the ajanta caves

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Mural details from cave 1 of Ajanta (320-500 AD). The top depicts a female chauri (fly-whisk) bearer, the bottom a male figure from a scene of the Champaye Jataka.

Scanned from The Arts of India by Ajit Mookerjee (1966).

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The Ajanta Caves (अजिंठा लेणी) are about 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 or 650 CE. The caves include paintings and sculptures which are masterpieces of Buddhist religious art, with figures of the Buddha and depictions of the Jataka tales.The caves were built in two phases starting around the 2nd century BCE, with the second group of caves built around 400–650 CE according to older accounts. In 1983, the caves became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site of India.

Images in order

1. Ajanta Caves Complex with all the entrances visible.

2. Entrance to Cave 19.

3. Chaitya Griha or prayer hall in Cave 29.

4. The Buddha in a preaching pose, Cave 1.

(Aurangabad district, Maharashtra)

Bodhisattva Padmapani, detail from a wall painting in cave 1, second half of the fifth century. Ajanta Caves, India.

The Ajanta Caves caves have been described by the government Archaeological Survey of India as “the finest surviving examples of Indian art, particularly painting,” and consists of about 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments dating from approximately the 2nd century BCE to about 480 or 650 CE.

This segment from Gardner’s Art through the Ages: Non-Western Perspectives (2009) describes the scene shown:

The bodhisattva Padmapani sits among a crowd of devotees, both princesses and commoners. With long, dark hair handing down below a jeweled crown, he stands holding his attribute, a blue lotus flower, in his right hand. […] The artist has carefully considered the placement of the painting in the cave. The bodhisattva gazes downward at worshipers passing through the entrance to the shrine on their way to the rock-cut Buddha image in a cell at the back of the cave.

Photo courtesy & taken by Amit Rawat.

1. In Gibraltar Straits,
pirates in search of El Dorado
masked and machete-bearing
kidnapped me.
Holding me to ransom,
they took my jewels and my secrets
and dismembered me.

2. The reckoning lasted for years.
Limbs and parts eventually grew:
a new nose, arms skillful and stronger,
sight after the gutted pits could bear a leaf.
It took centuries.

3.In the cave where they kept me,
a strange beast grew.
With his skin of glistening jewels
and his deadly tongue,
even I was afraid of him.

4. In the dark Ajanta caves of my breast
ever since he has stayed,
with his measure of venom,
his exact poison and scintillating glitter.
At a certain hour, I almost love him.

—  Mahadai Das, Beast
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Cave 19 at the Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra, India.

Ajanta contains 30 excavated rock-cut caves which belong to two distinct phases of Buddhism: the Hinayana phase (2nd century BC-1st century AD) and the Mahayana phase (5th century AD-6th century AD). These caves are considered to be one the finest examples of early Buddhist architecture, cave-paintings, and sculpture.

The Archaeological Survey of India, Aurangabad Circle, speaks specifically of Cave 19:

The small chityagriha [prayer hall] is considered one of the most perfect specimens of Buddhist art in India. The exquisitely decorated facade and beautiful interior form a grand combination of richness of detail and graceful proportion. The inscription in Cave 17 records that a feudatory prince under Vakataka King Harisena was a munificent donor of this cave, datable to the 5th century AD. It consists of a small but elegant portico, verandah, a hall, and chapels. The apsidal hall is divided into a nave, an elaborate and elongated drum, and a globular dome which stands against the apse. 

The pillars and the stupa are intricately carved with the figures of Lord Buddha and other decorative motifs. The sidewalls are also adorned with countless figures of Buddha while the ceiling is filled with painted floral motifs in which animals, birds, and human figures are cleverly interwoven. The chapel contains the panel of Nagaraja with his consort known for its serenity and royal dignity.

The first and second photos were taken by Kirk Kittell, the third is by Arian Zwegers.

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Iconic works of K.K. Mahajan: Ashadh Ka Ek Din (1971)

In Ashadh Ka Ek Din the relationship of the framing was to be maintained with the Ajanta frescoes. Framing was done very carefully and actors moved through previously defined distances, marked like musical scales. Shot after shot Mani used to get excited and shout, ‘Hit ho gaye’, sometimes once, most times again and again. Then would come KK’s characteristic drawl, 'Hit hi hote jaoge ya dusra shot bhi loge?’ Then, laughing, we would move onto another shot. There was so much joy to that shooting and KK performed his magic with such nonchalance, with such speed and precision that you began to thinkthat cinematography was a child’s game, until you saw the results. (There is another apocryphal story about KK. When a student uses Eastman for the first time, he is assailed by a hundred fears like someone learning to swim. KK with his characteristic cigarette in the mouth, would push him into the ocean of cinematography by saying, 'Chalo, camera on karo. Darte kya ho? Are itni badi company hai Eastman, kuch to ayega filmpe.’)

Again KK captured the spirit of the frescoes, the light in the eyes, the droop of the arms, the inclination of the head, the geometric formations of the groups it was all there. The projection room became the dark cave of Ajanta when the lights went off and as KK’s images came to life.

Arun Khopkar, Ashadh Ka Ek Din and the Magic Hour: a tribute to K. K. Mahajan

The congregation listening to Buddha’s discourse.  Ajanta Caves.

A number of paintings in Ajanta are illustrations of the Buddha’s life as well as Buddhist tales (usually the Jatakas).  In some of the paintings, especially of assembled congregations, you can see a variety of costumes as well as what appear to be foreign disciples (see below). This particular one above appears to have monks’ robes as well as the patterned uttariya draped over one shoulder.

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Scans - George Harrison’s photographs of India, 1966, scanned from Living in the Material World

Photo 1: Kashmir, 1966, photograph by George

Photo 2: Kailash Temple, Ellora, India, 1966, photograph by George

Photo 3: Ajanta caves, Maharashtra, India, 1966, photograph by George

Photos 4 & 5: Street scenes, India, 1966, photographs by George

“George was the first Beatle who started taking photos, and he was still doing it when he died. I know I turned him on to photography, and he did some lovely work. Plus he had a huge collection of photographic books. For The Beatles, photography was art, and they always respected people who were artists with a camera.” - Astrid Kirchherr, The Beatles Classic, Rare & Unseen

“Firstly, I think too many people here have the wrong idea about India. Everyone immediately associates India with poverty, suffering and starvation but there’s much, much more than that. There’s the spirit of the people, the beauty and goodness. The people there have tremendous spiritual strength which I don’t think is found elsewhere. That’s what I’ve been trying to learn about.” - George Harrison on what his first visit to India taught him, NME, 27 May 1967

The Ajanta cave murals: 'nothing less than the birth of Indian art'

In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party was heading through thick jungle near Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, western India, when the tiger they were tracking disappeared into a deep ravine. Leading the hunters was Captain John Smith, a young cavalry officer from Madras. Beckoning his friends to follow, he tracked the animal down a semi-circular scarp of steep basalt, and hopped across the rocky bed of the Wagora river, then made his way up through the bushes at the far side of the amphitheatre of cliffs.

Halfway up, Smith stopped in his tracks. The footprints led straight past an opening in the rock face. But the cavity was clearly not a natural cave or a river-cut grotto. Instead, despite the long grass, the all-encroaching creepers and thorny undergrowth, Smith was looking at a manmade facade cut straight into the rockface. The jagged slope had been painstakingly carved away into a perfect portico. It was clearly a work of great sophistication. Equally clearly, it had been abandoned for centuries. Read more.