Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India are rock-cut cave monuments dating from the second century BCE, containing paintings and sculpture considered to be masterpieces of both "Buddhist religious art and "universal pictorial art. The caves are located just outside the village of in Aurangabad District in the Indian state of Maharashtra (N. lat. 20 deg. 30' by E. long. 75 deg. 40'). Since 1983, the Ajanta Caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The caves are in a wooded and rugged horseshoe-shaped ravine about 3½ km from the village of Ajintha. It is situated in the Aurangābād district of Maharashtra State in India (106 kilometers away from the city of Aurangabad). The nearest towns are Jalgaon (60 kilometers away) and Bhusawal (70 kilometers away). Along the bottom of the ravine runs the river Waghur, a mountain stream. There are 29 caves (as officially numbered by the Archaeological Survey of India), excavated in the south side of the precipitous scarp made by the cutting of the ravine. They vary from 35 to 110 ft. in elevation above the bed of the stream.
The monastic complex of Ajanta consists of several viharas (monastic halls of residence) and chaitya-grihas (stupa monument halls) cut into the mountain scarp in two phases. The first phase is mistakenly called the Hinayana phase (referring to the Lesser Vehicle tradition of Buddhism, when the Buddha was revered symbolically). Actually, Hinayana – a derogative term for Sthaviravada – does not object to Buddha statues. At Ajanta, cave numbers 9, 10, 12, 13, and 15A (the last one was re-discovered in 1956, and is still not officially numbered) were excavated during this phase. These excavations have enshrined the Buddha in the form of the stupa, or mound.
The second phase of excavation at the site began after a lull of over three centuries. This phase is often inappropriately called the Mahayana phase (referring to the Greater Vehicle tradition of Buddhism, which is less strict and encourages direct cow depiction of the Buddha through paintings and carvings). Some prefer to call this phase the Vakataka phase after the ruling dynasty of the house of the Vakatakas of the Vatsagulma branch. The dating of the second phase has been debated among scholars. In recent years a consensus seems to be converging on 5th-century dates for all the Mahayana or Vakataka phase caves. According to Walter M. Spink, a leading Ajantologist, all the Mahayana excavations were carried out from 462 to 480 CE. The caves created during the Mahayana phase are the ones numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29. Cave 8 was long thought to be a Hinayāna cave, however current research shows that it is in fact a Mahayana cave.
There were two chaitya-grihas excavated in the Hinayana phase that are caves 9 and 10. Caves 12, 13, and 15A of this phase are vihāras. There were three chaitya-grihas excavated in the Vakataka or Mahayana phase that are caves 19, 26, and 29. The last cave was abandoned soon after its beginning. The rest of the excavations are viharas: caves 1-3, 5-8, 11, 14-18, 20-25, and 27-28.
The viharas are of various sizes the maximum being about 52 feet. They are often square-shaped. Their excavation exhibits a great variety, some with simple facade, others ornate; some have a porch and others do not. The hall was an essential element of a viharas. In the Vakataka phase, early viharas were not intended to have shrines because they were purely meant to be halls of residence and congregation. Later, shrines were introduced in them in the back walls, which became a norm. The shrines were made to house the central object of reverence that is the image of the Buddha often seated in the dharmachakrapravartana mudra (the gesture of teaching). In the caves with latest features, we find subsidiary shrines added on the side walls, porch or the front-court. The facades of many vihāras are decorated with carvings, and walls and ceilings were often covered with paintings.
Changes in Buddhist thought in the 1st century BCE had made it possible for the Buddha to be deified and consequently the image of the Buddha as a focus of worship became popular, marking the arrival of the Mahāyāna (the Greater Vehicle) sect.
In the past, scholars divided the caves in three groups, but this is now discredited in light of fresh evidence and research. This theory of dating believed that the oldest group of caves dated from 200 BCE to CE 200, the second group belonged, approximately, to the 6th, and the third group to the 7th century.
