Ajanta Cave murals -- unmatched expressions of Middle Age art

by Nabanita Dutt, Jul 22, 2002 | Destinations: India / Maharashtra

The Taj Mahal has spoilt it somewhat for other heritage sites in India. The marble wonder has created such an aura around the life and times of the Moghul period that, more often than not, tourists from around the world only do the Delhi-Agra-Rajasthan routine, giving equally impressive historical monuments in the rest of India a complete miss.

The caves of Ajanta and Ellora, near the city of Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra, would be the most glaring case in point. Located just 66 kms from each other, the twin sites crown the achievements of the whole of ancient South India, displaying the most unusual architectural and painting expertise.

Three religions in high tide - Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism -combined at Ellora to create an awe-inspiring fusion of sculpture, art and architectural elements that remains unparalleled by any single heritage site in the rest of the world. The clutch of 34 caves that are collectively known as Ellora were built between 5th Century and 10th Century AD over an area of one-and-a-half miles on the gentle slopes of the Chamadari hills.

The centerpiece - an entire cathedral cut out of a single piece of rock - is the Kailash Temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Over 7,000 labourers worked in continuous shifts over 150 years to hollow out 18,300 sq. ft. of rock surface to erect this 100 ft-high monolith structure. Complete with an ornate gateway, pavilion, courtyard, vestibule, a sanctum sanctorum and tower, the temple also displays the best of what little mural work was done at Ellora.

But the grandeur of rock architecture here sometimes suffer in comparison with the wall paintings of Ajanta. The fact that Ajanta is fast losing its precious art treasure due to exposure to the elements seems to attract more and more visitors every year.

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The Buddhist murals and frescos of Ajanta, which go back to the 2nd Century BC, are considered to be the most beautiful expressions of Indian Middle Age art, and it is from here that historians trace the beginnings of the country's rich classical history.

The first mentions of these caves can be found in the writings of Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang, who visited India between 629 AD-645 AD. He talks of 30 caves laid out in a massive horseshoe and nestling deep in a gorge in the Sayadri mountain range, whose walls had been converted into exquisite pictorial records of Buddha's life and teachings.

There are several theories as to why the Buddhist monks chose to cut caves out of tough volcanic stone at this particular spot. A commonly-held view is that the Ajanta caves were built as a rain shelter for the religious travellers. It was the duty of all holy monks to move from place to place, spreading the Buddha's teachings among common people. The only time they were allowed to settle in one place was during the rainy months of monsoon, when the wet, treacherous terrains made travelling quite impossible. Another theory put forward is that the caves were deliberately located close to the trade route to other countries, which monks often took on their journeys. It was this proximity, in fact, which carried Ajanta style of Buddhist art out of India to faraway places like China and Japan, where its influence is evident in a number of their own religious art works.

The job of carving and painting - a long drawn out and painstaking process -- was pursued vigorously for a span of 800 years and groups of about 200 monks took up residence here for the three rainy months, until suddenly, some time around 6th Century AD, the site was inexplicably abandoned in favour of Ellora. A number of caves were left unfinished, and the place gradually became home to a horde of bats - who can still be seen in some of the caves.

For the next few thousand years, the site languished under a thick forest cover, forgotten by the world and losing precious art with every landslide and rainfall.

It wasn't until 1819, that the place was rediscovered quite by accident. A group of Englishmen from the East India Company, led by a John Smith, was on a tiger hunt in the Sayadri jungles when they spotted a prey on the far side of a loop in the nearby Waghora river. High up on the horseshoe-shaped cliff, the hunting party saw the tiger, silhouetted against the carved façade of a cave. Upon investigating, the officers discovered a series of carved caves, each more dramatic than the other. It's interesting to note here that Cave No: 10 of the Ajanta has a small graffiti scribbled on one of its frescoed walls which says: "John Smith 1819".

The Englishmen carried news of their findings to the plains, and major excavation work was quickly planned at the site. Thirty caves were unearthed with varying degrees of success, spread over a stretch of 550 metres. Their floor levels were not uniform and there was no symmetry in their subsurface distribution, probably due to their excavation at different times.

The rock-cutting appeared to have started from the top and continued down towards the floor. The façade doorway was dug out first and then the interior portions like the central halls, ante chambers and cells. Solid columns of rock were left as supports, wherever necessary. The lay-out and planning indicates that the ancient builders had sufficient knowledge of the principle of single and multiple beams and the cantilever system of load distribution.

