Saturday, November 15, 2008

AJANTA ABANDONED...... Legacy Lives

Prolouge :

A man continues to enjoy himself in paradise as long as long as his memory is green in this world “ declares the patron Harisena on cave 26 “ One should endeavour to build a memorial on the mountain ranges of Sayadhri that will endure for as long as the moon and sun shines

This is what Harisena along with his hired artisans along with the Buddhist monks strived in the Ajanta valley till 477 AD, when it was abandoned with a sudden loss of motivation beyond comprehension.

Our Trip to Ajanta :   One scorching summer in May 1998 we decided to venture out in a Tata Sumo on a circular trip to Trimbakeswar,  Nasik, Shirdi, Ahmednagar,  Paithan, Ajantha, Shani singnapur, Aurangabad,Ajanta, Ellora, Daulatabad,  Bhimashankar, Shivneri, Malshej, Vajreshwari and back to Dahisar on a five day trip.  Our halts were at the following places, Nasik, Paithan, Aurangabad,  Ellora & Bhimashankar.  Just check out the broad route map besides, you may get an idea of our trip undertaken. We missed out on Pilhotra Caves and did not climb the Shivneri caves completely.  Getting drenched in hot spring water at Vajreswari was like adding fuel to fire Lolz....thank god we escaped mishap and live to tell the story of Ajantha..


Why Ajanta was abandoned is a mystery explored by many a historians. The entire Ajanta complex was probably inhabited by Neolithic mankind prior to Buddhist monks discovering the safe den for their monastic living. They began construction of the famous 30 cave complex in early 2nd Century BC. For almost 350 years they were surveying the area and laying the basic foundation for a grandiose plan for building an edifice eulogizing Lord Buddha. In 450 AD in Harisena they found a willing sponsorer to trigger the building activity and completing the cave viharas and chaityas. The lovely mural paintings were completed using the locally available vegetable dyes and other binding materials such clay etc.

During the final years of Hiresena betrayal by his feudatories, who scorned the effort of building the now famous Ajanta caves because of dying influence of Buddhism. It was primarily because Buddhism was on the wane and it was leading to revival of Hinduism and beginning of Jainism. Harisena who was involved in building of the Ajanta caves seems to have been poisoned by his feudatory king Asamaka. Thus the entire workmen shifted from the Ajanta complex leaving the incomplete edifice and shifted to Ellora and other parts of the country. The persecution theory of Buddhist monks goes for a toss, and there was no moghul or islamic invasion of this region during that time fearing which an exodus has taken place. Another valid reason maybe there was an attempt to alter the Buddhist legacy evidenced in cave 15 A which may have prompted abandonment of the entire valley by the monks to preserve its heritage.

In 1819 AD John Smith, a british army officer on an hunting expedition trying to hunt a tiger, spotted in the area was lead by a young boy into the cliff opposite the Ajanta complex. Smith spotted Cave No 10 with a huge arch which ultimately lead to the discovery of the paradise lost to civilization for nearly 1400 years. This helped in conservation of the mural paintings which were earlier considered Frescos erroneously.


Ajanta is basically a tribute to Lord Buddha, ( 400 – 480 B C) who renounced his family life at the age of 29. and attained nirvana. Buddha discarded the yogic way of living to adopt a middle path. At a sexually active age he abandoned world pleasures and took to preaching the middlepath.

1. To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards all life forms)
2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (not committing theft)
3. To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct
4. To refrain from lying (speaking truth always)
5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol)
6. To refrain from eating at the wrong time (only eat from sunrise to noon)
7. To refrain from dancing and playing music, wearing jewelry and cosmetics, attending shows and other   performances
8. To refrain from using high or luxurious seats and bedding

Location :

Ajanta is located 107 kms from Aurangabad. The nearest railway line is Bhusawal or Jalgaon, Aurangabad on Hyderabad route. There is an airport at Aurangabad connecting Mumbai and Poona. We approached by an unconvential route travelling through Nasik, Shirdhi, Bheemashankar, Ahmednagar, Paitan and landed in Ajanta on a summer day. The best time to visit Ajanta is during the monsoon without any doubt. One find the nature in blossom along with water falls and river bed flowing with water. Winter is the most preferred time to visit Ajanta in lieu of the cold climate.  The first time when we visited Ajanta was post rainy season the pictures we shot we so full of colours.

Historical Background :

In all 30 caves were excavated in a horse shoe valley. The valley houses a small stream known as waghora. Each and every cave was connected by flight of steps to this stream for monks and artisans to utilise for drinking and other daily chores. There are five caves which were Chaitagrihas ( 9, 10, 19, 26 & 29 ) and the rest of the caves are viharas. The caves can be divided into Hinyana period ( formless, when stupa was revered ) and Mahayana period which worshipped the statue of the Buddha.

