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The Caves of Ajanta

The Caves at Ajanta, India, c. 200 B.C.E. - 650 C.E. (public domain)
Hidden away in the hills of Northwest India, some 200 miles from the busy streets of Mumbai, emerge a magnificent jewel of art and religion: the Ajanta Caves.
Cave 26, (photo: Arian Zwegers, CC: BY 2.0)
Cave 26, (photo: Arian Zwegers, CC: BY 2.0)
The caves, cut into the face of a mountain, form a horseshoe shape around the Wangorah River. They are an example of one of Indian's unique artistic traditions known as rock cut temples. Ajanta consists of thirty caves, each dedicated to the life of the Buddha.
Each cave is filled with sculpture, wall murals, and ceiling paintings. Though much of this site has collapsed, what remains at Ajanta has allowed a glimpse into the artistic traditions of ancient India.

Monasteries and sanctuaries

The caves at Ajanta date from the 2nd century B.C.E. to 650 C.E and were cut into the mountainside in two distinct phases. Discovered by chance in 1819 by British soldiers on a hunt, the Ajanta Caves have become an icon of ancient Indian art, and have influenced subsequent artists and styles. The caves at the site are not numbered chronologically. Instead, their numbering based on location, beginning with cave 1 on the north side of the horseshoe. All of the caves at Ajanta fall into the category of Vihara (monasteries with residence halls), or Chaitya-grihas (sanctuaries/stupa monument halls). Nevertheless, each cave has its own unique characteristics, making it difficult to write about Ajanta as a whole. 
Plan of Cave 1 (diagram: Erik128, CC: BY-SA 3.0)
Plan of Cave 1 (Erik128, CC: BY-SA 3.0)
The Ajanta caves are engulfed in darkness. In fact, this lack of light is crucial to the experience at Ajanta; demanding the viewer’s time while intensifying a sense of the mysterious. There may have been dim artificial lighting created by oil lamps in the past. However, even today, the majority of the caves remain almost completely dark and without the help of artificial lighting, the caves remain in their original state.
Cave 1 is a magnificently painted Vihara (monastery), filled with wall murals, sculptures, and ceiling paintings, that date back to the 5th century. Originally, Cave 1 also had a porch which led to the main hall, however it has since collapsed.
​The main hall of Cave 1 is a square in plan, with aisles along all four sides. Adjacent to these aisles are doorways leading to fourteen small chambers. Cave 1 contains twenty painted and carved pillars. Above the pillars are reliefs depicting tales from the life of Buddha (Jataka tales). Located at the rear of the hall is a large shrine of the Buddha. The walls were originally covered in paintings, but today there are only nine surviving images, the most famous being the Bodhisattva Padmapani (Padmapani in Sanskrit literally translates into "one who holds the lotus").
View to the rear of Cave 1 with the Bodhisattva Padmapani to the left of the Buddha Shrine (photo: Christian Luczanits, CC: BY-SA 3.0)
View to the rear of Cave 1 with the Bodhisattva Padmapani to the left of the Buddha Shrine (photo: Christian Luczanits, CC: BY-SA 3.0)

Alavokitesvara

This painting can be found to the left on the main shrine. It depicts one of the most beloved bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara. The term "bodhisattva" refers to a person that has been awakened by the Buddhist spirit. According to Mahayana doctrine, Alavokitesvara postponed his ascension into Buddhahood until he assisted every being in achieving Nirvana. Avalokitesvara takes the largest numbers of forms across Asia. Originally, a masculine form, Avalokitesvara is also known as the feminine Guanyin in China, and Kuan Yin in Japan.
Bodhisattva Padmapani (detail), Cave 1
In the painting, his tan body, darkened only by the locks of curly hair, is delicate and elegant. He is adorned with pearls, amythyst, and other attributes of traditional Indian jewelry. On his head sits a magnificent crown, which at some point was most likely colored in extreme detail, but over time has faded. His eyes are lowered in a meditative state. His calm, spiritual face sets the tone and mood of the room. In his right hand, he holds a lotus blossom, which may represent his spiritual awakening.

