Ajanta Village

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Ajanta Village

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Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts.Many units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value.

Village in the Bhokardan taluk of Aurangabad District, Hyderabad State, and a jagir of the Sir Salar Jang family, situated in 20 degree 32' N. and 75 degree 46" E. Population (1901), 2,274. The place, which is situated on the summit of the ghat or pass to which it gives its name, has stone fortifications constructed by the first Nizam in 1727. It is, however, still more celebrated for the Buddhist caves situated in the Inhyadri Hills, 4 miles north-west, which first became known to the British in 1819.

The defile in which the caves are situated is wooded, lonely, and rugged, the caves being excavated in a wall of almost perpendicular rock, about 250 feet high, sweeping round in a hollow semicircle with the Waghara stream below and a wooded rocky promontory jutting out of its opposite bank. The caves extend about a third of a mile from east to west, in the concave scarp composed of amygdaloid trap, at an elevation of 35 to 110 feet above the bed of the torrent. The ravine, a little higher up, ends abruptly in a waterfall of seven leaps (sat kund), from 70 to over 100 feet in height. From the difficulty of access, the Ajanta caves were but little visited until in 1834 Mr. Fergusson's paper on the rock-cut temples of India created a general interest in these remarkable works of art.

Twenty-four monasteries (viharas) and five temples (chaityas) have been hewn out of the solid rock, many of them supported by lofty pillars, richly ornamented with sculpture and covered with highly finished paintings. The following brief description is condensed chiefly from notes by Dr. Burgess. The five chaityas, or cave-temples for public worship, are usually about twice as long as they are wide, the largest being 189/2 feet by 164/4. The back or inner end of the chaityas is almost circular; the roofs are lofty and vaulted, some ribbed with wood, others with stone cut in imitations of wooden ribs. A colonnade hewn out of the solid rock runs round each, dividing the nave from the aisles.

The columns in the most ancient caves are plain octagonal pillars without bases or capitals, with richly ornamented shafts. Within the circularend of the cave stands the daghoba (relic-holder), a solid mass of rock, either plain or richly sculptured, consistingof a cylindrical base supporting a cupola (garbha), which in turn is surmounted by a square capital or ' tee ' (toran).

The twenty-four viharas, or Buddhist monasteries containing cells, are usually square in form, supported by rows ofpillars, either running round them and separating the great central hall from the aisles, or disposed in four equidistant lines. In the larger caves, a veranda cut out of the rock, with cells at either end, shades the entrance ; the great hall occupies the middle space, with a small chamber behind and a shrine containing a figure of Buddha enthroned. The walls on all the three sides are excavated into cells, the dwelling-places (grihas) of the Buddhist monks.

The simplest form of the vihara or monastery is a veranda hewn out ol the face of the precipice, with cells opening from the back into the rock. Very few of the caves seem to have been com- pletely finished ; but nearly allof them appear to have been painted on the walls, ceilings, and pillars, inside and out. Even the sculptures have all been richly coloured. Twenty-five inscriptions— seventeen painted ones in the interior, eight rock inscriptions engraved outside— com memorate the names of pious founders in Sanskrit and Prakrit.

One monastery has its whole facade richly carved ; but, as a rule, such ornamentation is confined in the monasteries (viharas) to the doorways and windows. More lavish decoration was bestowed upon the temples (chaityas) ; the most ancient have sculptured facades, while in the more modern ones the walls, columns, entablatures, and daghoba are covered with carving.

The sculptures show little knowledge of art, and consist chiefly ol Buddhas, or Buddhist teachers, in every variety of posture, instructing their disciples.

'The paintings,' writes Dr. Burgess, 'have much higher pretensions, and have been considered superior to the style ol Europe in theage

when they were probably executed. The human figure is represented in every possible variety of position, displaying some slight knowledge of anatomy ; and attempts at foreshortening have been made with surprising success.

The hands are generally well and gracefully drawn, and rude efforts at perspective are to be met with. Besides paintings of Buddha and his disciples and devotees, there are representations of streets, processions, battles, interiors of houses with the inmates pursuing their daily occupations, domestic scenes of love and marriage and death, groups of women performing religious austerities ; there are hunts, men on horseback spearing the wild buffalo ; animals, from the huge elephant to the diminutive quail ; exhibetions ol cobras, ships, fish, &c. The small number of domestic utensils depicted is somewhat remarkable, — the common earthen waterpot and lota, a drinking cup, and one or two other dishes, a tray, an elegantly shaped sort of jug having an oval body and long thin neck with lip and handle, together with a stone and roller for grinding condiments, being all that are observable. The same lack of weapons of war, either offensive or defensive, is also to be noticed. Swords, straight and crooked, long and short, spears of various kinds, clubs, bows and arrows, a weapon resembling a bayonet reversed, a missile like a quoit with cross-bars in the centre, and shields of different form, exhaust the list.

There is also a thing which bears a strong resem- blance to a Greek helmet, and three horses are to be seen yoked abreast, but whether they were originally attached to a war-chariot cannot now be determined. The paintings have been in the most brilliant colours — the light and shade are very good ; they must have been executed upon a thick layer of stucco. In many places, the colour has penetrated to a considerable depth.'

Of the date of these paintings it is difficult to form a very definite estimate, nor are they allof the same age. The scenes represented are generally from the legendary history of Buddha and the Jatakas, the visit of Asita to the infant Buddha, the temptation of Buddha by Mara and his forces, Buddhist miracles, the Jataka of king Sibi, legends of the Nagas, hunting scenes, battle-pieces, the carrying off of the relics of Ceylon, &c.

