Ajanta Caves: Where all the fine arts converge

The world-famous, rock-cut Ajanta Caves is one of those places where background reading or research doesn’t help. At least, it didn’t help me.

Prior to visiting the caves in December 2013, I had read up on the best time to visit, the must see paintings in the caves, etc., but my first look at the Ajanta Caves spread out before me like an arc, and I forgot all that I had read. So, when I walked into Cave 1 and saw the shimmering painting of Bodhisattva Padmapani (see photo below), I was surprised and delighted. Arguably, the best known Ajanta painting, I was as surprised and delighted as the 3 villagers who were standing next to me, and who had perhaps neither seen a picture nor read anything about the Ajanta cave paintings before.

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
Bodhisattva Padmapani

The Ajanta Caves is also one of those places, which has been very difficult to write about. More than a year and countless drafts later, I finally wrote this post — my nth attempt. I have written it with the full knowledge that it does not do justice to what I saw and experienced. Hopefully, the photographs in this post will try to convey what my words cannot.

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, MuralsLocated about 106 km from Aurangabad in Maharashtra on the banks of the river Waghora, the caves derive their name from the nearby Ajintha village.

There are 30 caves at Ajanta carved on the outer walls of a horseshoe-shaped glen at different levels. Inscriptions found in the caves reveal that the caves were not a collective effort; rather, they were commissioned by individuals.

Of the 30 caves, 6 were never completed and currently, two of the caves are inaccessible. The caves extend for over 500 m and though a path connects them all today, in ancient times each cave had an individual staircase leading to it. Most of these staircases don’t exist anymore.

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
The different rock-cut caves of Ajanta

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals The Ajanta Caves are creations of about 700 years (200 BCE – 525 CE), which lay forgotten for over a millennia before being discovered in 1819 by a British Officer out on a tiger hunt. The importance of the caves was not realised immediately.

It took lectures and paper presentations by eminent scholars in symposiums and academic journals for the world to sit up and take notice of the caves and recognise its importance for Buddhist art, Buddhist history, and for Buddhism itself. The Ajanta Caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Ajanta’s 30 caves are numbered for convenience and in the order they can be accessed, rather than chronologically. Of these, 25 are viharas or monasteries or residences for the monks, and 5 are prayer halls or chaitya grihas.

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
The softly-lit Chaitya Griha in Cave 26 with the Buddha seated in the pralamba-pada attitude

While the facades of the prayer halls are sculpted, the interiors are painted with scenes from the life of the Buddha. Some of the paintings have faded completely or have been washed away, and it is a miracle that they have survived for over a millennia or more. One of the reasons given by experts for this is that construction activity ceased completely in the region, leading to paintings getting preserved. I guess, it also helped that the caves were abandoned and then forgotten over time.

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
The external façade of a cave, where you can still see the remnants of paint
Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
Painted ceiling and walls in Cave 2
Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
Painted pillars in one of the chaitya grihas

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, MuralsThe Ajanta Caves are important from the perspective of art, as all three forms of fine art — architecture, sculpture and painting — have converged here to depict Buddhist art at its best. Unfortunately, the first two arts are completely overshadowed by the third. It is only in the caves where there are no paintings or the paintings have faded or have been washed off is the attention drawn to the sculptures.

The Ajanta Cave paintings are mistakenly called frescoes, which implies a process where pigments are mixed in water without any binding medium and applied on wet lime plaster. In fact, all Ajanta paintings have a binding medium, a glue obtained from an animal source. The theme of all the paintings at Ajanta is religious and revolves around the Buddha,  Bodhisattvas and Jataka tales. Even though the paintings have faded and it is not easy to make out the story in the dim light, it is easy to pick out that the simple colour scale — red and yellow (derived from ochre), green (derived from terra verde or green earth), lime, kaolin, gypsum, lamp black and lapis lazuli. Of all the colors, it is the blue of the lapis lazuli that shines the brightest.

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
Detail from a painting in Cave 17. Notice all the colours used, especially the blue of the lapis lazuli on the cushion

Apart from the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, other discernible motifs to be seen are the devas, gandharvas, apsaras, kinnaras, nagas, yakshas, dwarves, and so on.

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
Apsaras and Gandharvas
Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
Nagaraja with his queen outside cave 19
Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, Murals
A dwarf on the ceiling of one of the caves.

The visit to the Ajanta Caves was overwhelming and it was very difficult to narrow down the photographs I wanted to share here. But it was not so difficult to pick out my favourite moments from that visit.

