Ajanta caves are located 99-km away from Aurangabad district in the state of Maharashtra. The caves of Ajanta provided the canvas for innumerable paintings, not by Buddhist monks as commonly believed, but by highly trained members of guilds of artists under monastic and royal patronage.
Beginning in the 2nd century BC, and continuing for 900 years, 26 caves were chipped out of a horseshoe shaped cliff. These caves were a secluded retreat for Buddhist monastic orders and yet offered easy access to the trade routes that swung past here to the coast.
Ajanta caves were rediscovered in 1819 by a small detachment of East India Company troops. Ajanta's excavations are adorned with a swirling profusion of multicoloured murals, depicting everything from battlefields to boudoirs, sailing ships to city streets and teeming animal-filled forests to the snow-capped mountains. These paintings rank among India's most beautiful treasures.
These are the caves that the followers of Lord Buddha, embellished with architectural details with a skilful command of the hammer over the chisel, with sculpture of highest craftsmanship and above all, with the paintings of infinite charm. The entire course of the evolution of Buddhist architecture can be traced in Ajanta.
All sections of people of the contemporary society from kings to slaves, women, men and children are seen in the Ajanta murals interwoven with flowers, plants, fruits, birds and beasts. There are also the figures of ‘Yakshas’, ‘Kinneras’ (half human and half bird) ‘Gandharvas’ (divine musicians), ‘Apsaras’ (heavenly dancers), which were of concern to the people of that time.
When the echo of the chisel faded, the world forgot these cave temples, which were hidden for a long time under the thick undergrowth until a company of British soldiers accidentally discovered them in 1819. The 30 rock caves of Ajanta are in the shape of a mammoth horse-shoe, nestling in an inner fold of the Sahyadri Hills.
The Ajanta caves are dedicated solely to Buddhism. The caves including unfinished are thirty in number of which five are “Chaitya-Grihas” and the rest are “Sangharamas” or Viharas (monasteries). The 30 Chaityas and Viharas have paintings, which illustrate the life and incarnations of Buddha. The artist has lent his creativity in each work with an overwhelming sense of vitality. These paintings have survived time and till date the numerous paintings glowing on the walls make atmosphere very vibrant and alive.
In the first Cave, Prince Buddha is depicted delicately holding the fragile blue lotus, his head bent sideways as if the weight of his ornate jewelled crown is too heavy for his head. His half-closed eyes give an air of meditation, almost of shyness.
In the first cave one can also see the court scene, which is believed to be of conversion of ‘Nanda’, a fellow prince like Buddha who had decided to join Buddha’s monastic order. It is in the female figures in the paintings of Ajanta that one sees the true mastery of the artist. Magnificent array of colours, hairstyles, poses and costumes can be seen in the paintings. Women in the paintings lean against the wooden pillar of a man dap, or hall, and look on at a group of female musicians accompanying a dancer.
The second cave which is one of the better-preserved monasteries with a shrine, shows how sculpture, paintings and architectural elements were used together to enhance the atmosphere of piety and sanctity. The ceiling and wall paintings illustrate events associated with Buddha’s birth. The scenes include Maya, Buddha’s mother standing in the garden at Lumbini, a scene where Mahajanaka Jataka, the queen and her attendants can be seen. In that cave, Buddhist icons were sculpted according to a set of codified rules that used symbolic hand gestures and motifs such as the wheel, the deer, the throne and sacred Bodhi tree. Each represents a stage of Buddha’s life.
There are several Chaitya Grihas or prayer halls at Ajanta. The plan consists of a central nave with pillars, behind which is a circulatory passage. The hall is often apsidal in plan or with a curved back wall, possibly taken from a wooden design. Within the curved end a stone miniature Stupa, or emblem of Buddha, was carved to serve as the focal point of the prayer hall.
The Boddhisatvas who figure prominently in the Ajanta paintings are celestial beings, often personifications of the virtues of Buddha, who visit the world of men. In later Buddhist philosophy, the time when these rock shrines were hewn out of the hill side, the Boddhisatvas were beings who had renounced the attainment of nirvana to attend to human needs. The Boddhisatva Padmapani (in the first cave) is a wonderful portrayal of the tender compassion that infuses his ministry to suffering mankind-gentle eyes, delicate lips about to speak words of consolation and a lotus held in a beautifully drawn hand.
In the same cave you see the golden figure of Avalokiteswara with an elaborate crown hung with looped strands fo pearls; pearl necklaces adorn his handsome body and a gold girdle fastens his striped garment. Under the royal patronage of ruling dynasties, professional artists helped the monks and left a record of contemporary life with palaces and princesses and processions along with tales of piety and faith. Narrative panels in the caves illustrate stories from the Jatakas-the large collection of tales of the previous births of Buddha and his increasing strength and moral stature through one incarnation after another.
Symbolic of the soul’s long journey through many births, these tales for the benefit and instruction of people are depicted here in artistic detail. The nymphs, princesses and attendants of Ajanta are women of exquisite elegance and charm, hair dressed in intricate syles and jewels highlighting slender necks and waists. The flying apsara in a fashionable embroidered turban tells you of the splendid jewellery worn by highborn women; the pearl tassels of her necklace and turban swing delicately with her aerial movement.
Ajanta also forms the base of a motif, which was frequently used in the paintings, even in the 19th century Rajput miniature paintings. The motif of two lovers, a mithuna couple has been used in many of Ajanta paintings. One can spend days exploring, discovering and learning these caves but still the urge to see more hangs in the mind. The caves are so fascinating that one feels like coming here again and again.