The dark Buddhas of Ajanta and Indian obsession with fair complexion

On the top of the porch door of Ajanta cave 17, there is a much celebrated painting of eight seating Buddhas. They represent the Buddhas of the past, present and the future. One thing that strikes an observant visitor is the difference between the first five Buddhas and the next three.  The first group of Buddhas have a different style of Halos, thrones and style of robes. However the striking difference between the first group and the second is the skin tone of Buddhas. Four Buddhas starting from the left has dark skin tone – almost black. The fifth Buddha has a grayish complexion.  However the last three Buddhas have fairer complexion. Why this kind of a disparity? What did the ancient painters of Ajanta wanted to convey by depicting the first group of Buddhas as dark skinned? Was it a symbolism? Some Ajanta guides explain that the change in color (from dark to light) represents the evolution of Buddha across his various existences. That is, from darkness to higher enlightenment. However, this explanation leaves us at a difficult juncture. Do we have to believe that the great ancient artists of Ajanta also shared the classic Indian obsession with fair complexion? Were Ajanta artists - whom we consider as the torch bearers of Indian cultural renaissance- really thought dark skin is inferior to fair one?

Famous Ajanta  archaeologist and historian Walter M Spink provides an alternate theory. According to him, the Ajanta artists did not have any such notion that when skin gets fairer, the person gets better. In fact they did not even associated merits with any particular skin color. According to Spink, all the eight Buddhas were initially painted in lighter shades. The first four Buddhas on the left turned dark due to the oxidization of the pigment that the painter used. Then the question arises, how the Buddhas on the right side still exist fair complexioned?  

 Spinks has an answer for this question too. It is a well agreed fact that, during the development of Ajanta, many artists worked on different parts of the same painting. According to Spinks the four Buddhas on left and the four on right are painted by different painters. In those days, where there are no universal paint brands, painters belonging to the same family or locale used to mix up their own pigments. The composition of pigments might differ for each group of painters. Here, even though originally all 8 Buddhas might have had the same skin tone, the pigment that used by the artist of the left four Buddhas underwent oxidization and turned dark. Now, a keen observer would notice that image of the fifth Buddha is not black but grayish. Does it really symbolize an evolution? Spink's answer to this question is also no. He explains it very logically too. According to Spink “Probably, in the case of fifth Buddha, the right-hand painter was low on the skin-tone pigment at that point and extended it by asking his fellow worker for a modest loan, perhaps to save himself the trouble of having to go and get some more of his own obviously different mix.” 

Spink further explains those different artists who were working on parts of the same painting were allowed to execute their own style and pigments while adhering to the overall design scheme. It is quite amazing how a simple observation of the skin tone of a painting can throw so much light into development process of Ajanta. Spinks explanation is perfectly logical and I believe that the ancient artist of Ajanta in noway associated higher merit to fair skin tone. In Ajanta paintings, kings and queens - who were the patrons of the artists - are often depicted dark skinned. If there was a notion of superiority associated with fair skin during those days, I am sure the kings and queens would have been depicted as fair skinned.

Reference: Walter .M. Spink Ajanta History and Development (Volume 5)