"For this cause, adoration and praise (offered to Him) remains not without its reward, and yields great and abundant advantage; and if on that occasion even one flower be offered, it becomes the cause of reward called heaven and final liberation".

This is the inscription on Cave 26, at Ajanta in the state of Maharashtra, which also conveys that the monk Buddhabhadra had ordered and provided for the cave's excavation in the late 5th century A.D. Earlier a merchant, Buddhabhadra had renounced the world and retreated to Ajanta, probably with much of his wealth. And the inscription subtly indicates his purpose: if a flower offered by the devotee is rewarded, then a magnificent prayer-hall, embellished with paintings and sculptures depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha, would definitely bestow much merit on its donor. Reflective of the Buddhist philosophy they subscribed to, monarchs and merchants patronized the excavation of rock-cut sanctuaries. Thus, a row of elaborate and decorative Buddhist caves were cut into the secluded mountain face overlooking the sliver of the Waghora River at Ajanta in Maharashtra, and they offer one of the most interesting chapters of ancient Indian art history.

Over the centuries, after the Buddha’s passing away around 486 B.C., councils were held to discuss different interpolations of his original message and philosophy. Differences in interpretation inevitably led to the emergence of different sects, and by the early centuries of the Christian Era, Mahayana Buddhism emerged with a philosophy that differed from the Hinayanas, who maintained that they followed the Buddha’s teachings more closely. In art, the orthodox Hinayanas did not depict the Buddha in images, but only suggested his presence by symbols such as the horse (signifying his renunciation), Bodhi tree (his Enlightenment), the Wheel (his first sermon at the Deer Park at Sarnath) and the stupa (his final resting place). On the other hand, the Mahayanas found it acceptable to sculpt and paint the Buddha image, which opened up a glorious chapter in Indian art.

An important concept stressed by the Mahayanas was belief in the Bodhisattva, a spiritual being who defers his own Enlightenment, so that he can help humankind in their pursuit of self-realization. The Buddhists believed that before being born as Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha had passed through innumerable lives, in animal and human form, and the Mahayanas stressed the Buddha’s role as a Bodhisattva, during which he took on the suffering of others and extended them guidance and compassion. Thus, the Mahayana belief (that stressed it was paramount to assist others in their quest) focused on a monastic organization rather than solitary asceticism and in turn led to the enlargement of single rock-cut cell retreats of ascetics to large rock-cut prayer halls and monasteries.

Further, the Mahayana belief that merit could be transferred from one person to another by a devout act, led wealthy merchants to bestow generous gifts on the Buddhist Sangha, an act that also helped them acquire merit. Donations also took the form of funding the excavation of chaityas or prayerhalls and viharas or monasteries. As the Mahayanas believed that Bodhisattvas and the Buddha could be represented in images, these sanctuaries were graced with paintings and sculpture. And thus were bequeathed beautiful embellished chaityas and viharas at Ajanta, now a World Heritage Site as listed by the UNESCO. Of the 1,100 rock-cut caves in the country present in Orissa, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, about 900 are located in the Deccan of which a majority are Buddhist, and of these Ajanta stands apart for its artistic expression.

Cave 10, the earliest chaitya and possibly Ajanta’s earliest excavation, bears paintings dated to the midsecond century B.C. and incorporate symbols of the Buddha such as the Bodhi Tree and the Stupa. However later paintings (dated from about the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.) and sculpture at Cave 10, as well as other caves at Ajanta, depict the Bodhisattva and events from the life of the Buddha. Remarking on the timespan of Ajanta’s history, Dr. A. P. Jamkhedhkar, former Director Archaeology and Museums, Maharashtra, says that “Ajanta provides an uninterrupted history of the development of the religious architecture of Buddhism, spanning a period of 700 years though there was a lull of about four centuries in between the two phases of activity”.

The second phase of religious and artistic activity at the site takes Ajanta’s art to a sublime plane. “At Ajanta, the Vakatakas, who were related by marriage to the legendary Gupta rulers of north India (in the early fifth century), commissioned the excavation of rock-cut caves. They lit the last flame of India’s classical art here, and it burned bright, for, Ajanta remains unique as sculpture, architecture and painting of the highest beauty and skill”. The murals executed on the walls, ceilings and pillars, convey an entire world: the Buddha kings and commoners in narratives that bring alive and convey fables and their morals to visitors as a subtle exercise in self-realization. “Thus through the art of Ajanta one can learn about various facets of ancient life - from the attire of people, craftsmanship and religious beliefs of the time to the political and economic position of the rulers”.

While the Guptas- their rule is recalled as ‘The Golden Age’ reeled under the attack of the Huns from the West, Dr. Jamkhedkar says, the Vakatakas remained unaffected by the Hun invasion and went on to give the country a heritage in the form of Ajanta. The ruler Harishena (462-483 A.D.) and his feudatories, as well as wealthy merchants, funded the excavation of caves, a grant by which they believed they would be accumulating merit and also probably regarded themselves as Bodhisattvas. “Under Harishena, (whose kingdom extended from Ujjain to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh to Gujarat and down the Konkan Coast) it seemed as if the whole court was working for Ajanta, as there was intense activity here: caves were excavated, painted and embellished with sculpture”. Dr. Jamkhedkar goes on to quote Dr. Walter Spink, who is so enamoured by Ajanta that he feels Ajanta was commissioned by the greatest ruler in the world, and Aianta is this greatest ruler’s greatest monument.

Ajanta’s artistic expression travelled to other lands, by land and sea trade routes, add wall paintings in Buddhist prayerhalls and monasteries in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China and Japan are believed to have derived inspiration from those at Ajanta.

By the seventh century A.D. Buddhism started fading away, and Ajanta was slowly lost to jungle. It was several centuries later, in 1819, that the caves were discovered.

Not by a monk or a merchant, but by an officer of the East India Company in pursuit of a tiger. Intrigued by the sight of an unusual formation on the rock face in the valley below - from a site now called Ajanta Viewpoint-his group ventured below to discover a lost heritage. Since then there have been restoration efforts at preserving the caves, specially the paintings. Today, the Ajanta caves are one of India’s prime destinations and are best visited after the monsoons, when the countryside is lush and the river flowing. Nature’s landscape is perfect, and so is Ajanta’s beauty. It endures in the heart and mind long after one has left.

-India Perspectives