“I want to stand there under the murals, experience them in person, before they are damaged forever.”
This is how my flat mate reacts when she sees me packing bags for Ajanta. I had no better answer to her question of why I was going to a cave in the Deccan on a college break, unlike my other batch mates who were making plans for Goa. Over the last semester I had read and worked on the Ajanta murals for my paper so much, that now it only made sense to visit the place in person.
Ajanta and Ellora caves had always been in my bucket list, and during my second semester breaks in college, I made sure I visit Aurangabad and its vicinity. A week-long stay in the region gave me the opportunity to admire many other landmarks such as the tomb of Aurangzeb, the Bibi-ka-Maqbara (which has been inappropriately labelled as a “copy” of the Taj Mahal), Daulatabad Fort, etc.
Here I would contain a discussion of only the Ajanta Caves, and primarily its murals, due to paucity of space.
The Ajanta Caves were named after the nearby village of Ajintha, when discovered in early 19th century by officers of the Madras Army. Located in the very heart of the “Indhyadri” Range, the horse shoe bend of around thirty caves border the curve of the Waghora River, in the state of Maharashtra. At once grandiose and pleasantly rustic, the site also benefits from a nearby waterfall, the Saptakunda (Seven Cascades).
The only textual mention of the caves is by the Chinese traveller Huin Tsang who visited India during the 17th century CE, during which time the site was probably still active, attracting myriad pilgrims, devotees and travellers. These were primarily Buddhist caves, used during the monsoon season as shelters for the itinerant monks. Over decades more and more living rock was hollowed out and viharas (monasteries) and chaityas (prayer halls) constructed by generations of followers and well as non-followers of Buddhism. The site probably received royal patronage, hinting at the importance of the region, which enabled the creators to undertake an awe-inspiring program of architectural and visual accomplishments.
In order to reach the main site, I had to take an eco-friendly bus up the hill and then walk for another half an hour, to finally reach Cave 1. The steep walk up had left me breathless, and sweaty, and I had begun to reconsider walking any further than this. But on entering the cave, I instantly realised that all the physical labour was worth every bit!
There I stood, wide eyed and jaw dropped, amongst layers and layers of paintings, covering almost every inch of open surface, as if in horror vacui. Animals and birds set on creepers and other fauna, celestial beings hovering overhead, royal personages being initiated, musicians and dancers accompanying every event – all around me there was a celebration of beauty, perfection and life.
The caves were painted by guilds of artisans, being commissioned by the royalty or noblemen. The colours used were organic and mostly the images narrated the Jataka stories and the biography of the historical Buddha. Along with religious topics, secular themes were also dealt with which portrayed a very vibrant and exuberant ancient Indian lifestyle. An analysis of the murals have revealed that the painters followed the ancient treaties on techniques and art-making (Shilpa Shastras), mainly the Chitrasutra, in the creation of these masterpieces.
A domineering stylistic element of the Ajanta paintings is a contrasting chromatic effect obtained by juxtaposing figures of different flesh colour. The Ajanta painters were also considered experts in the subtle art of modelling and relief intended to give roundness to the forms and fullness to flesh. In treating the human figure, he may also choose to delicately manipulate highlights against a darker background, for instance, underlining the curve of the lips or the bulge of the eyelids with a pale stroke, accenting the nose bridge with a light line or with bright points, picking out the reflected gleam of jewels on dark flesh.
What at first seems a confused, disorderly pictorial jumble follows definite rules that, once known allow the viewer to differentiate among the scenes, isolate the groups, gradually perceive the internal organisation of the composition, and appreciate the harmonious beauty of the whole.
It is impossible to talk about every single mural or every single architectural detail in such a short space. Hence I would limit my narrative to some of the most beautiful works of art. Most of the murals are confined to the first few caves, the term vithi (galleries) being used for them.
Cave 1 is an elegant vihara constructed during the 5th century CE. The most astounding paintings from this cave are those relating the MahajanakaJataka, the story of King Mahajanaka. The painters here depicted the second half of the story dealing with Mahajanaka’s renunciation of the kingdom, renunciation of desires being considered of utmost importance in Buddhism. I tried my level best to get decent photographs in spite of the “no-flash” rule, but the murals have been so terribly damaged over the last few years of neglect and ignorance (a group of archaeologists once varnished the entire walls which led to flaking of the same in a huge amount) that I could only capture below average shots. Interesting figures in the Mahajanaka panels were the dancer in the foreground with her tie-and-die garment (a technique of cloth decoration still prevalent in India) and a companion of the royal entourage with an intricately detailed geese-motif shawl.
Adorning the two sides of the sanctum sanctorum, where the image of Buddha was sculpted, were the figures of Bodhisattva Padmapani and Vajrapani.
The Padmapani image can be undoubtedly classified as one of the masterpieces of Indian art for all times to come. Sticking perfectly to the technical treaties in every sense, the figure still manages to invoke an individualistic emotion of duality – as appropriate for this particular Bodhisattva, who serves mankind earnestly and yet does not desire liberation for himself. The facial expression, the downcast meditative eyes evoke sympathy and detachment, passion and indifference at the same time, a feat mastered so well by the Ajanta painters that to be repeated by any contemporary artist today is highly under doubt.
Hypnotised by the unbelievable beauty of these murals and the rock-cut architecture, I kept moving further and further ahead. Ignoring all the physical strain, I kept exploring cave after cave, and finally made it till the end. As mentioned previously, most of the murals were in the initial caves only, but the others were majestic displays of rock-cut architectural achievements in themselves. The chaitya grihas (prayer halls) had more complicated ornamentation than the viharas. The outside walls of these prayer halls were profusely filled with reliefs depicting events from Gautama Buddha’s life, related myths of Yakshas, Yakshis (Nature Spirits) and Nagas (Serpent).
Also worth mentioning were the elaborate chaitya windows, pillar ornamentation and the inside of the roof carved with beam pattern, which had resonances with previous wood constructions. This characteristic of mimicking beam construction from wooden prototypes is a consistent feature in almost all ancient Indian Buddhist structures, a fact proving the theory of transition from wood to stone in Indian architecture (The wooden structures could not survive the climatic and other onslaughts of this humid country).
I travelled to many other places after this visit, it has been three years since my Ajanta summer break, but something about this visit will always stay with me. The caves of Ajanta with their breath-taking beauty humbled me. What our ancestors could do with bare hands and a chisel, what they could paint with nothing but organic colours and a hand-made brush!
We, living in modern times, could be mistaken in the assumption that we are the most developed humans that history has ever produced. We may have advanced mechanically and scientifically to an unprecedented level, may have built many beautiful things with machines and robots. But, one only need to experience something akin to what I did at Ajanta, to realise that maybe we are wrong in our assumptions.
Maybe we have become too confident today, and maybe there is more to our ancestors than just mud huts and bullock carts.
Art historian and Writer at ARTINFO India