Updated Sep 3, 2006: I added some pictures from the trip. Covers some of the scenes i have described below. Also updated some details below.
Per our guide’s recommendation, we left the hotel at 8.15 am and reached the Ajanta caves at 10.30 am. Thanks to the rain god, we had another great sunny day today. You have to park your car a couple of kilometers away from the caves and take a shuttle bus. This is a good thing done by the government to protect the monument from auto emissions. As you alight from the bus, you get a view of the caves arranged in horseshoe shape (people call it semicircular here). Below you can see the Waghora river flowing. Ajanta is named after a nearby village Achintya.
Ajanta caves date back from 2nd century B.C. to 7th century A.D and is entirely Buddhist (both Hinayana and Mahayana schools). Ajanta caves were lost to the world for over 1000 years untill they were rediscovered by a british military person John Smith in the year 1819. He stumbled upon cave no. 10 on one of his hunting trips.
The tour started in Cave No.1 considered to be amongst the well-preserved ones. You have to take off your shoes and no flash photography allowed to prevent damage to the paintings.
Many paintings are damaged but with a bit of imagination you can visualize how splendorous it must have looked. Cave no.1 is dated to 7th century A.D and is a Vihara (monastery). This is the most important cave for paintings.
As always at the far end you have the Buddha in his characteristic sitting pose, the hall has several pillars and the walls and the ceiling are covered by paintings. If you are familiar with the renaissance frescoes in Italy, they were painted on a plastered wall when the plaster is still wet.
Some people mistakenly think that the Ajanta paintings are frescoes. But they are not. They used a technique called tempera. The cave wall was first covered by 2 layers of a plaster made of mud, paddy husk, mineral dust and a few other materials. Then after drying that they apply a thin layer of lime and let that dry. After that they paint using mineral colors mixed with glue. They used 6 colors including Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli giving the characteristic blue color (also seen in the renaissance paintings especially in the Sistine Chapel).
The lapis lazuli alone was imported and hence was used sparingly. The first paintings our guide showed us was Padmapani and Vajrapani. These 2 paintings adorn the cover pages of history books and the most likely picture adorning the cover of any book covering Ajanta caves. Spectacular paintings capturing the beautiful human form in various colors and amazing detail.
Then we saw various famous ones like the flying couple, scenes from the palace, bathing scene, maha janaka jataka tale, assault of mara, miracle of shravasti, conversion of nanda. Conversion of Nanda is fairly well preserved. Nanda is a cousin of the Buddha and he listens to Buddha’s teachings and gets converted. His wife becomes dejected etc. In one of the paintings you see a 3D perspective in a 2D painting. The painting shows a portico with a depth perspective by shortening the pillars in the far end.
Interestingly, this predates the renaissance painting by Gotto Giotto which first created the 3D effect in 2D painting first time in Europe some 600 years later. (Please see my Italy moblog post for details on that on my post about the Uffizi Gallery where this painting is featured).
Buddha used the Jataka tales (for those not familiar, these are the stories with animal characters like the Aesop’s fables and almost always convey a moral). So many of the paintings are stories from the Jataka tales. You also see the famous 4 deers with one head sculpture here called the quadripartite deer. Next we go to Cave no.2. Its quite similar to Cave no.1. Here we saw the Kapi Jataka and Chaddantha Jataka, Vidurapandita Jataka, Irandati on a swing etc. There is one paiting in the far right wall of the cave which is amazing.
The painting is of a princess wearing a lot of jewels including a long necklace. So far it looked any other painting in there. Then our guide asked one of the officials manning the cave to take a torch and shine it on the necklace. Something amazing happened, one could see the necklace now shining with precious stones and looking as if it is protruding from the painting as if done in 3D. The painting per se is 2D and this is an illusion. Wow!
Cave 3 is another monastery.
It had to be abandoned because the roof caved in after they started. In fact you can see markings that seem to indicate their attempts to make the ceiling higher to where the roof had fallen in. But another part of the roof fell in. So the cave had been abandoned.
