Ajanta Caves – Buddhist paintings and sculptures

Though the present day Ajanta caves are in a state of ruins I can’t help but imagine the real grandeur of these caves at the time of its construction. I tender my heartiest appreciation to the people who have conceptualized and built such mega caves, each with such intricate details, out of nothing but a rocky cliff. The Ajanta Caves had been just a name in my history text-book till then, and it would have stayed so if I hadn’t visited the same!

Most of the caves in Ajanta were built-in the 2nd century B.C. under the rule of Shatavahana dynasty. Nearly all paintings are centered on Buddha, Bodhisattvas, incidents from the life of Buddha and Jatakas. The second string of caves have been built-in the 5th century A.D. under Vakataka dynasty. But, since 480 A.D. these caves had been forgotten and lost in the forest cover until 1819 A.D. when a British officer accidentally discovered the same during a Tiger hunt.

Again, as in Ellora caves, owing to a large travel group and lack of time my cave explorations have been done in bit of haste and the photographs are taken handheld under very poor lighting, so excuse the excessive grains in most photos. The Archaeological Survey of India has installed very dim lights inside the caves, which actually serve a purpose – harsh lighting can spoil the delicate and already fast degrading paintings and camera flashes are a strict no; still I did notice some perfectly stupid people using their camera with flash. :(

Avalokiteshwara wall painting at Ajanta caves

This is probably the most celebrated painting of Ajanta. It’s a painting which goes by the name Padmapāni (“Holder of the Lotus”). The main character in the painting is also popularly referred to as ‘Avalokitesvara’, which means “sound perceiver”, literally “he who looks down upon sound” (i.e., the cries of sentient beings who need his help.

Avalokiteśvara is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. A little too theosophical? Well, the term Bodhisattva is mainly used to denote people who already have a considerable degree of enlightenment and seeks to use their wisdom to help other human beings to become liberated. Whereas, Buddha or Buddha hood refers to someone who is in the state of perfect enlightenment!

1500 year old wall plaster at Ajanta cavesHave anyone come across a wall plastering last for more than 1500 years!? This one has and with most of its colours preserved too!

The plaster made of clay, hay, dung and lime was applied on the rock surface after making the rock surface rough (by chiseling) for better adhesiveness. The drawings have been done and the colour applied when the plaster was still wet to ensure that the wet plaster soaked the colour which has prevented colour fading or decay to a large extent. These colours are known as ‘earth colors’ or ‘vegetable colors’ as various kinds of stones, minerals, and plants were used in combinations to prepare different colors.

The making of human images of Buddha had been considered sacrilegious for a long time; it’s only from the 5th century onwards that they have started making Buddha images and sculptures. Probably the most important characteristic of the image of Buddha is the ‘Mudra’, or hand gestures, of the Buddha. These well-defined gestures have a fixed meaning throughout all styles and periods of Buddha images. In the above picture as the left hand of Buddha statue is partly destroyed it is either ‘Vitarka Mudra’ or ‘Dharmachakra Mudra’.

Buddha statue in Ajanta caves shown in Vitarka MudraVitarka Mudra: Intellectual argument, discussion. The circle formed by the thumb and index finger is the sign of the Wheel of Law.
Buddha statue in Ajanta caves shown in Dharmachakra MudraBuddha shown in ‘Dharmachakra Mudra’.

Dharmachakra Mudra: The gesture of teaching usually interpreted as turning the Wheel of Law. The hands are held level with the heart, the thumbs and index fingers form circles.

Notice the size of feet and head, and the seating posture. The proportions and dimensions of each Buddha sculpture is intentional and for a purpose. The artist, by these characteristics, communicates a multitude of subtle meanings and intentions to the viewer.

Buddha statue in Ajanta caves shown in Varada Mudra

Buddha in Varada Mudra. Varada Mudra: Fulfilment of all wishes; the gesture of charity.

 

Sleeping Buddha statue in Ajanta caves

Sleeping Buddha.


Ellora Caves – elephant sculpturesIf you liked this you will surely like my article on Ellora caves which has photos of caves carved out of solid mountains. The Kailasanath Temple has been carved top to bottom and front to back and has taken several generations of work and planning.


Comments

  1. >Wow Anooop… Last 3 pics are amazing! Lovely!
    Yeah… how i wish, instead of flash, there existed some other magic to get pics in better clarity!

  2. Rohini Kamath says:

    >The sleeping buddha looks so lovely, asleep in the soft light. I think its gorgeous.. the best of the lot…

    And on the subject of morons who dont follow the rules, there are many such neanderthals in the world.. it they evolve slower than others it would appear. They are there everywhere, there is no escape.

  3. >Shalini: thanks. only other way is to make camera sensors more sensitive to less light! :p

    Rohini: Thanks. this is the first sleeping Buddha I have encountered till date. On morons, well said!

    Pei Xuan: Thanks. Will surely update my blog more often. If possible could you please comment in English the next time? ;)

  4. Anonymous says:

    >Apropos the injunction regarding representing the Buddha in human form – A certain religion whose name we don't say out loud has a similar prohibition. I suppose Buddhism matured around 5 CE, and the futility of an abstract God dawned upon them. Of course, Hinduism by this time was a secure, if very caste-driven, religion.

  5. >What a wonderful post.
    And so true about History as well. My History teacher in classes 9 and 10 was probably the best that anyone can have. He made the World Wars come alive and told it as a story. I wish some of my teachers in earlier classes had been so enlightened about Indian History as well, it is so captivating when you start imagining.

  6. amazing pictures.

  7. jamesdcorner11 says:

    I just want to say about these Ajanta caves “the oldest and finest survived examples of Indian art, particularly painting”.

    • @jamesdcorner11 yes, definitely. The photos don’t do much justice to the actual splendor of the place. Do visit it when you are in India.

  8. Yeah the information was good but it was of no use since we could’nt copy-paste it…

    • You can copy content from ANUBIMB by all means, but only after sharing the content – this is the minimum expectation for the effort it takes to maintain this website, which I feel is not too much to ask.

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