Ceiling painting

If you look up from the beautiful wall paintings you see the geometric designs and motifs that adorn the ceiling. There are also images of peacocks, subtly decorated in blue paint made from lapis lazuli. One of the panels shows a decorative vegetable motif that looks similar to our modern day green bell pepper. In addition to this, there is a creature with a bull's head whose body transforms into swirling curvaceous lines that blend into the floral decoration of the next panel.
Ajanta Stamp, 1949
Ajanta Stamp, 1949
The ceiling paintings are so beautiful that one of the panels, which depicts a running elephant surrounded by flowers, was chosen as the official logo of India's Department of Tourism. The elephant is shown playfully galloping, as his trunk swirls close to his body.
The painting techniques at Ajanta are similar to European fresco technique. The primary difference is that the layer of plaster was dry when it was painted. First, a rough plaster of clay, cow dung, and rice husks were pressed on to the rough cave walls. This was then coated with lime paste in order to create a smooth working surface. The dark outlines of the figures were then added followed by a pallete of only 6 colors. The pigments the artists used came from natural resources: red and yellow ocher, crushed green malachite, blue lapis lazuli, etc.
Reclining Buddha, Cave 26 (photo: Shriram Rajagopalan, CC: BY 2.0)
Reclining Buddha, Cave 26 (photo: Shriram Rajagopalan, CC: BY 2.0)
In 1983, UNESCO World Heritage Centere selected the Ajanta Caves to be a part of their preservation endeavors. Today, the caves at Ajanta remain one of the most visited architectural sites in India. They are a living representation of one of the grandest artistic styles in Indian art and history.
Essay by Ajanta Shah

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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Deanna
    Another correction if I may. "Originally, a masculine form, Avalokitesvara is also known as the feminine Guanyin in China, and Kuan Yin in Japan."

    In China her name can be both Guan Yin/Kwan Yin and other variations but in Japan her name is translated as Kannon. Japanese doesn't have the Yi sound. :)
    (4 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Gentle correction:

    Currently

    "Nevertheless, each cave has its own unique characteristics, making it is difficult to write about Ajanta as a whole.

    Correction, remove the "IS" before "difficult to write...":

    "Nevertheless, each cave has its own unique characteristics, making it difficult to write about Ajanta as a whole."
    (4 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Liz  Frey
    Another gentle correction - You have misspelled Avalokitesvara in the heading to the paragraph in which you discuss the painting of this Bodhisattva, and again in the body of the paragraph.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user mansishahi1979
    What they provide to Buddhist monk?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Ami Gandhi
    Wow! This is really cool! I hope I can go there someday!
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user geetaathreya
    Few corrections: The caves are 220 miles from Mumbai. It is western India and not Northwest India. Northwest India means something else in India. The walls are plastered with Lime, NOT Lime Juice! This was a well known technique and many later monuments are plastered with Lime. I am not sure it is Araish . They are not Frescoes as they were painted on dry plaster.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user p hemant  bhargav
    how ceiling paintings make cave so beautiful?
    (1 vote)
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  • hopper jumping style avatar for user ASach14
    why do the caves of Ajanta have sculptures
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Anindita Sinha Dutta
    Which Buddhist community cave paintings there are no paintings of buddha
    (1 vote)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Protyay Mukhopadhyay
    In wikipedia, I read that many caves are incomplete. Why did the sculptors abandon the caves before completing it?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user neanderson
      If Ajanta follows the central Asian model of places like Bamiyan and Tunhuang, the caves were paid for by merchants who would be sheltered by the monks when they passed through on business, a mutually beneficial relationship. If the trade routes moved, however, the funding would dry up. Additionally, Buddhism began to disappear from the Indian Subcontinent around the time of the Gupta empire, and thus nobody was overly concerned with making new art for a religion that was losing popularity.
      (1 vote)