Ajanta Caves - Artistic Masterpiece on A Volcanic Cliff

Ducked inside a horse shoe shaped cliff of a volcanic mountain in the western region of Deccan plateau, stands India’s oldest art gallery – Ajanta. Inside the dark canyon carved by the Waghur River, in thirty majestic caves of Ajanta, some of the richest icons of India’s ancient civilization is preserved. These caves are located near the Jalgaon city of Aurangabad district in India. Ajanta caves were buried under the dense forest, until 1819 when a troop of British officers-out for hunting- stumbled upon this marvelous construction. These rugged caves revealed to the world, the master pieces of Buddhist religious art. These caves were believed to be used as a Buddhist monastery. Its construction dates back to as early as 2nd century BC. 


Ajanta caves - Ancient Buddhist Monestry - Maharashtra India
Ajanta caves - Entrance to the caves 



There is so much more to the plain looking rock caves which includes the elaborate Chaitya-Grihas (Buddhist prayer halls) , Stupas (A central dome shaped structure which was the center of adoration), spacious Viharas (living halls), huge sculptures of Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Taras. Perhaps the most iconic image of Ajanta caves is the delicate yet, complex paintings of Vajrapani, and Padmapani – the compassionate Bodhisattvas in cave number 1.

Padmapani Mural at Ajanta caves - Ancient Buddhist Monestry - Maharashtra India - Pick, Pack, GoThe caves in Ajanta are sequentially numbered from one to thirty. However, the construction period of these caves vary greatly. In fact, Ajanta was built in two phases which are around 600 years apart!   The first phase began in 2nd Century BC during the times of Satavahana dynasty. Caves 9,10,12,13 and 15A were constructed during this period. These caves, closer to the living period of Gautama Buddha are constructed in line with his philosophy of non-idol worship. The prayer halls (Chaitya-Grihas)  in these caves has octagonal shaped pillars and rather a plain Stupa in the center. The stupa’s believed to bury within it the relics of Buddha, symbolizing the living presence of Buddha. It is interesting to note that this tradition is similar to the Christian tradition of a tabernacle - a central place in the church where the holy Eucharist is stored. Eucharist is believed to be the body of Christ and symbolizes the living presence of Christ. Due to unknown reasons, the constructions in Ajanta suddenly came to a halt in the first century BC and it was abandoned to be engulfed by the lush forest.

 The second phase of active construction in Ajanta began in 500 AD. It was under the patronage of the great emperor Harisena of the Vakataka dynasty. The architecture of this phase clearly shows the
  ideological drift of Buddhism. From a non-idol worshiping society with simple rules and beliefs, Buddhism had grown over the years containing several regulations and worshiping Buddha as God rather than a master. There are two Chaitya Grihas created in the second phase. They are in cave number 19 and 26. Clearly marking the ideological shift, the Stupa in cave 19 portrays a standing Buddha and that of cave 26 is adorned with an idol sitting Buddha.



Ajanta cavePlain Chaitya Gruha  - Ancient Buddhist Monestry - Maharashtra India -  - Pick, Pack, Go
Plain Chaitya-Griha in cave number 9
By Shaikh Munir(Own work) 
CCBY-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


 

Chaitya Griha with the Idol of Buddha - Ajanta caves - Ancient Buddhist Monestry - Maharashtra India -  - Pick, Pack, Go
Chaitya Griha with the Idol of Buddha in Cave 26
By Dey.sandip (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Reclining Buddha - Ajanta caves - Ancient Buddhist Monestry - Maharashtra India -  - Pick, Pack, Go
Reclining Buddha as seen in cave 26
By Youri (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Every prayer hall, portico and the monastery quarters of Ajanta are adorned with the sculptures depicting the Jataka tales- stories of the previous lives and Nirvana of Buddha. There are also numerous sculptures of Bodhisattvas, Tārā (Bodhisattva in feminine form), Yakshas, Apsaras and other mythological characters. The most viewed sculptures in Ajanta caves are the reclining Buddha, symbolizing the death (Nirvana) of Buddha. The reclining Buddha is rich in detail as in the lower part of the sculpture we see the disciples of Buddha offering him flowers and some of them are mourning in sorrow. However the upper part of the sculpture shows the Gods rejoicing, symbolizing death as a relief from the worldly burden. Mara’s temptation of Buddha is another important sculpture.
Reclining Buddha - Ajanta caves - Ancient Buddhist Monestry - Maharashtra India -  - Pick, Pack, Go
Reclining Buddha- A closer view
By Anant Singh via Wikimedia Commons
Ajanta beyond doubt is the most ancient Buddhist art gallery of India. Captured in vibrant colors on the volcanic rocks of the Deccan plateau, the paintings of Ajanta have impeccable charm. It is indeed a wonder that the paintings from over a thousand years made with minerals such as red and yellow ochres, blue lapiz lazuli, lamp black and white gypsum has passed the test of time and manifests the craftsmanship of Indian artists. The most viewed and iconic paintings of Ajanta are the depiction Padmapani and Vajrapani, the compassionate Bodhisattvas.

 Painting of Vajrapani  -  - Ajanta caves - Ancient Buddhist Monestry - Maharashtra India -  - Pick, Pack, Go
Painting of Vajrapani  

Walls of the Ajanta caves are adorned with many scenes from Jataka stories. These scenes are selected to demonstrate the different aspects of Buddhism. Some of these tales include Vidhura Pandita(The wise minister of king Dhananjaya) and Ruru( The compassionate golden deer), Buddha performing the miracle of Sravasti, the dream of Maya – about the birth of Gautam Buddha, Sama (Shama) Jataka and the Chhaddanta Jataka. There are many more Jataka tales depicted as paintings on the Ajanta walls.


Many scholars like Walter M. Spink have spent decades studying the architecture and history of Ajanta. Ajanta was recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 siting that Ajanta is a master pieces of human creative genius which represents and important cultural tradition and a great civilization. 

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajanta_Cave 
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/oct/23/greatest-ancient-picture-gallery/
http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/bot/pdf/bot_10_03_02.pdf 
http://ignca.nic.in/jatak070.htm
 

5 comments:

  1. Wow! I am lost for words. If photos look so stunning how amazing, these caves must be. It’s also interesting how somber the complex looks from outside - reminded me a fortress. I am glad that I found your post - learned something new today.

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  2. Ajanta is fascinating! The artwork and the caves themselves are stunning. I hope to see these someday.

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  3. Wow!! I'd like to visit this area just for the caves, never mind everything inside them!

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  4. Salini, these carvings are brilliant. I can't believe I still haven't visited Ajanta even though I hail from India . Infact, I have missed so much in my own country just to make time (And money) to travel the world - sigh, someday!

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  5. I hadn't heard of Ajanta before, but it looks absolutely amazing. So much detail and so much beauty. I'd love to see The Reclining Buddha in person one day! Thanks for sharing.

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