Ajanta Caves: An Unexpectable Form Of Painting
The style of Ajanta has exerted a considerable influence in India and elsewhere, extending, in particular, to Java. With its two groups of monuments corresponding to two important moments in Indian history, the Ajanta cave ensemble bears exceptional testimony to the evolution of Indian art, as well as to the determining role of the Buddhist community, intellectual and religious foyers, schools and reception centres in the India of the Gupta and their immediate successors.
The caves are situated 100 km north-east of Ellora, 104 km from Aurangabad and 52 km from Jalgaon Railway Station. They are cut into the volcanic lava of the Deccan in the forest ravines of the Sahyadri Hills and are set in beautiful sylvan surroundings. These magnificent caves containing carvings that depict the life of Buddha, and their carvings and sculptures are considered to be the beginning of classical Indian art.
The earlier architectural formulas were re-employed but treated in an infinitely richer and more ample manner. The decoration attained, at this time, an unequalled splendour: the statuary is numerous (it was already permissible to represent Buddha as a human; these representations are found both on the facades and in the interior). Finally, the wall painting, profuse and sensitive, constitutes, no doubt, the most striking artistic achievement of Ajanta.
Under the impulse of the Gupta dynasty, Indian art in effect reached its apogee. The Ajanta Caves are generally decorated with painted or sculpted figures of supple form and classic balance with which the name of the dynasty has remained synonymous. The refined lightness of the decoration, the balance of the compositions, the marvelous beauty of the feminine figures place the paintings of Ajanta among the major achievements of the Gupta and post-Gupta style and confer on them the ranking of a masterpiece of universal pictorial art.
The Ajanta site comprises thirty caves cut into the side of a cliff which rises above a
meander in the Waghora River. Today the caves are reached by a road which runs along a terrace mid-way up the cliff, but each cave was once linked by a stairway to the edge of the water. This is a Buddhist community, comprising five sanctuaries or Chaitya-grihas (caves 9, 10, 19, 26 and 29) and monastic complex sangharamas or viharas. A first group of caves was created in the 2nd century BC: the chaitya-grihas open into the rock wall by doorways surmounted by a horse-shoe shaped bay. The ground plan is a basilical one: piers separate the principal nave from the side aisles which join in the apsis to permit the ritual circumambulation behind the (commemorative monument). This rupestral architecture scrupulously reproduces the forms and elements visible in wooden constructions.
A second group of caves was created at a later date, the 5th and 6th centuries AD, during the Gupta and post-Gupta periods. These caves were excavated during the supremacy of the Vakatakas and Guptas. According to inscriptions, Varahadeva, the minister of the Vakataka king, Harishena (c. AD 475-500), dedicated Cave 16 to the Buddhist sangha while Cave 17 was the gift of the prince, a feudatory. An inscription records that the Buddha image in Cave 4 was the gift of some Abhayanandi who hailed from Mathura.
Ajanta Caves showcase some of the best instances of ancient sculptures and murals. These caves, 29 in number are 24 monasteries and five temples. About 200 monks and artisans occupy them. These caves are hailed for their grandiose beauty and enjoy being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They were the greatest Buddhist monastery from 2nd to 7th century BC. Caves here are carved from the horse-shoe twisted stone cliffs. Buddhist monks chiseled out these beautiful caves between 200 BC and 650 AD as chaityas (prayer halls) and viharas (monasteries). They have superb frescoes and excellent sculptures. Ajanta caves are categorized in two phases: the Hinayana phase and the Mahayana phase. Some of the important Ajanta cave sculptures in India are elaborated below.
- Cave 1– It houses some best specimens, specifically the two bodhisattvas of Vajrapani and Padmapani and a seated Buddha sculpture. The Wheel of Life is placed beneath his statue.
- Cave 2– It is a wonderfully painted ceiling which looks like tent. Its remarkable feature is animated sculptures. Intricate patterns adorn its walls that show scenes of Gautam Buddha’s birth.
- Cave 4– This is a squarish monastery housing a sanctum sanctorum, hall, pillared verandah and is the largest monastery at Ajanta. The door frame is elegantly sculpted. Bodhisattva as reliever of Eight Great Perils is carved flanking to the right. The hall’s ceiling preserves an exceptional geological characteristic of a lava flow.
- Cave 5– This is an unfinished monastery. Its significant features are lavishly carved door frame and female figures on makaras.
- Cave 6-This is a monastery which is double storeyed. Its lower storey consists of sanctum sanctorum, hall and a pillared hall. A hall with cells, subsidiary cells and sanctum sanctorum are housed in the upper storey. In both the shrines, Lord Buddha is placed in the attitude of preaching. The representation of Temptation of Mara and Miracle of Sravasti are the significant paintings. Sculptural portrayal of Buddha in a variety of postures and attitudes can also be noticed in this cave.
- Cave 9– It is flaunted not only with sculptures but also with wonderful frescoes.
- Cave 11– The sculpture of Lord Buddha is connected to a stupa. It is an intermingling of image and stupa worship.
- Cave 12 and Cave 13– Gorgeous paintings that radiate in the dark and life-size and miniature sculptures are here.
- Cave 15 and Cave 16– Thee caves elucidate the illustrative marvel and point outsome more astonishing aspects of sculptures and paintings that make over the rocky cave walls.
- Cave 17 – Its discriminating murals portray devotees with offerings in the Royal Procession.
- Cave 20– It is a pillar less monastery having a hall, sanctum sanctorum, cells and a pillared verandah. A Brahmi message in the verandah is also there. Another significant sculptural panel of this cave is the sculpture of seven Buddhas along with attendants.
- Cave 21– It is a monastery having a hall having twelve pillars and twelve cells on three sides, pillared verandah and sanctum sanctorum. Four are with pillared porches out of 12 cells. Seated Buddha in preaching attitude is there in the sanctum. Trace of paintings are noticed which consist of a panel depicting Buddha preaching a congregation.
- Cave 22– This monastery houses an astylar hall, sanctum sanctorum, four unfinished cells and a tapered verandah. On the back wall of the shrine, Buddha seated in pralamba-padasana is carved. Painted figures of Manushi-Buddhas with Maitreya and the sculptural depiction of Buddha in different forms can be seen here.