All other caves were sponsored by the Vakatakas King Harisena and his ministers. The grandiocese plan to be associated with an edifice, during the contemporary Gupta period, enamoured the relatively unkown King in Indian History. Some even claim the rule of Vakataka as the golden age equvalent to Gupta period. The reign of Harisena ( 450 AD to 477 AD ) is subject of many conspiracies and blood bath after he got associated with construction. Nevertheless the work on completing the mamoth task was taken up earnest with artisans, sculptors, and painters imported from all parts of the country.

Varadeva, the minister of Harisena dedicated cave no 17 to the buddhist Sangha and cave no 16 too was dedicated by his son to the Buddhist cause. A description of Ajanta caves was furnished by Huien Tsang, who visited the country during the first half of the 7th century, even though he did not visit it personally because of its inaccessability due to the abadonment.

There is some trace of Rashtrakutas involvement in trying to revive Ajanta heritage during the the 8 and 9th century with statue of Buddha being installed and paintings with theme of Buddha as its epicentre. The main theme of the paintings are inspired from the jataka tales and different episodes from the lifestyle of Buddha. During this period contemporary lifestyle and geometric and floral patterns are explored on the ceilings.


Ajanta paintings were earlier claimed to be frescos but disproved by present day historians conclusively. Fresco painting involves usage of limestone and in wet condition painting. This is mural form of painting which involves elaborated preparation of smoothening the rocky surface and chiselling it with rough patches to embedd the layer of clay with granules of sand with rice husks, grass, cowdung to form a base or canvas for painting. The second coat of similar mixture was given to firmly embedd the foundation for the final painting. A small coat of limestone paint was given to create a canvass. An outline of the potrait was drawn using the peacock feathers and twigs. A rich blend of vegetable dyes were prepared from Mango bark, Indigo, Jamun, Saffron, Lamp black, etc was used to sketch the potrait associated with jataka tales. The chief bind agent in the form of glue from the sapodila tree was used to bind the colours in all its richness.

Black tar-like bitumen, incidentally, is a naturally occurring ‘thermoplastic polymer’, the ancient equivalent of Superglue may have been used as a base for binding the material on the rock surface. Sapodilla resin may well have been used in the mortar sticking together the great canvas, which was known in Aztec times too. No wonder the growth of sapodilla in the adjacent area testifies support to my theory.


Michelangelo, was originally commissioned to build the Pope's Tomb, which he slowly lost interest and got permission to paint the 12 apostles of Jesues. Later he modified the concept to include creation of Adam and Eve,Garden of Eden,Great Flood, Creation etc. He completed the paintings from 1508 to 1512 under the patronage of the Pope and with all the resources at his disposal.

Whereas the little known sculptors turned painters had to churn out the magnificient mural paintings under difficult light condition and work with crude and experimental binding material and natural vegetable dyes. The names of the artists have been buried in history without recognition. It took them almost 40 years to complete the series of paintings, with different themes on Jatakas with a semblence of eroticism creeping in later stages due to influence of Chalukyas and Rashtrakuta artisans. Only one alleged artisan Banoti's name is featuring in some epigraphs along with the King Harisena.


RS 10/- per adult for Indians and SAARC citizens.
Others: US $ 5 or Indian Rs. 250/- per head
(children up to 15 years free)

Basically a rectangular monastery with 14 cells with a verandah flanked by cell on each side. There is a statue of Buddha seated and preaching sermons to his disciples. There a number of mural paintings which are in various shades and hues, Padmapani and Vajrapani. There are no of scenes from the Jataka tales depicted on the façade of the cave. Photography is strictly prohibited with flash, one may have to pay penalty if caught using a flash. The paintings are datable to 3rd and 4TH century AD.


This extensively painted cave is also rectangular in shape. The paintings are datable to from 1st to 5 century. The Buddha statue is enshrined in preaching posture. There are two other sub cells containing two Yaksha figures ( Sankhanidhi & Padma ) The paintings record scenes from Jatakas, such as Sravasti, Ashtabava avalokitesvara and the dream of Maya.


It is an incomplete cave with only basic foundation plan laid and aborted due to structural non compatibility. Only the pillared verandah exists.


This is the largest monastery among the 25 other caves. It is a rectangular shaped monastery measuring 35 x27 sq meters size. The doorway is exquisitely carved and flanked with a statue of Buddha, the reliever of eight great perils. The cave paintings have vanished, traces of it can be noticed. This cave preserves a natural volcanic lava flow.


Once again an aborted cave, which reminds us of the unfinished agenda. There is a richly carved door frame with female yakshas on the pillars.


A double storeyed monastery containing a hall and various cells for monks to live. It contains Buddha in various postures and meditative mood. There are some mural paintings with temptation of Maya, Miracle of sarasvathi, and tales of Jatakas.