The expression Cave Temples used by Anglo-Indians for viharas without the shrine is inaccurate. Ajanta was a kind of college monastery. Hsuan Tsang informs us that Dinnaga, the celebrated Buddhist philosopher and controversialist, author of well-known books on logic, resided there. This, however, remains to be corroborated by further evidence. In their prime the vihāras were intended to afford accommodation for several hundreds, teachers and pupils combined. It is tragic that none of the caves in the Vakataka phase were ever fully completed. This was because the ruling Vakataka dynasty suddenly fell out of power leaving the dominion in a likely crisis, which forced all activities to a sudden halt at the time of Ajanta's last years of activities. This idea first pronounced by Walter M. Spink is increasingly gaining acceptance based on the archaeological evidence visible on site.
Most of the subjects have been identified by the leading Ajantologist from Germany, Dieter Schlingloff.
It is first approach and has no relation to the chronological sequence of the caves. It is the first cave on the eastern end of the horse-shoe shaped scarp. According to Spink, it is one of the latest caves to have begun on site and brought to near-completion in the Vākāţaka phase. Although there is no epigraphic evidence, it has been proposed that the Vākāţaka king Harisena may have been the benefactor of this better-preserved cave. A dominant reason for this is that Harisena was not involved initially in patronizing Ajanta, but could not have remained aloof for long, as the site was burgeoning with activity under his rule, and the Buddhist laity would have loved to see the Hindu king participating in the pious act of patronage. Besides, most of the themes depicted are royal.
This cave has one of the most elaborate carvings on its facade with relief sculptures on entablature and fridges. There are scenes carved from the life of the Buddha as well as a number of decorative motifs. A two pillared portico, visible in the 19th-century photographs, has since perished. The cave has a front-court with cells fronted by pillared vestibules on either side. These have a high plinth level. The cave has a porch with simple cells on both ends. The absence of pillared vestibules on the ends suggest that the porch was not excavated in the latest phase of Ajanta when pillared vestibules had became a necessity and norm. Most areas of the porch were once covered with murals, of which many fragments remain. There are three doorways: a central doorway and two side doorways. Two square windows were carved between the doorways to brighten the interiors.
Each wall of the hall inside is nearly 40 feet long and 20 feet high. Twelve pillars make a square colonnade inside supporting the ceiling, and creating spacious aisles along the walls. There is a shrine carved on the rear wall to house an impressive seated image of the Buddha, his hands being in the dharmachakrapravartana mudra. There are four cells on each of the left, rear, and the right walls. The walls are covered with paintings in a fair state of preservation. The scenes depicted are mostly didactic, devotional, and ornamental. The themes are from the Jataka stories (the stories of the Buddha's former existences as Boddhisattva), the life of the Gautama Buddha, and those of his veneration.
Cave 2, adjacent to Cave 1, is known for the paintings that have been preserved on its walls, ceilings, and pillars. It looks pretty much the same as Cave 1 and is in a better state of preservation.
The paintings on the ceilings and walls of this porch have been widely published. They depict the Jataka tales that are stories of the Buddha's life in former existences as Bodhisattva. The porch's rear wall has a doorway in the center, which allows entrance to the hall. On either side of the door is a square-shaped window to brighten the interior
For quite some time the art work was erroneously alluded to as "frescoes". We now know that the proper term for this kind of artwork is mural, because the known process and technique of fresco painting isn't found in this kind of artwork. At Ajanta, the technique and process used to produce this kind of artwork is unlike any other artwork found in the art history of other civilizations. These murals have a certain uniqueness about them, even within the history of South Asian art.
The process of painting involved several stages. The first step was to chisel the rock surface, to make it rough enough to hold the plaster. The plaster was made of clay, hay, dung and lime. Differences are found in the ingredients and their proportions from cave to cave. While the plaster was still wet, the drawings were done and the colors applied. The wet plaster had the capacity to soak the color so that the color became a part of the surface and would not peel off or decay easily. The colors were referred to as 'earth colors' or 'vegetable colors.' Various kinds of stones, minerals, and plants were used in combinations to prepare different colors. Sculptures were often covered with stucco to give them a fine finish and lustrous polish. The stucco had the ingredients of lime and powdered seashell or conch. The latter afforded exceptional shine and smoothness. In cave upper six, some of it is extant. The smoothness resembles the surface of glass. The paint brushes used to create the artwork were made from animal hair and twigs.