The story behind Ajanta’s “parade of Jataka tales” on the walls and artworks on the ceilings of caves carved out of rock around 2,000 years ago. Text by T.S. SUBRAMANIAN & photographs by D. KRISHNAN
THE painted ceilings of the Buddhist caves at Ajanta have not drawn as much international attention as the murals. A reason could be that the paintings on the walls deal with incidents from the Buddha’s life and episodes from the Jataka tales, which have a human appeal, whereas the ceilings have geometrical and floral motifs and images of creepers, animals and birds, celestial beings, clowns and so forth. The care for detail that is evident in these paintings is striking. The brilliant portrayal of animal figures, such as a charging bull or elephants, and a flock of geese shows the Ajanta artists’ knowledge of animal anatomy.
An amazing example of ingenuity is the lotus painted in a depression in the ceiling above the seated Buddha in the sanctum sanctorum of Cave 6. It looks as if a lotus in full bloom is hung from above.
A.M.V. Subramanyam, Superintending Archaeologist, Aurangabad Circle, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is certain that the artists painted the ceilings lying on their backs on a scaffold. As with the walls, the artists used the tempera technique on the ceilings: they prepared the rock surface elaborately with two coats of mud plaster, applied a thin coat of lime wash over it, and allowed it to dry before painting on it.
“For unknown reasons, the Ajanta artist did not paint religious themes on the ceilings,” notes Professor S. Swaminathan, a specialist on Ajanta paintings. “But on the ceilings, the colour scheme and delineation are rendered with equal craftsmanship. Spontaneity of movement is evident in all these. The drawings have taken on the texture of a carpet, brilliantly woven, immediately captivating the eyes and filling the senses. The ceilings are filled with geometric designs, flower decorations, animals and birds, and scenes in a lighter vein.”
In his book Ajanta Paintings, A Layman’s Guide, Swaminathan says one of the themes recurring on the ceiling is “the huge concentric circles enclosed in a square, with a number of flowery bands within it, as are usually to be found in the centre of the ceiling, main hall, antechamber and inner shrines. Another equally cherished theme consists of a number of rectangular panels filled with decorative motifs framed by smaller squares or rectangles with representations of fruit and floral forms. The overall effect is that of an enormous printed textile spread over the sanctuary.”
The walls and ceilings of Caves 1, 2 and 17, all viharas (monasteries), are full of paintings. Of these, Cave 17 is the most magnificent monastery at Ajanta, with a parade of paintings of Jataka tales on its walls. The cave consists of a veranda, halls, sanctum sanctorum with an antechamber, and chapels. The sanctum sanctorum has a big sculpture of the Buddha, flanked by Bodhisattvas and flying celestials. The window sills, door frames and the 20 octagonal pillars supporting the roof of the hall in Cave 17 abound with paintings. It is popularly known as the zodiacal cave because of a gigantic wheel painted on the walls of the veranda.
Above the main door, which leads to the hall, are paintings of the seven Manushi Buddhas who have incarnated on the earth, and the eighth, Maitreya Buddha, who will appear in future. Below them in a panel are eight “happy couples” in amorous poses.
Tejas Garge, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, Aurangabad Circle, differentiates between the Buddhas who remain in heaven and do not take part in worldly affairs and the Manushi Buddhas. The seventh Manushi Buddha is Sakhya Muni (the sage from the Sakhya clan), that is, Gautama Buddha. Each Manushi Buddha in the panel has a different complexion, Garge points out.
On why amorous couples were painted in Buddhist caves, Garge explains: “Unless there is a union of man and woman, there cannot be continuity of life. That is the reason mithunas are considered auspicious.”
Intriguingly, as Swaminathan notes, most of the main female characters in the paintings at Ajanta have been painted nude or semi-nude, while the maids in the same scenes are fully clothed. For instance, the Dying Princess, Nanda’s wife, is painted nude in the mural depicting Nanda’s conversion in Cave 16.
“Further, we may have no explanation for the fact that most of the heroines of Ajanta are dark complexioned. The Black Apsaras wearing a beautiful necklace in Cave 17 and the Padmapani’s Consort [Cave 1] are two such examples,” Swaminathan says.
