A guide for Ajanta caves - Cave 1

This is a detailed guide for Ajanta caves. If you would like to have basic information about Ajanta caves you can check my introductory article here. It contains the history of Ajanta caves and the background information that would help you appreciate Ajanta caves better. As this is detailed guide for Ajanta caves, let me directly start with the detailed information on the caves.

The Ajanta caves  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. The rest of the caves are from a later time period of AD 463, during the Vakataka dynasty under the patronage of King Harisena.

Ajanta caves from a distant view point
Ajanta caves from a distant view point

The information that I present in this  guide for Ajanta caves are based on the research  by legendary historian of Ajanta Walter M Spink.  I was fortunate enough to read some of his books on History and Development of Ajanta. I am ever indebted to his work and would like to give due credit to Walter M Spink.

Guide for Ajanta cave number 1

This is a grand cave and the first one a visitor encounters as they enter into the Ajanta cave complex. Scholars like Walter M Spink have found that this cave had a royal patron, none other than Vakataka Emperor Harisena. Construction of the Ajanta cave number 1 was started around AD 468. Surprisingly, the Emperor's cave was started only 5 years after the the second phase active construction started at Ajanta. Harisena was a not a Buddhist but a Saivaite( A follower of Hindu religion whose chief affiliation is Shiva). 

guide for Ajanta cave number 1 - facade
Ajanta cave number 1 - facade

The cave has a colonnaded veranda and one can see that the top of the columns are carved extensively. As one enters inside the veranda, the left and right side walls shows story of Prince Siddhartha's encounter with an old man, a sick man and a dead man. This leads him to think about human suffering and he decides to be an ascetic. The right wall in Veranda depicts his renunciation of worldly attachments and leaving the palace. Hence he starts his journey towards enlightenment and becoming Buddha.

Ajanta cave number one shrine and paintings
Ajanta cave number one shrine and paintings
Photo : By Christian Luczanits - Christian Luczanits, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The biggest attractions in Ajanta cave number 1 are the delicate yet, complex paintings of Vajrapani, and Padmapani – the compassionate Bodhisattvas. A guide for Ajanta caves should never miss these paintings. If you are short of time, then you can enter the cave 1 and right away proceed towards the inner sanctum. It is not possible to go very close to the sanctum and see the idol of Buddha. However one can see that the Buddha is in a seated position, with attendant bodhisattvas on either sides. Also there is a pair of flying dwarfs endowing Buddha with garlands.
On outside the sanctum, precisely on either side walls are the world famous paintings of Bodhisattvas Vajrapani, and Padmapani.

Painting of Padmapani - Left side of Shrine Antechamber - Ajanta cave 1

This painting is the Icon of Ajanta caves. This beautiful painting is popularly known as Padmapani - due to the lotus flower carried by this figure. Scholars believe that this is the depiction of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. He is a compassionate Bodhisattva. This painting of Avalokitesvara conveys the poise and compassion. In Buddhism Avalokitesvara is considered as an ascetic often depicted  with dreadlocks, a pilgrim’s flask and a lotus. However, this figure has a royal appearance probably due to the influence of the Royal patron emperor Harisena over the painters. Towards the Bodhisattvas right hand  we can see a crowned attendant who   is bringing an offering of fresh flowers to the bodhisattva.

Painting of Padmapani - guide for Ajanta cave - 1
Painting of Padmapani -  Ajanta cave - 1

Painting of Vajrapani - Right  side of Shrine Antechamber - Ajanta cave 1

As if paired with Padmapani, on the right side of Ajanta cave Shrine antechamber, we can find the painting of Vajrapani. He is a protector and guide Bodhisattva often depicted in royal attire. His crown is highly ornate and so are the cloths. Vajrapani means one who holds the thunderbolt, clearly a sign of power.  According to Ajanta conventions,  Vajrapani is shown paired with bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. It might be balancing representation of Kingly Bodhisattva  Vajrapani contrasted with the ascetic Avalokitesvara.
Painting of Vajrapani - guide for Ajanta cave - 1

Guide for Ajanta cave paintings - cave 1

Cave 1 is rich with ancient paintings, most of them are depiction of Jataka Tales( stories about the previous lives of Buddha). Cave 1 being of royal patronage, it is not surprising to see a huge collection of detailed paintings of Jataka tales. However much of these paintings are in rather damaged state and only with a help of a good guide one can decrypt the stories.  If you are taking a guide for Ajanta caves, make sure you ask him/her to show you the following stories at least.

