Ajanta, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India
  • Ajanta, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India
  • Ajanta, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India
  • Ajanta, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India
Ajanta, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India

The Ajanta caves, numbered sequentially from east to west - 1 to 30, are located in a great arc cut by the curving course of River Waghora. The numbering bears no relation to the order in which the caves were excavated. These caves are not natural but are carved out of the rock itself and quite likely based upon structural prototypes that are now non-existent. Five of these thirty caves– 9, 10, 19, 26 and 29 are chaitya-grihas (sanctuary) and the rest are sanghramas or viharas (monastery).

Ajanta had two distinct periods of patronage. The Earlier Buddhist phase took place between approximately 100 BCE and 100 CE. The austere Caves 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15A / 30 were excavated as community efforts during that period. The broken Cave 8 was long considered an earlier Buddhist school excavation because of its primitive character but it was actually undertaken at the very start of the Vakataka phase, in fact it is possibly the earliest excavated vihara (monastery) in the whole of India. After the Early Buddhism period, the site lay dormant for three centuries but the situation dramatically changed in the mid-fifth century, when a renaissance took place under the aegis of emperor Harisena of the Vakataka dynasty, a group of powerful patrons – local rulers of the Ajanta region and the feudatories from nearby, Asmakas patronized development of a cave.

During the Vakataka’s resurgence activity, the early Buddhist caves were reutilized and refurbished in different ways. In contrast to the shared donations of Early Buddhist phases, during the Vakataka phase, each cave was the exclusive offering of a single important donor. From 462 CE on, activity burgeoned for half a decade and at least twenty Vakataka caves were started in that period. However by 468 CE the neighboring Asmakas were threatening the stability of the region with their territorial ambitions. As a result, Upendragupta, the local feudatory ruler, ordered work to be stopped on all caves except the royal caves. This was the period of Recession. The political situation worsened and by 472 CE work on these royal caves was abandoned too. War must have flared in the region at this point for the site’s patronage was now totally cut off for a few years in the early 470s. Apparently many artists migrated north to work on the contemporaneous Bagh caves during this period for that region was under the secure rule of Harisenas’s viceroy. This is the period of Hiatus. In 475 CE, the Asmakas became the feudatory lords of the region and the Asmaka phase begun. Ajanta’s new florescence was however short-lived. In 477 CE, with emperor Harisena’s death, political turbulence began. All ongoing excavation programs were abandoned during 478 CE when Harisena’s son Sarvasena III succeeded and the patrons focused on getting the main Buddha images completed and dedicated. During the period of disruption all old programs were abandoned and the Asmakas withdrew support to prepare for overthrowing the Vakatakas. For a brief period 479 - 80 CE, the monks still living at Ajanta took advantage of the disruption at the site by donating intrusive Buddhas to earn merit. This eruption of intrusive piety was also short-lived for the funds sustaining these modest offerings soon ran out and the last remaining artists moved away. Monks continued living in a few of the caves for a few years. After 480 CE, not a single image was ever made again at the site.

The site combines painting, sculpture and architecture and extends in time from early Buddhist aniconic phase through the later period. The paintings in the Ajanta caves are primarily Jatakamala scenes that describe the previous births of the Buddha. The compositions from these fables are not represented horizontally like a frieze, but show scenes spreading in all directions. The ceilings are also painted with decorative motifs. The rock-cut sculptures are also noteworthy. The Ajanta Caves were built in a period when both the Buddha and the Hindu gods were simultaneously revered in Indian culture.

References:

  • Debala Mitra, Ajanta, 1964.
  • Walter Spink, Ajanta: A Brief History and Guide, 1990.
  • Walter Spink, Volume 18/5 Ajanta: History and Development: Cave By Cave, 2007.

 
Galleries

Cave 07, Ajanta, Aurangabad, Mahara...

Cave 7 started prior to 466 CE and was sponsored by an unidentified patron. It was intended to be one of the grandest excavations at the site, when it was begun at the start of the Vakataka renaissance. However, because of many problems, it ended up as little more than a large porch opening onto a modest shrine with the residence cells being located expediently, where space allowed. The facade carvings on this cave may possibly be the earliest figural sculptures at the site. Of special interest is the motif of stupa under an umbrella and protected by a naga in the center of the porch. The stupa instead of a Buddha image used as a central figure is significant as it reminds us these shrines were probably being conceived for stupas and not Buddhas.

