Ajanta Caves - World Heritage site

Ajanta's famous painting

Ajanta Caves are a group of caves situated about 107 km northeast of Aurangabad. The group of 30 caves belong to a period ranging from 200 BC to 250 AD and were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Ajanta Caves lie within the Sahyadri hills, above the Waghora River and consist of chaitya-griphas (prayer halls and viharas (monasteries). The caves provide a unique combination of exquisite architecture, detailed sculptures and beautiful paintings. All the paintings show great religious influence and are centered on Buddha, incidents from the life of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and the Jataka tales. 


Sublime, soaring mountains twirling and twisting through lofty highlands offering picturesque views onto the pits and valleys decorated with beds of deep green and soft greens leads the tourist quietly downwards into the depths of the secretive elevations to a blank end, after meandering and rotating and abruptly landing us at the foothills of the most panoramic hillside called the Inhyadri hills of the Sahyadri ranges. Ajanta caves perched on these hills rank as one of the world's most startling achievements, created at the very apogee of India's Golden Age.

The caves of Ajanta are not far from the great trade route leading from the north to the Deccan. From Ujjains in the north, the Sarthavaha patha was connected to Mahishmati on the Narmada river. Burhanpur, Ajanta, Bhogavardhana (now Bhokardan) Pratisthana (modern Paithan) and Tagara (modern Ter). Location of the cave reveals the artistic and aesthetic sense of those who selected the exciting site. The caves are excavated in the face of an almost perpendicular scarp of rock, about 250 high, sweeping round in a semi-circle or horse shoe shape and forming the north or outer side of a wild secluded ravine down which comes a small stream. Above the caves the valley terminates abruptly in a waterfall of seven leaps known as the Satkund which has a height of 100 ft. At the base is a deep rocky pool, a natural cistern, which contains a supply of the purest water all the year round. Unfortunately since the last few years these falls are getting scarce.

 These beautiful caves for nearly twelve hundred years had been as effectively lost and forgotten as Pompei was after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Perhaps from time to time hermits or wandering tribes made a home in them, but as far as the outside world was concerned Ajanta ceased to exist. Tigers and other wild animals prowled through the halls of the caves and made their lairs under the paintings. Over the years, during the monsoonal rains the doorways fell in shrubs and creepers overgrew the entrances.

 At last in 1819, the caves were discovered again. They were discoveru by a group of British Officers attached to the Madras Army who were taking a few days off from military maneuvers in the Inhyadri hills, to the north of Ajanta, to hunt tigers. The person named in this adventure was John Smith who with his officers was led by a cowboy to caves where they could find lions and tigers. Hacking their way in through this undergrowth the officers suddenly found themselves confronted by a large doorway of carved stone. Beyond a square cavern lined with pillars led back into the rock, and at the far end, a huge figure of Buddha sat quietely smiling in the darkness. All the walls were covered with brilliant paintings.

After this accidental discovery of the most momentous cave temples a number of scholars and travellers came to Ajanta. Initially military officers like James Edward Alexander a lieutenant, Mr Ralph came to Ajanta in 1824 and 1828 respectively. A Dr. James Bird a physician was sent to suggest methods to protect the caves by the East India Company and in 1844 Major Gill an artist attached to the Madras army was sent to copy the paintings. He stayed at Ajanta for nearly 27 years. Later Major Griffith worked on the paintings from 1872 to 1896 and copied most of the runtings.

By 1914, the Nizam's Government established a department of Archaeology and proper roads and guest houses were constructed for visitors. In 1953 the Archaeological Survey of India took over the upkeep of the caves.

The caves at Ajanta were excavated in two phases of architectural activity. Being exclusively Buddhist the earlier phase (2nd cent B.C. to 2nd cent A.D.) belonged to the Hinayana phase and the second phase, the Mahayana phase lasts from early 5th cent A.D. to early 6th century. The earlier phase was carried out during the reign of the Satavahanas and the later under the Vakatakas and the Guptas. Some caves according to scholars were carved as late as the period of Chalukayas of Vatapikonda.