Out of the total of 30, five caves were temples (chaityas) and the rest were monastries (viharas). The best architectural work went into the facades of the temples, which displayed intense ornamentation and carvings. The monasteries, where the monks lived, were simpler with a large central hall with residential cells cut into the walls on three sides. The layout of the stone beds in the sleeping quarters suggests that 2 to 4 monks occupied a single cell.

The caves were not numbered chronologically but in terms of access from the entrance. A terraced path of modern construction connects the caves, but in ancient times, each cave was accessed from the riverfront by individual staircases.

The Ajanta caves resolve themselves into two phases, separated from each other by a good 400 years. These architectural phases coincide with two schools of Buddhist thought: the older Hinayana, where the Buddha was represented only in symbols like the stupa, a set of footprints or a throne, and the later Mahayana, which did not shy away from giving the Lord a full-bodied human form.

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A high degree of craftsmanship incorporating all the rules laid down by ancient Indian treatises on painting and aesthetics are evident in the frescos and murals of Ajanta. The rough surfaces of the rock walls were first covered with an inch-thick layer of earth and cow dung mixed with chopped straw and animal hair. When the surface had been completely smoothed off, it was covered with finely-sieved gypsum or lime plaster, and it was upon this surface that the actual painting was done.

The colour pallete was simple: red, blue, yellow ochre and lamp black. With the exception of black, all other pigments were procured from local volcanic rocks. Animal glue and vegetable gum were used to bind the colour to the walls. (This was partly responsible for the paintings falling prey to insects and bacteria. Over the centuries, large portions of the friezes have literally been eaten off.)

In the later paintings, the contours of the figures stand out boldly. For this, the artists used deep colour washes. The fluid lines, long sweeping brush strokes, subtle gradation of the same colour, highlighting of nose, eyelids, lips and chin to make the figures `rise' from the flat wall surface - all give evidence of an art in full maturity.

In one celebrated analysis of Ajanta paintings, art historian Nalini Bhagwat writes: "It is very significant that the available space at the disposal of the Ajanta artists was not restricted like that of Sanchi or Amravati. The complete wall was at their disposal and there was no limit of framework. The paintings just continued at right angles on adjoining walls too."

In the initial phase, the compositions were generally confined to single bands of ornamentation with the artwork progressing from left to right. "In later years, however, the paintings overspread the entire surface of the rock wall in the enactment of a Buddhist Aesop Fables, with a sense of teeming life and vitality."

The intricacies of even the smallest characters were not neglected as a result of this, and no character was diluted to enhance the depiction of another. This is one of the factors that make the Ajanta murals so awe-inspiring - a visitor can literally spend days exploring each detail in an interrelated, cohesive fashion.

Tucked away deep within the folds of the hills, the caves received very little natural light. The heavy darkness of the recesses in which the artists worked by illuminating small portions of the wall at a time with metal mirrors, make their work that much more laudatory.

Early Ajanta explorers claimed that the painters were all monks, working on the walls to while away their spare time during the torrential rains. Later studies, however, revealed them to be guild painters, who were accustomed to work in secular palaces. Worldly impulses of these professional painters urged them to add people of their contemporary society - royalty, ordinary folks and slaves - in great detail with precise information on dress, fashions, family life and entertainment of the day. Superimposed figures of the Buddha, which were later added on top of these paintings in Caves 9 and 10, are a reflection of the everyday concerns of the Ajanta artists.

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Several motifs stand out in the Buddhist friezes as some of the best examples of the achievements of Buddhist art. For example:

Padmapani (Cave 1): An image of Prince Buddha delicately holding a fragile blue lotus in his hands, with his head bent sideways, as if the weight of his ornate, jeweled crown is too heavy for his head.

Court scene (also in Cave 1): The dilemma of Nanda, a fellow prince who has decided to join Buddha's monastic order, is shown here. Nanda appears devastated at the idea of leaving his wife Sundari and the pleasures of princely life, which he is voluntarily exchanging for one of austerity. The court scene also features a bearded man in fur-trimmed hat and boots, who is believed to be a Persian emissary to the reigning king's court.

Avalokiteswara (Cave 1): The golden figure is now commonly known as the `Ajanta Prince'. This painting, for some reason, is the commercial triumph of the Ajanta caves and - with reproductions in travel books and brochures -- has come to represent India's art heritage as a whole. The figure of Avalokiteswara wears an elaborate crown hung with looped strands of pearls. Pearl necklaces adorn his handsome body and a gold girdle fastens his striped garment.

