Ajanta A story of the Golden Age of Buddhism in India
28th April, 1819
“Follow me, men!”
The young man gave chase, following the elusive feline along the mountain path and in to the dense jungle. Suddenly an odd formation in the rock wall caught his attention.
Curious, he let the tiger escape, and was drawn to the anomaly. Coming upon it, he realised that it was a window, and to his shock, found it was part of an elaboratearchway, leading to a darkened cave.
It was then that Captain John Smith, of the 28th Cavalry, stepped over the threshold and made the discovery of his lifetime.
The Ajanta Caves. Located in the Maharashtra state of India, it represents- through its very walls- the beginnings of Buddhism in India.
How and when were they built?
The caves were carved into and from the rock face of the cliff that overlooks the river Waghora and form a crescent.
The first period of excavation was carried out from 100 BCE to 100 CE and five of twenty-nine caves were built during the time. Two of these caves are chaitya-ghiras (A place of worship in Buddhism) with stupas, and three are viharas (A residence hall, but worship may also take place here)
After a few centuries of inactivity, the second, more intensive period of architectural work commenced. In 400 CE, over a period of twenty-something years, twenty-four more caves were completed. Most of these are viharas. Some of these were partially incomplete and some are double storeyed.
The caves are numbered from 1 to 29. Initially, ladders were used to access these caves, but later steps were cut in to the cliff, which lead down to the river.
What’s so special about them?
The caves are enormous. Cave 1, one of the later period caves, has walls 20 feet high.
These first periodchaitya-ghira caves are interesting- they don’t have any sculptures of Buddha, instead using stupas to represent him. They don’t display extensive designs in the architecture and severely lack any human representations of Buddha except through art. They used plain columns with painted images on them.
In contrast, the second batch of caves seems to have been built with extravagance in mind. The walls have countless reliefs of Buddha as human carved into them, embellishedcolumns, and beautiful decorativemotifs.
These were some of the first depictions of Buddha in history. This was the reason there were no sculpted representations of Buddha’s image in the earlier caves. Later, portable idols were made and Buddha’s figure started appearing in coins and portable sculptural forms.
But what makes The Ajanta Caves special is their art.
What makes The Ajanta Caves different?
Besides its unique location and structure, the Caves are home to some of the most astounding works of art from the Golden Age of Buddhism, and in fact, of all Indian art in history.
There are several factors that set the Ajanta paintings from other cave paintings. The use of natural pigments, for one. Another specialty is their use of “dry-fresco” instead of “wet-fresco”, which is basically painting onto the dry plaster walls instead of using water to wet it and allow the paint to mix. But after some time, instead of being incorrectly called frescoes, they were referred to as murals.
The caves are entirely covered in paintings. Every wall, column and even some of the ceilings. Some pictures depict stories of Buddha’s life as a king, and gravitate towards pictures of large courts, through which experts like Walter M. Spink estimated that these painters were accustomed to painting in temples and palaces.
But the paintings serve a purpose beyond just beauty and artistry.
Professionals claim that the function of the paintings was another way of imparting to the worshippers the stories of Buddha’s rebirths and lives, so that they may learn from his wisdom and lead life accordingly. It was those painted in the second phase that present the poems of the jataka- the stories of Buddha’s lives.
An inscription in Cave 17 indicates that the paintings are meant to “cause the attainment of well-being by good people as long as the sun dispels darkness by its rays”. Anyone who had accepted Buddhism was welcome to benefit from these.
Keep in mind that no modern tools and equipment was available to the painters and builders. They probably had to work at night, in poor lighting, with lamps or torches, barely able to make out the images. Yet these paintings are near immaculate, an effective depiction of life millenniums ago, some even before the birth of Christ and centuries before the European Renaissance.
Woah, how did they get the tools and paint in the first place?
They made them. The image and the intricate details were painted on with brushes made of the tail hair of squirrels. Many modern paintbrushes are also made from squirrel hair. The pigments were made from crushed or ground pebbles and vegetables from the surrounding area and mixed with adhesive.
All the figures were painted with multiple colours and overlapped each other on the multiple surfaces the pictures were spread over,but were not repetitive. The colours, like ochre and lapis lazuli, were imported from foreign countries.
But don’t forget that the paint wouldn’t set on plain old rock- and neither would the art be so detail-oriented on uneven surface. A foundation was created to receive the paint by mixing dung, powdered rice and, ickily enough, urine. This was put on to the broken rock surfaceand after it dried, lime plaster was applied on top of it. So, if you do go there, don’t touch the paintings- and not only because youmay damage them.
That’s amazing… what else has been discovered about the Caves?
There’s actually plenty that hasn’tbeen discovered about the Ajanta Caves. Nobody knows why the caves were abandoned so soon after its work was done, some even left incomplete. There are many theories about it, but nothing is certain. Eventually, within the years of neglect, the surrounding jungle grew over the architecture and hid it from view, until the day John Smith stumbled upon it.
The abandonment and outgrowth of jungle actually benefitted the caves in a very important way. If the caves were in constant use, they may never have survived this long in such an undamaged state. And it was even more fortuitous that the caves were not discovered any earlier, or we may not have been able to even as much of it as we do today.
The most astounding attraction surrounding the Caves is simply the devotion and care with which each facet of it was built- from inception to end. The sculptures andpaintings, right down to the last brushstroke, were composed with painstaking love and patience for art, beauty and even Buddha himself.
All in all, visiting the Ajanta Caves is like taking a trip into history itself- home to the masterpieces of ancient Buddhist art.