Buddhist Temples Built at Ajanta Caves in India Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The architecture, sculpture, and painting of the Ajanta caves mark a high point in the art of ancient India and in the development of Buddhist art.

Summary of Event

When the Vākāṭaka king Hariṣeṇa began his rule over much of central India around 460 c.e., his reign brought a cultural flowering, and the Buddhist site at Ajanta became the focus of intense artistic activity. More than five hundred years earlier in the second century b.c.e., several cave prayer halls (chaityas) and monastic residences (vihāras) had been excavated into the rock cliff at Ajanta, located in the Deccan plateau along a horseshoe-shaped gorge created by the Waghora River. In the second phase of activity, more than twenty new caves were added. The reasons for an artistic revival at Ajanta include the natural magnificence of the site, its location near trade routes, and changes in the Buddhist religion that promoted donations and expansion of Buddhist iconography. Hariṣeṇa

Surviving inscriptions identify the major donors of these rock-cut prayer halls and monasteries. Varāhadeva, minister of King Hariṣeṇa, was the patron of Cave 16. A feudatory prince of Hariṣeṇa named Upendragupta donated a group of caves now numbered 17, 18, 19, and 20. A highly placed Buddhist monk, Buddhabhadra, with the support of a feudatory dynasty, the Aśmakas, sponsored the magnificent chaitya, Cave 26. Although no inscription identifies Hariṣeṇa as a donor, Walter Spink, the leading authority on Ajanta, associates Cave 1 with the patronage of this king. These inscriptions, combined with the scale and high artistic quality of the work, demonstrate that royal patronage was a key inspiration in the second phase at Ajanta.

In their plan and elevation, the caves resemble architecture. The chaityas are long, rectangular halls that terminate in a rounded apse, where the stupa (mound with relics) is located. The vihāras are more square, with a large central hall, small monastic cells to either side of the hall, and a recessed area for a Buddha shrine. Many of the caves have portico entrances. Columns subdivide spaces in the large halls. All of these architectural features, including roof beams that resemble wooden structures, are carved out of the rock itself. The stonecutters worked from top to bottom and from front to back.

Sculpture and painting cover many of the surfaces within these cave halls. Some of this artistic embellishment is decorative. However, much of the art is devoted to Buddhist imagery. Statues of the Buddha are placed within shrines of the vihāras and in front of the stupas in the chaityas. Relief scupture depicts various Buddhist scenes. One famous example from Cave 26 is the Parinirvana (the Buddha’s death and attainment of nirvana), which features a 23-foot-long (7-meter-long) reclining figure of Buddha, with a row of smaller mourning monks underneath.

Paintings cover the walls of many caves. These paintings were executed with water-based earth pigments and lapis lazuli for the blues on dry plaster. Most of the paintings are narrative scenes whose subjects often were drawn from the jātakas, parable stories about the Buddha’s previous lives. The rich details of people from all walks of life engaged in many activities provide a glimpse of Indian life and culture at this period.

Although there is some disagreement about the amount of time it took to complete this impressive group of rock-cut caves, most scholars now accept Spink’s chronology, in which the work was accomplished in a short burst of creative activity from the accession of Hariṣeṇa around 460 c.e. until shortly after the king’s death in 477. By 500, Ajanta was abandoned. After it was discovered in 1819 by British soldiers on a hunting expedition, Ajanta has become the subject of scholarly study as well as a tourist attraction. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated Ajanta as a World Heritage Site.

Significance

Because of the collapse of the Vākāṭaka Empire around 480 c.e. and the abrupt abandonment of Ajanta, these caves had modest immediate influence on Indian religion and culture. The craftspeople that worked at Ajanta migrated to other centers. Some stylistic influences from Ajanta appear at rock-cut cave complexes such as those at Aurangabad, Elephanta, and Ellora in neighboring regions.

From a historical perspective, Ajanta has major significance. After the Ajanta caves were abandoned, their remote location preserved them until their discovery in the nineteenth century. In stone and paint, the Ajanta caves bear witness to the importance and high cultural achievement of the Vākāṭaka Empire in central western India. The art not only provides a sense of daily life and the richness of the Vākāṭaka courts that has otherwise perished but also represents a pinnacle of aesthetic quality in ancient Indian art. Ajanta documents an important phase in Buddhism, particularly of Mahāyāna Buddhism, by showing how monks lived, the growing importance of donations to secure individual karma, and the evolution of statues of the Buddha along with the multiplication of narratives to explicate the faith and enhance personal devotion.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Behl, Benoy K. The Ajanta Caves: Artistic Wonder of Ancient Buddhist India. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Introduction to Ajanta accompanied by color photographs of the major painted caves. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pant, Pushpesh. Ajanta and Ellora: Cave Temples of Ancient India. New Delhi: Lustre Press, 1998. Introduction to Ajanta with color photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parimoo, Ratan, et al., ed. The Art of Ajanta: New Perspectives. 2 vols. New Delhi: Books and Books, 1991. A collection of essays by leading scholars on all aspects of Ajanta’s art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlingloff, Dieter. Narrative Wall Paintings. Vol. 1 in Guide to the Ajanta Paintings. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1999. Diagrams and plans identifying the narrative subjects of the Ajanta paintings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spink, Walter. “The Achievement of Ajanta.” In The Age of the Vākāṭakas, edited by Ajay Mitra Shastri. New Delhi: Harman Publishing House, 1991. Argues for the significance of Ajanta in its historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spink, Walter. “The Archaeology of Ajanta.” Ars Orientalis 21 (1991): 67-94. Explains the chronological sequence of work at Ajanta.
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