This is a medium sized rectangular monastery with a oblong hall. It contains Buddha in a preaching mode, with other sculptures of saraswathi and Buddha seated under the serpent hood.


It is an unfinished cave, located at the lower level. It is was designed as a monastery of medium size with major portion being swept away by landslide or floods too.


This cave dates back to 2nd century BC. It belongs to the Hinayana phase of Buddhism, with a stupa surrounded by 23 pillars which can be circambulated. The stupa is the object of worship.

There are two layers of mural paintings dating back to 1st century and later additions in 4th century. The stupa is finished in the form of wooden sculpting, with usage of wooden frames and beams. This prayer hall was used in later stages with image of Buddha being embedded on a later stage.


On a hunting expedition this magnificient cave lead to the ultimate re discovery by John Smith, in 1891 on a hunting expedition. Instead of hunting a tiger he unraveled one of the finest mystery of a hidden Buddhist legacy. It is one of the earliest chaityagriha dating back to 2nd century BC.

This cave consists of a open hall, with 39 pillars and a stupa at the end of the hall. This stupa served as the place of worship as per the hinayana tradition.

It contains mural paintings undertaken during the earlier times and later during 4th century AD. Two jataka tales are embedded in the mural paintings referring to Shama and chadanta period. The latter period paintings consists of Buddha in various moods and postures embedded on the pillars.


This medium sized monastery can be dated to fifth century AD. The hall contains six cells with a lengthy bench. Buddha on sermon mode is sculpted over an unfinished stupa. Few insignificant paintings of different Buddha postures are in faded condition…


This cave is datable to 2nd and 1 century BC. It is constructed and dedicated by a merchant Ghanam Dada to the Lord. This revealed by an inscription on the back wall of the cave. This may have prompted the king Hirasena to contribute his might in subsequent construction as a matter of prestige.


It is a small monastery without much adornment, the only unique feature is that the cells are provided with rock beds which were used for sleeping and rest.


This was built on top of cave 13 but remains unfinished. There was a grandiose plan with doorway being artistically sculpted. Due to withdrawl of royal patronage, the work has been abandoned.


This monastery is medium sized with a hall containing eight cells, an antechamber, with sanctum and pillared verandah. There are sculptures of Lord Buddha in various postures, including the Lord on a throne. There traces of original paintings which seems to have vanished with times.


This happens to be smallest of caves in the ajanta group. It has chaitya format, but later some vedic pattern is noticed. The front hall inscriptions seems to have been obliterated deliberate to suppress the controversial move to change legacy of the Buddhist pattern. This move to alter the buddhist legacy may have triggered the exodus of monks to preserve their heritage of Ajanta.


This cave work was commissioned by Varadeva who was minister in Vakataka Kingdom. ( 475 – 500 AD ) This cave is built as a monastery with 14 cells on 3 sides with a verandah. The sactum contains the image of Buddha.

Mural paintings depict themes from Jatakas, they are Hasti, Mahamagga, Maha-sutosoma, Maya’s dreams, Saraswathi’s miracle and conversion of Nanda. There are incriptions in praise of the King Hirasena.


According to the Bramhi inscription found on the temple, this cave was commissioned by a feudal king Upendragupta under King Hirasena. This cave is a treasure of paintings which is well preserved. One mural painting is of a giant wheel represent the wheel of Life or circle of Life. Flying Apsaras, Taming of a wild elephant and Buddha in sermon to a huge gathering of disciples. There are numerous other paintings illustrative two different period of jataka tales.


An insignificant cave, leading to another cell, the hall has two pillars with moulded base, which gives an impression of an unfinished agenda after the death of King Hirasena or probably during the Rashtrakuta period.


This chaityagriha can be traced to 5 th century. The stupa at the centre is sculpted with image of Lord Buddha in standing posture. The sculpting elegance and grandeur is exhibited with images of Yaksha on the archway. The hall contains paintings of the Lord in various style.


This cave was gifted by Upendra a merchant according to the inscriptions in the verandah. This cave does not have pillar unlike most of the caves. Image of the Lord accompanied by entrouge of attendants is important panel in this cave.


Traces of paintings can be noticed in this monastery cave depicting the Lord preaching a congregation. This cave contains twelve pillars and twelve cells. The Lord is sculpted in a preaching mode at the sanctum.


This unfinished monastery contains a hall with four unfinished cells, there is a narrow verandah. Lord Buddha is carved on the façade of hall. There are images of Buddha in different postures, and paintings display with Buddha and Maitreya.


Once again an unfinished monastery with a hall and sanctum. This cave contains pillars with verandah. The pillars are enriched with designs and door keepers image.


This cave is one of the second largest cave after cave no 4. It contains a hall with pillared verandah. The sanctum contains Buddha in meditative posture. The hall contains pillared verandah which are engraved and incomplete.


