The Ajanta paintings are the earliest surviving murals of India, religious or secular, barring primitive rock paintings. They belong to a truly indigenous religious art tradition. Text by T.S. SUBRAMANIAN & Photographs by D. KRISHNAN

IT is a virtual tour of the Ajanta caves that Professor S. Swaminathan takes one through in his 60-minute lecture at the Madras Christian College, Tambaram, Chennai, on August 30, 2013. “A narrow pathway takes you to the entrance of Cave 1 to begin the pilgrimage to the highest achievement of Indian Buddhist art” and “a glorious chapter in the world history of wall painting”, he says, using slides to explain the paintings and sculptures. A Professor of mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi for 33 years, Swaminathan, 73, has been passionate about Ajanta since his schooldays. “Any art will have an early phase, a mature phase and a declining phase. All these three stages are visible at Ajanta,” he tells the students.

A fortnight later, we are at Aurangabad in Maharashtra taking a walk down history lane. Sitting in his office at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Aurangabad Circle, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist A.M.V. Subramanyam speaks to us about the “audacity” of the Ajanta sculptors in cutting “the almost-vertical cliffs” into cave-temples and how the basalt rock of the Sahyadri hills is suitable for carving. The Ajanta and Ellora caves, the Aurangabad caves, the Daulatabad fort and other monuments come under the ASI’s Aurangabad Circle, of which he is now the Superintending Archaeologist.

Danve D.S., Ajanta Caves In-Charge, ASI, drives us two days later at 7-30 a.m. on the winding road from Fardapur to the viewing point of the Ajanta caves. Through the curtain of mist a few kilometres away, one can see the horseshoe-shaped hills, home to the caves. It is a picturesque sight—a gorge densely covered with vegetation and through which the Waghora flows. It strikes us immediately why Subramanyam chose the word “audacity” to describe how the sculptors cut the 76-metre-tall sheer rock surface and fashioned it into chaityas (temples) and viharas (monasteries).

The caves are named after Ajanta village, located about 12 kilometres away. John Smith, a British army officer, discovered them while on a hunting expedition. He noticed the arched facade of Cave 10 when he went to retrieve the body of a tiger he had shot. “John Smith, April 18, 1819” is inscribed in a flowing hand on plaster on the surface of one of the octagonal pillars to the east of the stupa of Cave 10. The pillar’s stone surface is painted with the Buddha’s image. Smith informed the British government about the cave. The Nizam of Hyderabad, under whose territory Ajanta came, was also informed about it. It took 30 years to clean the caves and reveal the grandeur of the paintings and sculptures they concealed, says Danve.

In his well-researched, unpublished three-volume work titled “Ajanta”, Swaminathan says: “Soon pioneer archaeologists were attracted to the caves that were lost to civilisation for more than 12 centuries. James Burgess and Major Robert Gill made copies of some of the paintings and exhibited the first copies of the Ajanta paintings at the Crystal Palace in London in 1866. Unfortunately, almost all of these replicas… perished in a disastrous fire. Later, some copies were made by Griffiths and Lady Herringham, which were published in 1896 and 1915. Before Indian Independence, Ajanta was a part of the Hyderabad State. Under the patronage of the Nizam, the then ruler of Hyderabad, Yazdani, who was the Director of Archaeology, edited and published two volumes on the paintings of Ajanta in 1933.”

Man-made caves

There are 30 man-made caves, including unfinished ones, in Ajanta, numbered serially, not chronologically. Strung in a concave line, they are about 600 metres long. Although several thousand tourists visit the caves every day, the ASI staff maintain this World Heritage monument well, keeping the place remarkably clean. There is no litter anywhere.

Five caves—numbers 9, 10, 19, 26 and 29—are chaityas and the rest are viharas. The caves were hewn out of rock in two different periods: during the rule of the Satavahanas (2nd and 1st centuries BCE) and later during the reign of the Vakatakas (5th and 6th centuries C.E.). The Satavahanas and the Vakatakas were Hindu rulers but patronised Buddhism. Subramanyam describes the period of the Vakatakas, the contemporaries of the imperial Guptas, as “a vibrant phase responsible for the most creations at Ajanta”.

