and 20 feet (6.1 m) high. Twelve pillars make a square colonnade inside supporting the ceiling, and creating spacious aisles along the walls. There is a shrine carved on the rear wall to house an impressive seated image of the Buddha, his hands being in the dharmachakrapravartana mudra. There are four cells on each of the left, rear, and the right walls. The walls are covered with paintings in a fair state of preservation. The scenes depicted are mostly didactic, devotional, and ornamental. The themes are from the Jataka stories (the stories of the Buddha's former existences as Bodhisattva), the life of the Gautama Buddha, and those of his veneration.
Cave 2, adjacent to Cave 1, is known for the paintings that have been preserved on its walls, ceilings, andpillars. It looks similar to Cave 1 and is in a better state of preservation.Cave 2 has a porch quite different from Cave one. Even the facade carvings seem to be different. The cave is supported by robust pillars, ornamented with designs. The size and ground plan have many things in common with the first cave.
The front porch consists of cells supported by pillared vestibules on both ends. The cells on the previously "wasted areas" were needed to meet the greater housing requirements in later years. Porch-end cells became a trend in all later Vakataka excavations. The simple single cells on porch-ends were converted into CPVs or were planned to provide more room, symmetry, and beauty.
The paintings on the ceilings and walls of this porch have been widely published. They depict the Jataka tales that are stories of the Buddha's life in former existences as Bodhisattva. The porch's rear wall has a doorway in the center, which allows entrance to the hall. On either side of the door is a square-shaped window to brighten the interior.
The hall has four colonnades supporting the ceiling and surrounding a square in the center of the hall. Each arm or colonnade of the square is parallel to the respective walls of the hall, making an aisle in between. The colonnades have rock-beams above and below them. The capitals are carved and painted with various decorative themes that include ornamental, human, animal, vegetative, and semi-divine forms.
Paintings appear on almost every surface of the cave except for the floor. At various places the art work has 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 devotee. They are didactic in nature, meant to inform the community about the Buddha's teachings and life through successive births. 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 rediscovery in 1819. Dieter Schlingloff's identifications have updated our knowledge on the subject.
Some believe that the art work has erroneously been alluded to as "fresco", rather than mural, and assert that 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.
However, the process of drawing and painting into wet plaster somewhat resembles the buon fresco method, in use as early as 1500 bce inAncient Crete. In any event, the process of painting involved several stages. The first step was to chisel the rock surface, to make it rough enough to hold the plaster. The plaster was made of clay, hay, dung and lime. Differences are found in the ingredients and their proportions from cave to cave. While the plaster was still wet, the drawings were done and the colors applied. The wet plaster had the capacity to soak the color so that the color became a part of the surface and would not peel off or decay easily. The colors were referred to as 'earth colors' or 'vegetable colors.' Various kinds of stones, minerals, and plants were used in combinations to prepare different colors. Sculptures were often covered with stucco to give them a fine finish and lustrous polish. The stucco had the ingredients of lime and powdered seashell or conch. The latter afforded exceptional shine and smoothness. In cave upper six, some of it is extant. The smoothness resembles the surface of glass. The paint brushes used to create the artwork were made from animal hair and twigs.