Cave 7’s intended interior hall were to be astylar, shrineless and without porch cells and would have housed thirty monks however it was never started. The five medallions at the center of the five forward ceiling areas were never carved even when the whole cave was being hurriedly finished before the Period of Disruption they were abruptly covered over with plastered ceiling.

Cave 7’s shrine and shrine antechamber are filled with varied Buddha images. The shrine has a seated image of Buddha with an elliptical halo caved on the back wall and has its right hand in abhaya (“do not fear”) mudra. The image is different from other Buddha images that show the dharmacakra (wheel-turning) gesture probably because the dharmacakra convention had not been fixed. There are also six standing Buddhas in varada-mudra or “Buddhas of the Past”, carved on the walls. The pedestals below them and the door-jambs and lintels are also decorated with Buddha images. The walls of the shrine’s antechamber are carved with the Miracle of Sravasti. The early shrine doorway and the shrine were remodeled in the late 470s. The ceiling was also painted with rolling sea animals and floral creepers inhabited by frolicking dwarfs but over time it has been damaged.

References:

  • Debala Mitra, Ajanta, 1964.
  • Walter Spink, Ajanta: A Brief History and Guide, 1990.
  • Walter Spink, Volume 18/5 Ajanta: History and Development: Cave By Cave, 2007.

Collection type: Monuments

Galleries

Cave 08, Ajanta, Aurangabad, Mahara...

Cave 8 long served as the site’s engine room. It was initially attributed to the Early Buddhist phase but it is quite possibly the earliest excavated Mahayana vihara in India, for its location and plan suggest that it was undertaken at the very start of Ajanta’s new Vakataka phase around 466 CE. The identity of the patron can be ascertained. The shrine was probably an addendum that had to be cut in a corrupted level of rock and perhaps a loose image would have used as a replacement for a rock-carved Buddha. The cave was carefully plastered and painted, but little evidence of the decoration survives.

References:

  • Debala Mitra, Ajanta, 1964.
  • Walter Spink, Ajanta: A Brief History and Guide, 1990.
  • Walter Spink, Volume 18/5 Ajanta: History and Development: Cave By Cave, 2007.


Collection type: Monuments

Galleries

Cave 09, Ajanta, Aurangabad, Mahara...

Cave 9 is one of the oldest chaitya (sanctuary) and belongs to early Buddhism dated to first century CE. The cave once had applied wooden fittings in its now more elaborate arch, it has a rock cut door and windows and is decorated with typically early quasi-structural forms. The cave was excavated at a time when imagery of the Buddha was disallowed; it was newly decorated with multiple iconic forms in the site’s later fifth century phase. The chaitya hall contains paintings of different periods. Some of these belong to the first century CE, while others are assigned to fifth century CE. The main subjects painted are: ‘A Naga King with his Attendants’, on the inner side of the front wall above the left window, ‘A group of votaries approaching a Stupa’, on the left wall, ‘A Monastery’, on the rear wall towards the left, Two scenes from the life of the Buddha, on the rear wall to the right; ‘The Animal Frieze’, above the pillars of the nave on the left-hand side; and Buddhas (in various attitudes), on the triforium. Cave 9 was probably also the basic source for Upendragupta’s Cave 19 although the later cave is far more elaborate.

References:

  • Debala Mitra, Ajanta, 1964.
  • Walter Spink, Ajanta: A Brief History and Guide, 1990.
  • Walter Spink, Volume 18/5 Ajanta: History and Development: Cave By Cave, 2007.

Collection type: Monuments

Galleries

Cave 10, Ajanta, Aurangabad, Mahara...

Cave 10 is the earliest chaitya (sanctuary) at Ajanta that started in 1st BCE. The cave carries inscriptions from different donors indicating that the cave was based on community efforts, rather than the private benefactions of elite donors, as was the case in Ajanta’s Vakataka phase. There is a monolithic stupa, which preserves a fragment of later Vakataka repainting. The facade of the cave was probably at first of wood, but at a later date the lower portion of it, at least, was built of very large brick, which has now disappeared.

From the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien’s records, it is known that that the site was active around 400 CE; however, the site may have had its problems in the period between the second and the fifth century when Buddhism was in decline. The cave contains paintings of different periods. Only a few early Buddhist period paintings remain in the cave, all much obscured and covered with later images. A sequence of paintings showing scenes from the life of the Buddha, appears on the left wall while Jataka stories Sama Jataka and the Chhaddanta Jataka are depicted on the right wall. The later Vakataka period paintings are better preserved and contain Buddha figures in various poses mainly over the pillars.