The early Hinayana caves are cave No.9, 10 (Chaityas) and cave 12 the earliest Vihara. In these caves the architecture is very simple with a Chaitya hall supported by a colonnade of pillars, divided into a central cave and two side aisles. Around the Stupa is the circumambulating passages. The Vihara is a simple hall with cells on all the three sides.

Cave no 1,2,16 and 17 consist of the most bewildering colours and human figures. The walls and ceilings are covered with tempera paintigs and at first they appear so crowded that you despair of making out anything. The paintings represent the jataka tales and are specially famous :'Dr the three dimensional effects, light and shade. The impressions are simply stunning, imprints of the entire palace life, immersed deep in spirituality and combined with the little pleasures of life leaves you floating ecstatically in the world of Ajanta Cave No. 19 and 26 are later Chaityas which are adorned with a crowd of Buddha sculptures carved in various asanas and mudras, while the earlier plain pillars give in to ornate decorations giving a free scope for an artist's imaginative creations.

In this small work it is not possible to give all the details of Ajanta but I feel bound to explain and highlight the technique of paintings as the reader would be specially interested in it.

Technique of Ajanta Paintings : The Ajanta murals have often been mistaken for frescoes. In fact they are not frescoes but tempera-The ground of a true fresco paintings has to be lime plaster. The painting should be carried out while the plaster is still wet. The painting has to be done with mineral pigments which are compatible with lime. The painting is done without the use of any binding medium. Thus the absence of lime plaster at Ajanta, the use of binding medium like glue, the flaking of pigments point to its tempera characteristics. According to the latest study on the technique of Ajanta painting however the author writes that for getting a white, lime has been used as an inert pigment and mixed with other colours when found necessary this has contributed to the resulting brilliancy. Now considering this the author writes, "I will simply call Ajanta mural as that of gouache medium painted on dried mud plaster ground, instead of tempra, fresco buono or secco mentioned in many case studies.

Colours used in Ajanta were opaque or semi-opaque in nature and mostly of mineral origin. For making different shades two or more colours were mixed together. Two groups of whites were used one the opaque white like zinc, lead, titanium white and semi-opaque like chalk, gypsum, alumina hydrate, kaolin. The transparent and semi-transparent colours were mixed together due to which more light passes through the transparent particles of the pigments, resulting in illumination of the colour.

Ajanta paintings are composed of three layers namely, the support or the carrier, the ground and the layer of pigments. The first is the support on which the painting is executed. The ground coat lies between the support and the layer of pigments. It is a preparatory coat applied to a support. The main ingredient of ground plaster is clay mixed with binding materials (gum obtained form 'babul' (acacia) or 'neem' (Margose) tree and glue from animal sources). Three layers of ground are seen at Ajanta for very rough surface, moderately even and smooth surface. Before painting the ground prepared with clay a lime surfacing was given for brightness.

The first layer of ground was paddy skin, grass seed, fibre and stone chips of uneven sizes, the second long grass, cotton, fibre and fine grass and for the third or top layers fine sand was used. This layer was made up of clay and fine sand. After giving a lime wash mixed with gum or glue over the mud plastered ground paintings have been executed. The pigments use for these paintings with the exception of black ore of mineral origin and lime resistant in nature. Among these Indian red, light red, yellow ochre, terra verta (green earth), orpiment yellow were locally available. Lapis Lazuli was used for blue, black from lamp and bright red was extracted from lead. Application of red lead can only be found in 'Vessantara' Jataka of Cave No. 17

Ajanta shares Gupta traditions. The Ajanta sculptures show a delicacy of style and reveal great skill in execution. They clearly reflect the new aesthetic vision of the Gupta period. Inspite of the porous nature of the rock the sculptures do not loose in refinement or spirituous content.

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Note:  Ajanta Caves is closed on Mondays