Ajanta cave painting 1-  Maitribala : The benevolent selfless king

The Kingdom of Maitribala was so peaceful. Once three demons visited the kingdom and they saw a cowherd grazing unsupervised.(on the right side of the below painting you can see some cows, especially a white one). They informed the demons that in the Kingdom of  Maitribala, no one has to fear anything. The demons wanted to try the king. They took the form of Brahmins and asked the king for a feast. King offered a vegetarian meal. The demons took the original form and informed the king that they take only flesh and blood. The king, who did not want to harm another being offered to cut a piece of himself and give to the demons. The demons realized the greatness of King and the Devas were also pleased with him. You can read a long story of Maitribala Here. 
Ajanta cave painting 1-  Maitribala
Ajanta cave painting 1-  Maitribala

This is a close up of the above painting, you can see King Maitribala sitting cross legged on the right side and the demon in form of a Brahmin sits on the left( head missing). The consort of Maitribala and many courtiers also portrayed. 

Ajanta cave painting 2-  Janaka Jataka: The king who decided to renounce the world

This is the story of King Mahajanaka who decided to renounce his kingdom and become an ascetic. This painting shows the attempts by his Queen Sivali to stop Mahajanaka. She wears her best dress and make up in order to lure the king. She also arranges a dance so that the king would stay in palace. Mahajanaka Jataka is described in detail here

Ajanta cave painting 2-  Janaka Jataka
Ajanta cave painting 2-  Janaka Jataka
By Meister des Mahâjanaka Jâtaka [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The famous painting of the dancing girl of Ajanta is also a part of this Jataka story. It depicts a beautifully dressed dancer adorned in fabric reminding Pochampalli weaving style of India.
Ajanta cave painting 2-  Janaka Jataka - The dancing girl of Ajanta
Ajanta cave painting 2-  Janaka Jataka - The dancing girl of Ajanta

Ajanta cave painting 3-  Shibi Kapota Jataka: The kind King Shibi and the pigeon

The story of Shibi and the pigeon is a very famous Jataka tale. Shibi was a very kind king. Once a pigeon who was chased by a falcon landed on the lap of Shibi. The pigeon begged for protection and the falcon argued that Shibi has no right to take away it's prey. Shibi, being  justful and at the same time kindhearted decided to please both falcon and pigeon.  He cut off a pigeon's weight worth flesh from his own body and offered it to the falcon. 

Ajanta cave painting 3-  Shibi Kapota Jataka
Ajanta cave painting 3-  Shibi Kapota Jataka

Apart from these main paintings, there are many more Jataka tales are depicted in the walls of the Ajanta cave number 1. Some of them are really damaged which can only be explained by an experienced guide. If you are taking a guide for Ajanta caves, then you can ask to show the following Jataka tales depicted in the Ajanta paintings. - Mahasudarshana Jataka, Udrayana Jataka, Sudhana Jataka, Shankhapala, Kalyankarin,Sumagadha, Mahoshadha, Mahapratiharya, Prabhasa etc. 

Ceiling decorations of Ajanta cave number 1

Even though it is under lit, one can see an extensive set of paintings on the ceiling of Ajanta cave number 1. Unlike the walls, the main theme of these paintings are animals, playful dwarfs and ingenious floral and geometrical designs. There are also circular paintings with a hook in the center. These are intricately painted with bright colors which reminds us of a magic carpet. 

Painted ceiling  of Ajanta cave number 1
Painted ceiling  of Ajanta cave number 1