Understanding Ajanta Paintings At Cave No 1 – UNESCO World Heritage

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Understanding Ajanta PaintingsAjanta Paintings draw a lot of tourists to Ajanta, Maharashtra. Anyone who has visited Ajanta Caves and seen mural paintings there can but be in the awe of these caves. The caves are not only an engineering marvel as they are all manually excavated caves and not natural caves. The Ajanta paintings have survived 2000 years. Still, have the stories oozing out of them can not leave you without a mesmerizing emotion. I have visited Ajanta caves & Ellora caves many times as my father was posted in Aurangabad for some time.

However I truly appreciated the mural paintings of Ajanta after I did my Art History course at National Museum Institute at National Museum, Delhi. Then I got to visit the Ajanta caves and Ellora caves once again when I was touring Maharashtra & Goa with Deccan Odyssey Luxury Train. This is when I looked at these Ajanta paintings with an art appreciator’s eye.

Ajanta Caves.

For this post, I will restrict myself to the paintings in Cave No 1 of Ajanta caves. You hike up the little hill and admire the horseshoe shaped Ajanta caves that have been excavated around the turn of Waghora River. The caves have been numbered in a sequence and not really depict the sequence in which they were excavated. The groups of caves were excavated some 500-600 years apart. However without getting into the archeological details of which cave belongs to which period and why (which can be a full post in itself), in this post I want to take you through the paintings of the Cave no 1.

Ajanta Paintings in Cave No. 1.

This is a heavily painted cave and paintings are relatively well preserved – at least to an extent that you can understand them. Caves are very dark; it is not possible to see the paintings without the help of reflectors that have been placed at the entrance of the cave. Guides also carry some approved lighting that they briefly put on the paintings to show you the details. As you struggle with adjusting your eyes to the darkness inside you wonder how the painters painted such exquisite and detailed mural paintings in darkness. This remains an issue of

This remains an issue of inquiry for the art historians. There is no consensus on it – especially now that they have timed the excavation and paintings to about 30-50 years time frame. Reflectors give light inside the caves but only for a couple of hours of the day. Any other lighting technique should have left its mark on the walls but no one has observed anything to that effect till now.

What are Ajanta Paintings ?

Jataka Tales at Ajanta Caves
Jataka Tales at Ajanta Caves

Tempera Technique.

Ajanta paintings are often called Frescos. Technically speaking they are not Frescos as Frescos are paintings that are done when the surface is still wet. Ajanta paintings were made on a dry surface using a technique known as Tempera. Depending upon the surface a base of Mud or Husk was put which was then covered with lime, on which these paintings were then painted.

Jataka Tales.

Thematically walls of the caves have Jataka Tales that tell the stories of Bodhisattvas painted on them. Bodhisattvas are the earlier Buddhas on the path to becoming a Buddha, not yet Buddha but still carrying some traits of Buddha. There are 550 or so tales and some of them can be seen painted and sculpted at all Buddhist sites. Other than Jataka tales, the Bodhisattvas and Buddha are also painted on the walls. Bodhisattvas can be any species – elephant, monkey, snake, swan or a human being though it is never a female.

Flora & Fauna on ceilings of Ajanta Caves
Flora & Fauna on ceilings of Ajanta Caves

Ceilings do not have any religious stories or figures. They usually have decorative motifs with animal figures. You would see a lot of geometrical designs on ceilings in Ajanta. The logic behind this choice of place to paint stories is that stories can be understood while walking around on walls but not on the ceilings. Corners are typically painted with demons in a smoky cloudy way in dark and dull colors. Indicating that demons do not have a fixed shape. And they can take any shape they want and they are also not benign beings.

Bodhisattva Padmapani painting at Ajanta Cave No 1.

Flanking a door inside the Cave no 1 are two Bodhisattvas – Bodhisattva Padmapani and Bodhisattva Vajrapani. I am going to take the one on the left – the most famous face of Ajanta caves and point out its nuances to you. This would intuitively help you understand the other mural Ajanta paintings on the walls.

Bodhisattva Padmapani at Ajanta Cave No 1
Bodhisattva Padmapani at Ajanta Cave No 1

This is Bodhisattva Padmapani – literally meaning the one holding the Padma or a lotus flower in his hand. Look at this picture for a minute or so and you can notice.

Notice the details of Bodhisattva Padmapani Painting.

  • A perfectly painted external form.
  • A triangular tiara in perfect proportion on an oval face showing just a thin line of hair on the forehead.
  • Downcast lotus shaped eyes that are half closed.
  • A full and sensuous lower lip.
  • Neat bow shaped eyebrows.
  • Chiseled Nose – White color has been used to show its shape.
  • An expansive chest and a narrow waist.
  • Arms are a little awkward and two arms look a little different. This is because as per the canonicals of Indian sculpture or Shilpashastras the Mahapurush or the great men are supposed to have arms that look like elephant trunks. Arms are also supposed to be long enough to reach their knees.
  • Fingers are long and tapering – making them look very delicate, especially as they hold the lotus.
  • An Ekavali or a single pearl string around the neck with a blue sapphire in the middle. The pearls become smaller as they go around – a design that you can still see in practice.

Sensuous & Divine, Materialistic & Spiritual.

Now take a look at this picture in totality. It has all the signs of a materialistic being on it like a tiara, jewelry & fine clothing. Having said that, do you see the half closed eyes full of Karuna or compassion? At the same time do they not look deeply meditative and dispassionate? This paradox is the beauty of this famous painting of Padmapani at Ajanta. It is sensuous and divine at the same time. It is materialistic and spiritual at the same time.