How the caves were cut
How were the caves excavated from hard rock nearly 2,200 years to 1,500 years ago? “From the 2nd century BCE to the 7th century C.E., the sound of chisel being hammered into the Sahyadri hill ranges at Ajanta must have echoed every day. The sculptors took so many centuries to carve out the Ajanta caves, build them into chaityas and viharas, and fill them with outstanding paintings and sculptures,” says Subramanyam.
The enormity of the artistic work in the caves raises a lot of questions. How did the sculptors draw up the caves’ plan in order to decide where the pillars, the sanctum sanctorum, the antechamber, the stupas, and the cells for monks should be? How did the blacksmiths churn out thousands of hammers, chisels and other tools needed to carve out the deep caves? Did the artists use oil lamps in the darkness while painting? How did they prepare the rock surface before painting? From where did they get the pigments for their masterpieces? The answers are not easy to find.
“In terms of sheer numbers, the rock-cut monuments of western India surpass the rest of India together,” says Subramanyam. Aurangabad district of Maharashtra houses the Ajanta, Ellora, Aurangabad and Pitalkhora caves. Ellora has 34 caves, Aurangabad 12 and Pitalkhora 14. While the caves at Ajanta, Aurangabad and Pitalkhora deal with Buddhist themes, those at Ellora have sculptures that belong to Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. There are also centres such as Kanheri and Junnar, which have 100 caves each. They too are Buddhist caves.
These man-made caves were strategically located on trade routes. It is no surprise that trade guilds, merchants and local chieftains financed their excavation. The caves provided shelter to wandering monks during the rainy season and promoted the cause of their faith. They served as education centres too.
The Sahyadri hill ranges are made of trap rock, or basalt rock, which lends itself to carving. Vertical rock surface was preferred for chiselling out the cave temples. “It was a totally new idiom for artists and it seems that they made remarkable progress in a short period of time,” Subramanyam says. The viewing point near the Ajanta caves offers the visitor a good idea of how the sculptors first cut the horseshoe-shaped gorge vertically from the top in order to study how the basalt rock formation ran from top to bottom. “If there was any disturbance or any thick soil layer running through, they avoided that area. Only when there was uniform rock formation from top to bottom, did they start cutting the caves there. That is why all the caves are not situated in the same alignment or at the same elevation,” Subramanyam says.
The sculptors did encounter loose soil in the rock formation while excavating Cave 1 of the Aurangabad caves, and they abandoned it. The original plan was to scoop out a vihara from Cave 1. After they had cut the front porch, they encountered loose soil when they ran inside. However, in Ajanta, the rock formation was so good and uniform from top to bottom, letting the sculptors cut the caves the way they wanted. Despite the care they took, they encountered lava flow in the ceiling of Cave 4 at Ajanta.
Interestingly, the influence of wooden architecture is clearly visible in the early rock-cut caves at Ajanta. For instance, Cave 10, which is a chaitya and belongs to the 2nd century BCE when Hinayana Buddhism flourished (during the time of the Satavahanas), has evidence of wooden rafters used for supporting the roof. The wooden rafters perished over time, but their impressions still remain on the ceiling. In Cave 10 at Ellora, called the Viswakarma cave, the sculptors improvised and used stone ribs to support the roof. These stone ribs resemble wooden rafters. This cave belongs to a later period, that is, the 5th/6th century C.E. when Mahayana Buddhism was popular (during the Vakatakas’ rule). “So you can see the advancement of Ellora, which belongs to a later period,” says Subramanyam. “They imitated wood in stone.”
To conserve Ajanta’s treasures, the ASI has to battle nature. During the rainy season, from July to October, water seeps into the caves from the hilltop. Besides, the basalt rock, from which the caves were chiselled out, has voids, cavities and veins, which allow water into the caves.
“A big problem we face is seepage of water from the rock mass above the caves. There is no technology to find out the exact source of the water seepage,” says Danve D.S., Ajanta Caves In-Charge, ASI, Aurangabad Circle. “So we have built four contour drains on the rock mass to collect the rainwater and we drain out the water from the caves,” he says. They are called contour drains because they follow the undulation of the rock mass. Danve was a member of the ASI’s team that helped conserve the Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia.
According to Subramanyam, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) did geotechnical studies of the rock mass at Ajanta and suggested that the ASI build these contour drains.