The principal paintings are: ‘The Arrival of the Raja with his Retinue’ on the rear wall of the left aisle, ‘The Royal Party Worshipping at a Stupa’ on the left hand wall behind pillars nine to eleven; ‘The Royal Party Passing Through a Gateway’ on the left-hand wall behind pillars eleven to fifteen and various figures of Buddha painted on different pillars. The cave contains the largest number of painted records.

References:

  • Debala Mitra, Ajanta, 1964.
  • Walter Spink, Ajanta: A Brief History and Guide, 1990.
  • Walter Spink, Volume 18/5 Ajanta: History and Development: Cave By Cave, 2007.

Collection type: Monuments

Galleries

Cave 11, Ajanta, Aurangabad, Mahara...

Cave 11 was one of the first excavations undertaken in 462 CE during the Vakataka phase by an unidentified patron. It is squeezed between and above the Cave 10 and its associated residence, Cave 12. When the excavation for Cave 11 was started in 462 CE, there was nothing else there except for the ancient caves that were still in worship. Like all of the earlier Vakataka viharas, it was planned as a simple and functional hall to be served as a dormitory. At each end of the verandah there are two cells that approached by a flight of steps and the outer cells have collapsed. The right wall of the verandah is carved with figures of Buddha in three panels. The door is plainly molded with a lion-heads at each end of the threshold. The plinth, on which the simhasana of Buddha rests, contains the kneeling figure of a devotee. Higher up in the left wall is hewn out a secret chamber probably for storing valuables. The roof of the verandah along with its projection is covered with painted motifs including varied flora, birds, beast, geometric designs etc. The back walls of the verandah immediately to the left and right of the door are painted with large-size Boddhisattvas with attendants, large portions of the paintings being damaged, the walls of the hall are painted mostly with figures of Buddha.

The cave doesn’t have an antechamber, one can see a half-finished cell at the rear that had to be converted to satisfy the new demand for a Buddha shrine, which was not started until some seven years after the cave had been begun. The shrine has an unfinished image of Buddha seated in padmasana pose with the hands in dharmacakra mudra fronts an abandoned stupa. The Cave 11 Buddha image was probably the first to have been conceived at the site before conventions had been set. It is the only image at the site earlier than 475 CE to incorporate a standalone kneeling devotee at the base instead of conventional pairs or groups found under late carved Buddha images.

Cave 11’s planned program of painting was never completed because of the strictures of the Recession. All of the hall paintings and most of the porch paintings are intrusions dating between mid-478 and 480 CE. Like most of the other caves at the site, Cave 11 must have been abandoned shortly after 480 CE by which time any active patronage either original or intrusive had ended.

References:

  • Debala Mitra, Ajanta, 1964.
  • Walter Spink, Ajanta: A Brief History and Guide, 1990.
  • Walter Spink, Volume 18/5 Ajanta: History and Development: Cave By Cave, 2007.

Collection type: Monuments

Galleries

Cave 12, Ajanta, Aurangabad, Mahara...

Cave 12, an early Buddhist vihara (monastery) is one of the oldest hewn and most probably belongs to first century BCE. In its own heyday, the cave probably housed many of the monks associated with the great chaitya hall, Cave 10. An inscription on the back wall of the monastery records the gift of a cell by one merchant called Ghanamadada. The walls of the hall above the cell-doors are ornamented with chaitya window motifs connected at places by a railing motif; the right wall is decorated with stepped merlons of Assyrian pattern.

The monastery once bore paintings of which hardly anything now exists. The cave’s pillar-less hall is surrounded by carefully cut cells, each with two stone beds and that once must have housed at least twenty-four monks. The cave must have provided a ready model for the new excavators, who copied its typically astylar, shrineless plan quite directly during the first years of Vakataka.

During the time of the site’s renewal in the fifth century, this vihara must have been put to use as a residence for the craftsmen, which is suggested by the typically “late” red-brick plaster on the walls that is associated with the Vakataka building activity. 

References:

  • Debala Mitra, Ajanta, 1964.
  • Walter Spink, Ajanta: A Brief History and Guide, 1990.
  • Walter Spink, Volume 18/5 Ajanta: History and Development: Cave By Cave, 2007.

Collection type: Monuments