Chapters from the Jataka Tales, a collection of 547 moral lessons about past reincarnations of the Buddha, are also exquisitely depicted in the frescos. For example:

Womanhood scorned (Cave 2): The queen and her attendants tempt a shipwrecked prince with all the art of this world. The prince is not moved, and the queen wears a look of undisguised pique on her face. She cannot understand how he can withstand the temptations of her oiled looks and colourful dhoti in the latest fashionable stripes and the firm bosoms and sinewy waists of her sensuous attendants.

Ogress Hariti (Cave 2): The ogress and her consort, Kubera, devour little children and wouldn't listen to any plea of mercy. In an attempt to reform her, Buddha (in a previous avatar) steals her favourite child. In a flash she realizes the agony a mother goes through at the loss of her offspring and submits to the Lord in repentence.

Chullasubhadda (Cave 10): Chullasubhadda, the second wife of the king of Varanasi, is eaten with jealousy at all the affection her husband showers on his first wife. One day, Chullasubhadda secretly orders the killing of the king's favourite white elephant. When her trusted servants bring her the a pair of tusks as evidence of the killing, the queen embraces them in glee. It's only later that she comes to know that the white elephant was none other than Buddha himself, at which point she dies in remorse for her cruelty.

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It is in the portrayal of female figures that one sees the true mastery of the Ajanta artists. Every woman character is elaborately turned out with huge knots of hair decorated with flowers at the back of the neck, sumptuous clothing and heavy gold jewellery. Big breasted and wide hipped, the Ajanta females exude grace and sensuality in stylized poses.

The depiction of `eyes' in the Ajanta frescos is another unique feature. The eyes of princesses, kings and celestial gods are drawn with heavy eyelids, half-covering meditative eyes to suggest a sublime look of grace and compassion. Similarly, the eyes of beggars are soothing with an element of pain and suffering. A Brahman receiving alms has anxious eyes with the addendums of nervous creases and twitchings.

Perspective and the illusion of light have been utilized cleverly to depict a startling three-dimensional figure of the Buddha. The face wears a sad expression when light is focused from the left, smiling when the light comes from the right and angry when illuminated from below.

Besides the Buddha in his various avatars and common, royal and celestial beings, the artists use a profusion of yakshas (demons), kinnas (half human-half birds), apsaras (heavenly dancers), gandharvas (divine musicians) and creatures from the animal world to add colour and variety in their friezes. Every character is integrated into a grand scheme, each having its own character and each telling its own story.

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Just how long India will be able to hold on to the Ajanta frescos is anybody's guess. Swathes of the frieze were in a fairly good state of preservation when the caves were first opened to the public. Increase in the number of tourists, humidity of their breathing, bacteria and change in temperature, however, are taking there toll on the delicate paintings which are fading gradually, and in some parts, simply flaking off. The ever-present bats, whose droppings have imparted a curious smell to most of the caves, are also doing their bit in destroying the paintings further.

No more than 20 people are presently being allowed inside the caves at a time. The use of light - the fresco's biggest enemy - has been restricted by the government, and a only weak bulb is permissible in some of the darkest caves, which can be turned on only for a few seconds at a time. Visitors are often frustrated by the fact that they cannot photograph the better paintings for fear of damage. Pictures of secondary quality, which have already lost their clarity due to dampness and exposure, do not photograph well. (Lack of photographic evidence is probably one of the reasons why many people are still unaware of Ajanta's existence.)

Historians today are divided over the Ajanta cave restoration issue -- whether to let the paintings fade naturally and retain its authenticity or allow them to be retouched by artists according to their own perceptions.

Art historian Benoy Behl, who has journeyed through 100 cities around the world to photo-document evidences of Indian art down the ages, digitally restored 33 photographs of the paintings (with help from experts at the Rochester Institute of Technology in USA) that have suffered discolouration and defacement. "There was no guesswork involved," he says. "Such was the accuracy of the restoration that a king -- believed to be wearing a shawl with a pattern of ducks - emerged wearing not a shawl at all, but a vest."

Behl recommends more action on the part of the government before it's too late. "I have been pleading with the people in authority to build replicas of the Ajanta caves," he says. "Then people would not have to go into the real caves. The same problem was occurring in Europe with cave paintings dating to the Stone Age until they were closed to human traffic." Behl's persistence has paid off and now the Government of India, with monetary aid from Japan, will build a hi-tech reproduction of the three major caves as part of a museum adjacent to the site.

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