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Hewn from the near-vertical sides of a horseshoe-shaped ravine, the caves at Ajanta occupy a site worthy of the spectacular ancient art they contain. Less than two centuries ago, this remote spot was known only to local tribespeople; the shadowy entrances to its abandoned stone chambers lay buried deep under a thick blanket of creepers and jungle.
The chance arrival in 1819 of a small detachment of East India Company troops, however, brought the caves’ obscurity to an abrupt end. Led to the top of the precipitous bluff that overlooks the gorge by a young “half-wild” scout, the tiger-hunters spied what has now been identified as the facade of Cave 10 protruding through the foliage.
The British soldiers had made one of the most sensational archeological finds of all time. Further exploration revealed a total of 28 colonnaded caves chiselled out of the chocolate-brown and grey basalt cliffs lining the River Waghora. More remarkable still were the immaculately preserved paintings writhing over their interior surfaces. For, in addition to the rows of stone Buddhas and other sculpture enshrined within them, Ajanta’s excavations are adorned with a swirling profusion of murals, depicting everything from battlefields to sailing ships, city streets and teeming animal-filled forests to snow-capped mountains. Even if you aren’t wholly familiar with the narratives they portray, it’s easy to see why these paintings are regarded as the finest surviving gallery of art from any of the world’s ancient civilizations.
The rock-cut caves scattered across the volcanic hills of the northwestern Deccan rank among the most extraordinary religious monuments in Asia. Ranging from tiny monastic cells to elaborately carved temples, they are remarkable for having been hewn by hand from solid rock. Their third-century-BC origins seem to have been as temporary shelters for Buddhist monks when heavy monsoon rains brought their travels to a halt. Modelled on earlier wooden structures, most were sponsored by merchants, for whom the casteless new faith offered an attractive alternative to the old, discriminatory social order. Gradually, encouraged by the example of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, the local ruling dynasties also began to embrace Buddhism. Under their patronage, during the second century BC, the first large-scale monastery caves were created at Karla, Bhaja and Ajanta.
Around this time, the austere Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) school of Buddhism predominated in India. Caves cut in this era were mostly simple worship halls, or chaityas – long, rectangular apsed chambers with barrel-vaulted roofs and two narrow colonnaded aisles curving gently around the back of a monolithic stupa. Symbols of the Buddha’s enlightenment, these hemispherical burial mounds provided the principal focus for worship and meditation, circumambulated by the monks during their communal rituals.
By the fourth century AD, the Hinayana school was losing ground to the more exuberant Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”) school. Its emphasis on an ever-enlarging pantheon of bodhisattvas (merciful saints who postponed their accession to nirvana to help mankind towards enlightenment) was accompanied by a transformation in architectural styles. Chaityas were superseded by lavish monastery halls, or viharas, in which the monks both lived and worshipped, and the once-prohibited image of the Buddha became far more prominent. Occupying the circumambulatory recess at the end of the hall, where the stupa formerly stood, the colossal icon acquired the 32 characteristics, or lakshanas (including long dangling ear-lobes, cranial protuberance, short curls, robe and halo) by which the Buddha was distinguished from lesser divinities. The peak of Mahayana art came towards the end of the Buddhist age. Drawing on the rich catalogue of themes and images contained in ancient scriptures such as the Jatakas (legends relating to the Buddha’s previous incarnations), Ajanta’s exquisite wall painting may, in part, have been designed to rekindle enthusiasm for the faith, which was, by this point, already starting to wane in the region.
Attempts to compete with the resurgence of Hinduism, from the sixth century onwards, eventually led to the evolution of another, more esoteric religious movement. The Vajrayana, or “Thunderbolt” sect stressed the female creative principle, shakti, with arcane rituals combining spells and magic formulas.
Ultimately, however, such modifications were to prove powerless against the growing allure of Brahmanism. The ensuing shift in royal and popular patronage is best exemplified by Ellora where, during the eighth century, many old viharas were converted into temples, their shrines housing polished shivalinga instead of stupas and Buddhas. Hindu cave architecture, with its dramatic mythological sculpture, culminated in the tenth century with the magnificent Kailash temple, a giant replica of the freestanding structures that had already begun to replace rock-cut caves. It was Hinduism that bore the brunt of the iconoclastic medieval descent of Islam on the Deccan, Buddhism having long since fled to the comparative safety of the Himalayas, where it still flourishes.
The basic painting techniques used by the artists of Ajanta to create the caves’ lustrous kaleidoscopes of colour changed little over the eight centuries the site was in use, from 200 BC to 650 AD. First, the rough stone surfaces were primed with a thick coating of paste made from clay, cow-dung, animal hair and vegetable fibre. Next, a finer layer of smooth white lime was applied. Before this was dry, the artists quickly sketched the outlines of their pictures using red cinnabar, which they then filled in with an undercoat of terre-verte. The pigments, all derived from natural water-soluble substances (kaolin chalk for white, lamp soot for black, glauconite for green, ochre for yellow and imported lapis lazuli for blue), were thickened with glue and added only after the undercoat was completely dry. Thus the Ajanta paintings are not, strictly speaking, frescoes (always executed on damp surfaces), but tempera. Finally, once dry, the murals were painstakingly polished with a smooth stone to bring out their natural sheen. The artists’ only sources of light were oil-lamps and sunshine reflected into the caves by metal mirrors and pools of water (the external courtyards were flooded expressly for this purpose), a constraint that makes their extraordinary mastery of line, perspective and shading – which endow Ajanta’s paintings with their characteristic otherworldly light – all the more remarkable.
Top image: Ajanta Cave with Buddha statue inside in Maharashtra, India © Yongyut Kumsri/Shutterstock