The cave-temples and monasteries of Ajanta furnish a continuous narrative of Buddhist art during 800 years, from shortly after the reign ol Asoka to shortly before the expulsion ol the faith from India. The oldest of them are assigned to about 200 B.C. ; the most modern cannot be placed before the year a.d. 600.

For many centuries they enable us to study the progress of Buddhist art, and of Buddhistic conceptions, uninfluenced by Hinduism. The chief interest of the latest chaitya, about A.D. 600, is to show how nearly Buddhism had approximated to Brahmanism, before the convulsions and which it disappeared. The liberality of the Indian Government had enabled Major Gill to take up his residence in Ajanta, and to prepare a magnificent series of facsimiles from the frescoes.

These unfortunately perished in the fire at the Crystal Palace in 1860, but reductions of two of the more important of them, and of eight detached fragments, exist in Mrs. Spiers life in Ancient India. More recently the matchless art series of Ajanta has been made available to the Western world by Mr. Griffiths.

[John Griffiths, Indian Antiquary, vol. ii, p. 150; vol. iii, p. 25; J. Fergusson, History ol Indian Architecture (cd. 1876); J. Burgess, Bauddha Rock Temples of Ajanta (1879), and Cave-Templei 0) W India (1881); J. Griffiths, The Paintings in the Buddhist Care Temples of Ajanta (1896-7).]

Ajanta Caves

Bangladesh Narkive

The path to the Ajanta Caves
Photograph by Supawan K., OK Nation

The cave temples of Ajanta are situated about sixty two miles north of Aurangabad in western India. The caves are first mentioned in the writings of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang who visited India between A.D 629 and 645. The caves were "discovered" dramatically during the course of military manouevres being undertaken by British officers in 1819. Public attention was roused and the East India company instructed the Viceroy to procure good copies of the paintings. Publicity, however, was nearly fatal to the original paintings, as many archaeologists and officials cut out the heads to be presented to museums. Therefore, in 1903, wire screens were fixed in all the important caves.

The thirty temples at Ajanta are set into the rocky sides of a crescent shaped gorge in the Inhyadri hills of the Sahyadri ranges. At the head of the gorge is a natural pool fed by a waterfall. Though this pristine spot was chosen to enable the Buddhist monks to meditate undisturbed, it should be noted that all sites of Buddhist excavations were situated close to the main trade routes.

Way back in1819, a party of British army officers on a tiger hunt in the forest of western Deccan, suddenly spotted their prey, on the far side of a loop in the Waghora river. High up on the horseshoe- shaped cliff, the hunting party saw the tiger, silhouetted against the carved façade of a cave.

On investigating, the officers discovered a series of carved caves, each more dramatic than the other. Hewn painstakingly as monsoon retreats or varshavasas for Buddhist monks, the cave complex was continuously lived in from 200 BC to about AD650. There are thirty caves, including some unfinished ones. Of the Ajanta caves, five are chaityas or prayer halls and the rest are viharas or monasteries.

Hinayana and Mahayana

The Ajanta caves resolve themselves into two phases, separated from each other by a good four hundred years. These architectural phases coincide with the two schools of Buddhist thought, the older Hinayana school where the Buddha was represented only in symbols like the stupa, a set of footprints or a throne, and the later Mahayana sect which did not shy away from giving the Lord a human form.


Among the more prominent Hinayana caves are those numbered 9, 10 (both chaityas), 8, 12, 13 and 15 (all viharas). The sculpted figures in these caves are dressed and coiffed in a manner reminiscent of the stupas at Sanchi and Barhut, indicating that they date back to the first or second century BC.


The Mahayana monasteries include 1, 2, 16 and 17, while the chaityas are in caves 19 and 26. The caves, incidentally, are not numbered chronologically but in terms of access from the entrance. A terrqaced path of modern construction connects the caves, but in ancients times, each cave was accessed from the riverfront by individual staircases. The sculptures and paintings in the caves detail the Buddha's life as well as the lives of the Buddha in his previous births, as related in the allegorical Jataka tales. You will also find in the caves a sort of illuminated history of the times - court scenes, street scenes, cameos of domestic life and even animal and bird studies come alive on these unlit walls.

The caves including the unfinished ones are thirty in number, of which five (9, 10, 19, 26 and 29) are chaitya-grihas and the rest are sangharamas or viharas (monasteries). After centuries of oblivion, these caves were discovered in AD 1819.They fall into two distinct phases with a break of nearly four centuries between them. All the caves of the earlier phase date between 2nd century BC-AD. The caves of the second phase were excavated during the supremacy of the Vakatakas and Guptas. According to inscriptions, Varahadeva, the minister of the Vakataka king, Harishena (c. 475-500 AD), dedicated Cave 16 to the Buddhist sangha while Cave 17 was the gift of the prince, a feudatory. An inscription records that- Buddha image in Cave 4 was the gift of some Abhayanandi who hailed from Mathura.

A few paintings which survive on the walls of Caves 9 and 10 go back to the 2nd century BC-AD. The second group of the paintings started in about the fifth century AD and continued for the next two centuries as, noticeable in later caves. The themes are intensely religious in tone and centre round Buddha, Bodhisattvas, incidents from the life of Buddha and the Jatakas. The paintings are executed on a ground of mud-plaster in the tempera technique.

See also

Ajanta: An overview, detailed research on the Caves and the Art

Ajanta Hills (or Inhyadri)

Ajanta Village

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