History of Paintings of Ajanta

Ajanta caves are famous for its ancient mural paintings. Most of these paintings are done during the time period AD 463, during the rule of Vakataka dynasty. So, these paintings are more than 1500 years old. It has been commissioned by many kings and royal patrons of Vakataka dynasty. The paintings of Ajanta are vibrant and delicate. They depict various events from the life of Gautama Buddha. These tales are known as Jataka tales. 

Recreation of a painting of Ajanta
by Robert Gill, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Padmapani – The compassionate Bodhisattva 

One of the most famous paintings of Ajanta is that of Padmapani. It’s located near the sanctum of Ajanta cave one. The figure depicted in this iconic mural painting is bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The figure has a royal crown and flanked by attendants.

Painting of Padmapani Ajanta Caves
Photo Courtesy: 9212jayCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2. Vajrapani - Bodhisattva who is a protector and guide

Another iconic painting of Ajanta is the depiction of Vajrapani. It's located in the cave one, adjacent to the mural painting of Padmapani. This is a very complex and delicate mural that depicts the Bodisattva in a royal attire. Vajrapani wields a thunderstorm in one hand, a clear indicator of his power. On close observation, one can see an attendant next to Vajrapani, holding a tray of lotuses. 
Vajrapani - The Protector

3. The Dancing Girl of Ajanta

One of the iconic paintings of Ajanta is that of a dancing girl. It's a part of the Mahajanaka Jataka panel in cave 1. The grace and poise of this court dancer is beautifully depicted in this mural. However, this painting has gone through much erosion. The second image shows Robert Gills' reproduction of the same image, made around the time the Ajanta caves were rediscovered by the British.

Dancing girl of Ajanta painting - Original


4. Thousand Buddhas of Ajanta cave

Another famous mural of Ajanta caves is popularly known as the thousand Buddhas. This mural is found in cave number 2. This cave was built in AD 464. These are a collection of numerous miniature Buddha figures seated in various yogic posture. These paintings are located close to the sanctum, arranged neatly in a rectangular frame. Unfortunately, most of these paintings have chipped off. 

A part of Thousand Buddhas of Ajanta
A part of Thousand Buddhas of Ajanta
Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

5. The Birth of Gautama Buddha - Bhagavatprasuti 

This mural painting of Ajanta depict the birth of Bodhisattva as Gautama Buddha. This is a very vivid mural panel. Various episodes related to the birth of Gautama Buddha is depicted in this painting found in Ajanta Cave 2. It starts with Maya, queen of Kapilavastu seeing the dream of  a six-tusked white elephant. It's interpreted as a divine dream and the scholars predict that Maya would give birth to a divine child. This is known as the story of Bhagavatprasuti. In the below part of the painting, Bodhisattva is discussing his next birth with the other Gods. 

Ajanta painting panel - Bhagavatprasuti - Birth of Gautama Buddha.

6. Dhanapala Narrative - Buddha subjugating a berserk elephant

In the porch of Cave 17, the painting of Dhanapala's story is present. The painting shows an elephant gone berserk dashing through the streets. Dhanapala was the pet elephant of King Ajatashatru . 
Dhanapala was always angry and caused harm whenever he was let out into the streets. This Ajanta mural depicts how the compassionate Buddha calms down Dhanapala. This is a quite vibrant and dynamic painting with a lot of details. The painting is spread across the porch wall, each panel depicting each scene from this Jataka tale of Dhanapala. This famous tale is also know as Buddha subjugating the elephant of Nalagiri. 

Dhanapala Narrative painting on Ajanta cave 17 porch
Dhanapala painting on Ajanta cave 17 porch

7. Udayin Narrative - A vibrant painting on Ajanta cave 17

This is a vibrant painting, flashing orange and red colors, depicting the story of Udayin and Gupta. Udayin  was a member of King Suddhodhana's court. He falls in love with Gupta, but later decides to renounce the worldly life and wants to follow the Guatama Buddha. This painting depicts Gupta's attempt to stop Udayin. This painting has lavish colors, vermillion, lapiz lazuli and emerald blue. 

Udayin and Gupta in Palace 

8. Painting of King Mahajana - From Janaka Jataka

This vibrant painting of Ajanta cave 1 depicts the story of Mahajanaka, a king who wanted to renounce the world and following the footsteps of Gautama Buddha. His queen Sivali is distressed by this decision and this mural depicts how she tries to retain Mahajanaka in the palace. She wears her best dress and even arranges a dance for the king. 

Ajanta painting - Janaka Jataka
 Janaka Jataka
By Meister des Mahâjanaka Jâtaka, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Buddha and Rahula - Heart warming Ajanta painting 

This is a touching painting of Gautama Buddha accepting a bowl of rice from his son Rahula. Yasodhara, Gautama's wife, is also seen in the picture. She was devastated when Gautama decided to leave the palace. he tried to cajole him back to the palace enchanted dumpling. Rahula offered Buddha the enchanted dumpling in the begging bowl. Buddha realized it and offered it back to Rahula. Later, Rahula also followed Buddha's footsteps and became a monk.

Painting of Buddha with Rahula and Yashodhara
Buddha with Rahula and Yashodhara

10. Samsara Chakra - The wheel of different worlds

This is a very interesting painting in Ajanta caves. It's a very insightful painting that represents different worlds. Unfortunately a major portion of this painting is already damaged. 

Samsara Chakra in Ajanta 

Original Samsara Chakra
By Nagarjun Kandukuru from Bangalore, India
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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