Bodhisattva Vajrapani at Ajanta Cave No 1
Bodhisattva Vajrapani at Ajanta Cave No 1

On the Vajrapani image look at the intricate design of his Kirit or Tiara – complex filigree work is depicted with perfection.

Jataka Tales paintings at Ajanta cave No 1.

On the left side of the Cave No 1 at Ajanta, you can see the Mahajanaka Jataka painted which is the story of Mahajanaka. The king of Mithila who was born in exile grows up as a common man and comes to know of his royalty. He travels to Swarnabhoomi or Sri Lanka and marries beautiful Shivali. One fine day, he renounces everything despite being persuaded by Shivali and others against it. The scenes depict the story of Mahajanaka. On the right walls is Nanda Jataka that relates the story of half brother of Buddha who was taken to heaven by Buddha before he renounced the world and joined his order.

Recommended read  based on Prof Vidya Dehejia’s research : Modes of Narration in Buddhist Art 

Ajanta Paintings speak at various levels.

Ceiling Roundel, Ajanta Paintings
Ceiling Roundel, Ajanta Paintings

Here are some that I could gather

  • You see the print of clothes worn by the figures in paintings. You can clearly see the Ikkat prints in stripes and Polka dots that were called pulakbandh (based on the goosebumps that we get when we are happy). There is a depiction of zardozi or brocaded textiles as well. Flying geese is a pattern used on clothes worn on auspicious occasions.
  • Landscapes are not shown in these paintings. Nature has a functional purpose and it is shown through animals like deer or mounds and rocks.
  • Various musical instruments depict the evolution of music and it being an integral part of life in the courts of kings.
  • The stories are not painted sequentially but they are painted spatially i.e. the scenes that happen in one place are painted together. To understand the story it is important that you know the story otherwise it is very difficult to figure out the sequence. Now, of course, the stories are well documented.
Persians painted at Ajanta
Persians painted at Ajanta
  • You can see a Persian ambassador also in this cave and everything about this part of painting is Persian. The person is depicted in the white skin while most native people have a dark skin. The curtains, the long cloak like clothing, the headgear and the cup he is holding in his hand are all in Persian style indicating not only the trade but also a good knowledge about their culture.

If you liked this, go on and read about Kailash Cave or Cave no 16 at Ellora

For more on Jataka Tales – Refer Benoy K Behl’s book The Ajanta Caves 

Influence of Ajanta Paintings.

It is said that the Ajanta paintings influence can be seen in paintings around the Buddhist world like Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, Dunhuang caves in west China and Nara caves in Japan.

PS: This post is based on my notes from Prof Anupa Pande & Prof Vidya Dehejia’s classes.

Recommend you to read following posts on Tourist Places in Maharashtra on my Travel Blog.

  1. Various facets of Kolhapur.
  2. Guarding the Konkan coast – Sindhudurg.
  3. Bibi Ka Maqbara, Aurangabad.
  4. Deccan Odyssey – 7 nights on a Luxury Train.
  5. Amboli Ghat – Kingdom of Waterfalls in Western Ghats.
  6. Sawantwadi – Art Mart of Konkan.
  7. Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum – Celebrating city of Mumbai.
  8. Exploring the Street Art in Bandra, Mumbai.
  9. Satara City of Seven Stars.

29 COMMENTS

  1. Lovely post on my favourite rock cut cave complex. Also see Benoy Behl’s photographs in his classic book about Ajanta Caves and also Dr. A. P. Jamkhedkar’s book on Ajanta Caves by OUP.

  2. Very interesting post indeed: very informative descriptions and analyses.
    Unfortunately, the only time I had been to Ajanta (2005), I could barely discern the paintings– maybe it was the wrong time of the day for the reflected light that you mention (so we spent much more time exploring the fascinating Ellora).
    The painting themselves– as seen from photographs (including yours here)– are fabulous, particularly the Padmapaani, as are the caves as is the grandeur of the caves, the history, and the carvings/sculptures.

      • such tourism related entrepreneurship ventures wiil b satisfying.
        an analogy..
        the paintings at the thiksey monastery in leh, ladakh r all done with organic dye.. vegetable coloured paintings.
        even cameras, flash lights r not allowed.
        only viewing.
        how is it hee in ajanta ?
        cheers.

  3. Really good scholarly article written in common man language. I am an art historian from Tamilnadu. i have been to Ajantha one time around 10 years ago. After reading the article, i travelled into Ajantha caves again. i have one question. Since 2 nd Bc – 4 AD we had paintings in Ajantha. These paintings are highly matured one, to reach that skill level it may take few hundred years atleast. we could not able to see many pre-Ajantha painting traditions , why?

    • Thank you Sir. You are right, these paintings styles are highly mature – however if you look at all the paintings in detail – you do find some not so mature too. I assume that the paintings before this period were on perishable materials like wood or fabric and have not survived. S

  4. Wonderful write up.Detailed post.Came to know about the paintings of Ajanta Cave.Waiting for your upcoming posts on others caves too.Thanks for sharing.

  5. Ajanta is one of the most Beautiful place to visit in the Mumbai.You have provided a very precise and beautiful understanding for the paintings, which is rare to find.

  6. Hi Anu,

    I was doing some research on Ajanta paintings of Cave 1 for one of my stories and stumbled upon this article. Read it, liked it, saved it on Evernote, and only when I came to the comments section, I realized it was written by you :). I especially liked the interpretation “Sensuous & Divine, Materialistic & Spiritual” – that is how it is going to function in my story as well.

    Hope you are doing well.

    – Jay

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