Next we moved to Cave no.4 another unfinished monastery type cave. The stand out feature are the 6 standing buddhas adornning the antechamber of the sanctum sanctorum. 2 of the 6 Buddhas are unfinished.
Cave 5 next, also a monastery type, is at a lower level, remains unfinished as well. Cave 6 is a 2 storeyed monastery type. Key features are the 16 cells, the miracle of sharavasti in painted form – Buddha appears as 1000 buddhas to convince some doubting heretics at a place called shravasti, hence its name.
Cave no.7 another monsatery type. Standout feature being the miracle of shravasti in sculpture form on both the walls of the antechamber.
Cave no. 9 is the first you see of the Chaitya type dated to 1st century BC, the 2nd oldest in Ajanta. The facade bears the characteristic Ajanta feature called the Chaitya window which is a semicircular or horseshoe shaped stone window. The facade has Buddha statues later added by the Mahayanas (Hinayanas don’t believe in idol worship). Once inside you can see the stupa in the form of a globule on a high cylindrical base. Again in the Hinayana tradition there is no Buddha statue in the stupa. The semicircular roof had wooden beams for decoration purposes which have since fallen off.
The entire chaitya is similar to the jaw-dropping cave no.10 in Ellora that we saw yesterday. Next we move to Cave 10, the crown jewel of the Ajanta. Its almost in the centre of the horseshoe and is dated to 2nd century BC. On the facade of the Chaitya you can see a Pali (the then spoken language) inscription in Brahmi script recording the gift of a Shatavahana king Vasishtiputra Katahadi. The fact that we were standing before 2200 year old structure inspired a strange awe in us.
This Chaitya design is the same as Cave no.9. But here you see Buddha’s statue in the stupa in the centre in Mahayana tradition (must have been added later). On the pillar on the right near the stupa you can see graffiti written by John Smith announcing his discovery with his name and date 1819. On the walls on either side you can see the original paintings behind glass entirely covered with graffiti by Indian people. Its a shame that we have lost this priceless treasure to graffiti.
Cave no.11 unfinished vihara (monastery)style one. Cave no.12 is another vihara (monastery) type. Distinctive feature is the cells with 2 stone beds in each cell.
Cave 15 houses the offices of the Archaeological Survey of India. Cave no. 16 has 2 elephants on either side of the doorway. As you enter you can see the sculpture of a naga king seated. In the sanctum you see the Buddha sitting in the pralampada pose (he sits like one would on a chair with feet dangling). In this cave there are quite a few well-preserved paintings. On the right wall you can see the famous painting where Sujatha offers kheer to Buddha. This scene is from the pre-enlightenment life of the Buddha. You see some more Jataka paintings like the Hasthi Jataka.
Cave no.17 is another monastery style one. On the entrance to this cave we could see the painted version of the eight earthly buddhas (not seven as I mentioned yesterday). The eighth buddha Maitreya is yet to be born. The buddha that we know is supposedly the seventh one. Inside we saw the Maha Kapi jataka. Sculptures of musicians on the pillars.
Cave no. 24 is unfinished but it gives the best example of how the monolithic rock cut architecture was done. You can see the ceiling, pillars, cells etc unfinished.
Cave 26 has the Buddha reclining on a couch – a splendid statue on the left wall. After that on the same wall you see a sculpted version of the famous Assault of the Mara – the legend in which Mara tries to disturb Buddha’s penance using a variety of techniques like sending in the army, sending his seven beautiful daughters to seduce the Buddha etc. None of which worked, of course. On the first pillar on the right side, we saw an interesting painting of a child which seems to be rushing towards you regardless which side you look from.
Cave no. 28 and 29 are inaccessible.
With that our tour ended around 1.30pm. Seeing the Ajanta has been a life-long dream for both Priya Raju and I ever since we read about the Ajanta in the history texts.
Ajanta and Ellora should be on the list of every tourist interested in culture.
We in India should learn how to package and market this amazing monument from the Peruvians and Italians who have masterfully packaged their country’s cultural contributions to the world. More to come.