Caves 8, 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15A are Hinayana Buddhist sites. Cave 10 is the earliest, datable to the 2nd century BCE. Here, the object of worship is a stupa. The remaining caves belong to the time when Mahayana Buddhism flourished. Hinayana Buddhism is marked by symbols such as the stupa, the wheel, the Buddha’s feet, the poorna kumbh and the Bodhi tree. Mahayana Buddhism is noted for the worship of the Buddha in the form of sculptures, idols and paintings. It believes in Bodhisattvas, those who have nearly attained Buddhahood but preferred to serve the public; the incarnation of seven “Manushi” Buddhas who have appeared on the earth; and Maitreya, the Buddha who will appear in future. The Buddha image predominates in the sculptures and paintings in the caves belonging to the Mahayana period.

Inscriptions available from the caves in the Brahmi script and Sanskrit language show that the caves were gifted by the royal family, the feudatories of the Vakatakas and the merchants. For instance, Varahadeva, who was the Minister of the Vakataka king Harishena (regnal years 475-500 C.E.), dedicated Cave 16 to the Buddhist Sangha. Cave 17 was a gift from the prince Upendragupta. A Rashtrakuta inscription in Cave 26 indicates that it was in use from the 8th to the 9th centuries C.E. An inscription in Cave 12 reveals that it was a gift from a merchant called Ghanamadada.

The paintings on the walls and ceilings of the caves have a staggering variety of themes. They depict events from 35 Jataka stories, which are related to the previous births of the Buddha as Bodhisattva in human or animal form. Events in the Buddha’s life that are detailed include his birth; the young Buddha drawing a bow; Mara, the demon, trying to disturb Siddhartha’s penance before he attains enlightenment; the Buddha returning to Kapilavastu, and offering his begging bowl to his son, Rahula, who at his mother’s instance asks the Buddha for the right of inheritance; the miracle at Sravasti, where he transforms himself into a thousand Buddhas; the taming of Nalagiri, an elephant set upon him by his jealous cousin Devadatta; the conversion of his cousin Nanda into an ascetic; and the Buddha preaching in Tushita heaven. Two outstanding paintings in Cave 1 portray Bodhisattva Padmapani and Avalokitesvara Vajrapani. Another well-known painting shows a woman admiring herself in the mirror.

Cave 10, which has a cathedral-like effect, features murals from both the Hinayana and the Mahayana periods. The contradistinction in the themes of the two different schools of Buddhism is evident here: the Hinayana artist portrays the poorna kumbh and the wheel while the latter-day artist draws the Buddha on pillars.

Every inch of the wall from the ground to the ceiling of Cave 17, a monastery, is lavishly painted. “The cave houses some of the most beautiful and well-preserved paintings of the Vakataka age,” says Tejas Garge, Assistant Archaeologist. “They include a gigantic wheel representing the ‘Wheel of Life’, a damsel with beautiful headgear, the Nalagiri story, and the Buddha preaching to a congregation, all on the verandah.” The cave also features on the right of the sanctum sanctorum a painting of the Buddha offering the begging bowl to Rahula. Interesting are the paintings of the Manushi Buddhas, and Indra with his attendants, on the verandah.

“There are two sets of Buddhas. One set of Buddhas is always in heaven and they do not take part in worldly affairs. The other set incarnates on the earth. That is why they are called Manushi Buddhas,” explains Garge. “There are eight Manushi Buddhas. The seventh Manushi Buddha is Sakhya Muni, Gautama Buddha. The future Buddha is Maitreya.”

The Ajanta artists were an uninhibited lot. Paintings abound of amorous couples, a king in his harem, music bands, children playing with hens, two drunken foreigners (distinguishable by the socks they seem to wear), and everyday scenes such as a woman plaiting another’s hair, a kitchen scene, and so on. The artist’s attention to detail can be seen in the depiction of ants walking in line on a branch on which a monkey is perched. The ceilings feature animal and floral motifs, geometrical patterns, flocks of geese, swans and a charging bull. Comical scenes such as a clown on a tree and a servant stealing fruits from a tray when the royal household is listening to a discourse too feature in the paintings.

Although parables of the Buddhist faith dominate the themes at Ajanta, the paintings are a mine of information on life during the early historical period in ancient India, says Jitendra Nath, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Mumbai Circle, and formerly in charge of the Aurangabad Circle.

