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Ancient Buddhist Arts in Ajanta Caves

By Devik Balami at
Ancient Buddhist Arts in Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Caves is situated in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state in India. In this cave, there are about 29 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date from the 2nd century BCE to 480 or 650 CE. The caves include painting and Antique Buddha Statues of different height carved in the walls of the caves. It is believed that these paintings and sculpture are the finest surviving ancient Indian art presenting emotion through gesture and posture.

It is recorded that the caves were built in two phases. The first one was started around the 2nd century BCE and the second phase was started around the 5th century. Earlier, only 29 cave was discovered and then these caves were associated with the numbers but later on other caves were also discovered. These newly found caves were then associated with the alphabets. For example, the newly found cave between 16 and 17 are then associated with 16a. In this way, the newly found caves were also numbered accordingly.

Let's have brief information of the some of the caves of the Ajanta.

Cave 1

The Cave 1 is the first cave that the visitor encounters and it was built on the eastern end of the horse-shoe shaped scarp. As Walter M. Spink, Professor of Art History, believes that it was the last cave that was excavated and was never worshipped the Buddha statue in the shrine fully because there was absence of sooty deposits on the base of the Buddha statue and also the paintings were not damaged in comparison to others found in other caves which were due to garland that is hooked around the paintings.

Spink also believes that the artistic works were done with the fund donated by Vakataka Emperor Harishena which is reflected on the imagery of royalty in the cave along with those Jataka tales of Buddha's previous lives.

In the front of the cave's facade, there was a columned portico which fell down completely and the remains were carelessly thrown into the river. The façade has marvelous relief sculptures with other decorative carvings. These sculptures and designs also depicts the life of the Buddha.

The Cave has three doorways- central and two side doorways. Between the doorways, there is two square windows which is beautifully carved. The main objective to make a windows is to brighten the interiors.

The cave is nearly 12 m deep and 6.1 m high. On the rear wall of the cave, an impressive seated statue of Buddha with dharmachakra mudra is placed. The walls and ceiling of the cave is decorated with the paintings which is now in state of preservation. Among the painting painted in the walls of the cave, the famous and impressive paintings are of two over life sized figures of the bodhisattvas, Padmapani and Vajrapani which is painted on either side of the entrance of the cave.

Cave 2

Cave 2 is well known for the paintings that is painted on the walls, ceilings and pillars of the cave. Even though it looks similar to cave 1, it is in a better state of preservation. This Cave was started in the 460 CE but most of the work was done between 475 and 477 CE, probably supported by female figure. That's why the artistic works are more focused on feminine aspects. The ceiling is supported by the four pillars and each pillars is parallel to the respective walls of the hall which makes passage between them. The major carvings includes a Buddhist deity, Harati believes to be protector of the babies. In this cave, the artistic expression clearly shows Jataka tales which emphasis stories of Buddha's earlier life when he was a Bodhisattva. The cave has a doorway in the center of the cave and either side of the door has a square shaped window to pass the light and to make the hall more visible.

Cave 4

Cave 4 was planned to be the largest monastery but it was never finished. Even though it has a statue of Bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara on the rear wall and the inscription on the pedestal mentions that it was a gift from a person called Mathura. The cave consists of Verandah, a hall, sanctum and series of unfinished compartments.

Caves 9 and 10

Cave 9 and 10 was started during the first phase of construction though both were uncompleted even at the end of the second phase of construction. In between these two caves, there are other caves as well which were later discovered. They are cave 9A to 9D and 10A and these caves were from second phase of construction.

In cave 10, there are painting from the early periods but most of them are incomplete. These images are solely for votive purposes which were crafted during 479-480 CE.

Cave 17

At the entrance of the Cave 17, we can see two great stone elephants which was sponsored by Hindu Vakataka Prime Minister Varahadeva. This cave had a multiple donors as mentioned in the inscription and one of them was local king Upendragupta. The cave features a most sophisticated vihara design, along with some of the best-preserved and well known paintings of all the caves. This cave has numerous pillars with distinct style with peristyle design for the interior hall. The cave has a larger windows and doors which helps to brighten the hall. The hall consists of a shrine which is located deep in the cave along with other carvings of Indian gods and goddess.

The painting found in Cave 17 includes Bodhisattva- Avalokitesvara, Buddha in various styles, lVisvantara Jataka, Hamsa Jataka, wheel of life, prince Simhala's expedition to Sri Lanka, which shows a shipwreck and the escape from ogresses by a flying horse.

Till now, the researchers have excavated 36 foundations out of which 29 caves were discovered earlier and named accordingly. These masterpieces of Buddhist art have been recognized by UNESCO and the site, Ajanta Caves have been listed in UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.