An unfinished cave with a hall and pillared verandah. The hall is devoid of any image or stupa. There are two cells on left side of the verandah.


This vihar is similar in construction to cave No 19. An inscription on the verandah refers to commissioning and gifting of this premise by Buddhabhadra, a friend of Bhavviraja, a minister from King Asmaka ( vidharbha) There is a rock stupa with image of Buddha. The aisles and side walls are carved with image of Buddha and one depiction contains the assault of Mara trying to disturb the penance of the Lord.


This cave was designed to be part of 26th cave with a dual storey. The upper storey has partially collapsed. This cave contains a hall with 4 cells. Buddha is teaching his disciples in the sanctum.


It an unfinished agenda with pillared verandah.


This is once again an unfinished vihara located between 20 and 21st cave in the preliminary stage of construction.

Some of the notable inscription s are :

“ Victorious is he who is known as Buddha, saint among saints, teacher among teachers, immortalized among mortals, the scholar among eminent, a store of marvels, one who attained enlightenment by abstinence from worldly pleasure


Victorious is the muni, who applied his mind to people welfare, and strove for it…accomplished …happiness.. who had realized the ultimate realization, who possessed all the three magnificent virtues, who knew no fear, whose compassion beamed forth as the very moonlight…..

Buddham saranam gacchami
I go to the Buddha for refuge.
Dhammam saranam gacchami
I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
Sangham saranam gacchami
I go to the Sangha for refuge.

Dutiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami
For a second time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.
Dutiyampi Dhammam saranam gacchami
For a second time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
Dutiyampi Sangham saranam gacchami
For a second time, I go to the Sangha for refuge.

Tatiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami
For a third time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.
Tatiyampi Dhammam saranam gacchami
For a third time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
Tatiyampi Sangham saranam gacchami
For a third time, I go to the Sangha for refuge.

Conclusion :

Ajanta continued the tradition of religious enclave for pious group of monks, who chose the silent horse shoe valley which was conducive to further their learning and dedication to the Lord Buddha. The natural grottos sheltered them from heavy monsoon and sunshine. During the rainy season painting which started as a hobby, became a serious obsession painting religious motifs. Slowly it turned into a huge monastery hoisting over 200 monks and a temporary shelter became a permanent residence for these Buddhist monks.

The imported artisans responsible for the carvings of the basaltic rocks observed the structure and carefully chiseled the contours to form Pillars, Columns, beams, staircase, ceilings, carvings, image and sanctum, They kept the flow of the theme on Buddhist chaityagrihas and monasteries intact.

It is sad that suddenly after the demise of their royal patronage Hiresena and his tormentor Asmaka, Ajanta was abandoned like a ghost town in 477 AD. For a short period there was some resurrection activity under the Rashtrakuta emperors, but it was again aborted due to decline of Buddhism in general. Further the looming warfare among the kingdoms and shifting of the monks base from Ajanta triggered it to be a forgotton legacy, only to be discovered during a hunting expedition. One can relive it s golden age when there is full blown monsoon in the valley. Buddhist patronage has contributed to the rich legacy of architecture which is unparalleled in the world. The peaceful co-existence was forgotton by the kings of the times and middle path was disbanded.

The fine art of sculpting was experimented at Ajanta by the artisans was perfected @ Badami and Excelled @ Kailashnath temple, Ellora and Immortalised @ Pattadakal.

Acknowledgement :
ASI Chronicles, End of the golden age Walter M spink,Google search and original ideas from the author.
National Geographic Link with photographs and audio link by Benoy k Behl.  MTDC.


Rajesh said...

I had been here this December. It was crowded very much. The architecture and paintings are very grand.

Deguide said...

Yes Rajesh, December being vacation season and winter season you will find plenty of tourist visiting Ajanta and Ellora caves. During April, May it is searing heat, best time is rainy season to visit this destination according to me.


cannons ready to fire

About Me

My photo
Bangalore, Karnataka, India
Basically i am down to earth, take friendship to its logical end. It is my endeavour to create a wealth of co-operative ventures. Basically being a marketing man i have the acumen to spot winners. I am privileged to travel the length and breadth of the country, courtsey my father, who was with Indianoil, my employers such as Nutrine, Kurl-on, Hindustan Pencils, Prestige, Crystal, Bell Ceramics, Pentel, Sezal, Commander. Currently i am involved in Tourism, Booking Air Tickets, Agent for Jungle Lodges and Resorts Limited and Taj Group of Hotels and a numerous hotels across India. Depending on the needs of a traveller i would recommend the destination and accommodation best suited to their budget. Humour takes me on. Let us have a win win situation for all. I love travelling for sake of adventure, photography and discovering the heritage. Life is a journey and let us enjoy our drive. Come share your travel experience on indiabackpacker.