Technique of painting

How did the artists at Ajanta paint the vast surfaces of ceilings of caves and make them look like “fluttering shamianas” teeming with hundreds of images? How did they prepare the rock surface to paint on? What kind of pigments did they use?

“The paintings themselves, or what survive of them, tell us about the technical aspects of their art, such as the preparation of the ground, the execution of the painting itself with the sense of perspective, line, space division, colour-overlay, the material used in the preparation of the pigment and the harnessing of the visual and tactile senses and to the pacing of the narrative to be depicted. Mysteries abound: the yoking of the sacred and the profane; the adjacency of the naked and the robed; the division of the art activity between the ceilings and the wall murals into geometric design and figurative narration, and so on,” says Swaminathan in his book Ajanta Paintings, A Layman’s Guide (published in 2002 by Sudharsanam, Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu).

Garge explains that the artists at Ajanta used the tempera technique to paint the murals. They are not frescoes, he emphasises. Frescoes are basically paintings done on lime as plaster. In Ajanta, it is mud plaster on the rock surface on which the artists applied a wash of lime and allowed it to dry. Then they painted on it. “This is called tempera technique of painting,” says Garge.

The paintings were executed after elaborate preparation of the rock surface. Chisel marks and grooves were made on the rock surface so that the layer of plaster applied over it was held effectively. The ground layer consisted of ferruginous earth mixed with rock-grit and sand, vegetable fibres, paddy husk, grass and other fibrous material of organic origin, says Subramanyam. A second coat of mud and ferruginous earth mixed with fine rock-powder or sand and fine fibrous vegetable material was applied over the ground surface. This surface was finished with a thin coat of lime wash. Over this surface, the artist drew bold outlines and filled the spaces with requisite colours in different shades and tones. The colours used are red ochre, yellow ochre, terre verte, kaolin, gypsum, lamp black and lapis lazuli, with glue as the binding material.

The earliest paintings are seen in the form of fragmentary specimens in Caves 9 and 10. The headgear and ornaments of the images in these paintings resemble the bas-relief sculptures of Sanchi and Barhut. “A top-knot tied in front in turbans remains a classic index of the Satavahana-Sunga age,” Subramanyam notes.

Ajanta has a surfeit of sculptures as well. Even today, more than 1,500 years later, the remnants of the plastering can be seen on many sculptures. Viharas have a sanctum sanctorum, mostly with a huge sculpture of a seated Buddha in the dharma chakra pravartana mudra, signifying his setting the Wheel of Law into motion. The sculptures’ pedestals have carvings of the wheel, flanked by two deer or the Buddha’s five chief disciples.

These sculptures in the sanctums denote the Buddha’s first sermon, after enlightenment, at the deer park at Isipatana at Sarnath. Other important sculptures are Siddhartha’s renunciation (Cave 1), seven “Manushi” Buddhas in Cave 20, the assault of Mara on the Buddha’s penance (Cave 26), the Buddha’s return to Kapilavastu (Cave 19), and the Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana (Cave 26). The Buddha’s face radiates tranquillity even in death, with his cousin and disciple Ananda and others looking a picture of grief. It is a massively panoramic sculpture, 24 feet long and about nine feet tall, which, Swaminathan asserts, cannot be seen in full “from wherever and whatever angle you stand”.

“The rock-cut monuments of western India occupy an important place in the history of Indian art and architecture,” says Subramanyam. “While in the rest of India, the tradition of rock-cut architecture appears sporadically in space and time, it displays vigorous and continuous activity in western India for nearly 1,500 years, starting sometime in the centuries preceding the Christian era and continuing almost up to the end of the 13th century C.E. In terms of the sheer number of rock-cut monuments, this region surpasses the rest of India taken together.”

As Swaminathan notes in his book, “The Ajanta paintings are the earliest surviving murals of India, religious or secular, barring the primitive rock paintings…. In fact, the Ajanta painting tradition is a truly indigenous religious art tradition. This is true of other Indian religious art forms such as the Hindu and the Jaina. The Buddha and his disciples were Indians. The Indian artist did not feel the need to make a translation from foreign to familiar terms, as did the medieval artists of Europe and the Buddhist Asian countries. They painted and sculpted a world they were at home in; they painted, in a word, the life around them.”