Sleeping Buddha in Cave 26. I rounded a corner and there was this sculpture in front of me.
Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, MuralsThis vivid and brilliantly coloured panel that seemed to glow and throb with life.Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, MuralsThis group of Buddhist devotees from Burma who prayed so beautifully and touched every sculpture of the Buddha so reverentially that it bought tears to my eyes.
Ajanta Caves, Buddhist paintings, MuralsThis monk and his small group of devotees who prayed together
Ajanta Caves, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rock Cut Caves, Travel, Incredible India, Maharashtra, AurangabadI met the Buddhist monk outside Cave 26 he led his group through a prayer and then delivered a short discourse in Marathi on emotions, particularly love and anger. The monk’s sonorous voice was soothing and compelling enough at the same time to make me stop and to listen to him. When he quoted the Buddha and said, “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger”, it struck a chord with me.

It had been a frustrating day thus far, beginning with the ITDC-organised tour vehicle taking an inordinately long time to reach Ajanta Caves from Aurangabad, which meant that I had just 3 hours at the Caves. This was followed by the disappointment of not getting a guide as I reached too late. Then there was the craziness of literally racing from cave to cave in the limited time that I had and trying to make sense of what I saw.

In other words, it was a much-anticipated visit that just went downhill. At the monk’s words, I sensed a calming down, a cooling down of the rush the day had been. A year later the anger is no longer there; just a disappointment at the incompleteness of the visit to Ajanta Caves.

I know that only a trip back to the caves will rectify it. I wonder when I’ll be able to go back, though. :-/

Have you visited the Ajanta Caves? What was your experience? Please do share in the comments section.


Notes:

  1. For further reading, I recommend that you pick up the ASI publication on “Ajanta” from the ticket counter, and also “Ajanta” by Arvind Jamkhedkar.
  2. If your purpose to visit Ajanta is to strike it off your bucket list, then by all means try the ITDC day package from Aurangabad. If you are a discerning traveller or tourist, please hire a cab for the day and arrive early as there is a lot to see.

32 thoughts on “Ajanta Caves: Where all the fine arts converge

  1. Ajanta is very much on my bucket list (actually, I have to get a bigger bucket but that is not the point here) and I will be taking a print of this post to guide me through the caves. Fine post

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Shrinayan.

      Don’t take a print of my post. Buy the ASI booklet on Ajanta from the ticketing office instead. Also don’t take the ITDC organised tour; instead hire a vehicle, and reach by 10.30 am. And take your time in each cave, each cell, each wall. I wish I had got the chance to do that.

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  2. That the caves awed you and then some was not evident from the pictures and details, but from the first two paras of your post. I began wondering when you’d start describing the caves 😀 I have heard about the caves and the few well known paintings are familiar, but your description brought them to life. And my personal favourite is the sleeping Buddha. How sharp and beautiful the features are! Mookkum muzhiyuma, as they say in Tamil 🙂

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    1. You are an astute reader, you are, Alarmelvalli. 🙂 Even though I had seen the photographs of many of the paintings before, nothing prepared me for the real thing — the colours or the size or the detail or even their location. Also, most people talk only about Ajanta’s paintings, while in reality Ajanta is a showcase for both sculptures and paintings.

      That sleeping Buddha was a complete surprise as you don’t see it when you enter the chaitya. It is only when you go behind the pillars that you suddenly see it, all lit up by strategically placed lamos. The serenity on The Buddha’s face, the size… all of it took me by surprise.

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  3. This is an amazingly well written post. Amazing, because each post of yours betters the previous read. You have the rare knack of combining description, information and adding a personal touch without the read becoming tedious or verbose.

    I visited Ajanta way back in 1995 on an ITDC tour from Mumbai. That too was a very rushed trip leaving us very little time at the caves but since it was my first trip sans hubby and with a close girl friend, it was exciting. The second visit was a few years ago with Piya Bose, Girls on the Go. The trip was very well organised giving us an entire day at Ajanta. Extremely satisfying but then my own limitation of getting saturated too fast meant that i missed out on certain details.

    Some day I will go back. Till then, I will keep coming back to your post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Zaynti, for the beautiful words of appreciation. Coming from you, they mean a lot to me.

      I came back from Ajanta with a lot of regrets over how the trip was conducted and the time I got there. Even after a year, the regret remains. 😦

      I need to go back on a full day trip, Zaynti.

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  4. I have read this particular post of your so many times and its still feels good. At last we have planned to visit Ajanta this September. I was just wondering looking at the picture of Bodhisattva Padmapani of yours, how good a photograph this is considering the low-light condition I have read about. Did you use a stand or a prime lens, or is it simply a work of steady hand. I have always wanted to travel to Ajanta, and now that I am going I would really love to share my details when I come back.

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