Ajanta, the pearl of Buddhist art in India

- through Sophie Solere

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It is in a majestic setting, a deep horseshoe ravine dug over millennia by a river, the Waghora, that the Buddhist caves of Ajanta stretch over more than 600 meters. The architecture itself and the sculpture that adorns the facades and interiors are of a very high quality, but the fame of the whole comes above all from the exceptional murals that unfold on the walls of certain caves.

Located in the state of Maharashtra, about one hundred kilometers north of Aurangabad, the site was accidentally rediscovered in 1819 by a group of British soldiers whose attention was drawn during a hunting party or military maneuvers , through the arch overhanging the entrance to one of the caves, visible above the lush vegetation.

The ensemble has around thirty caves, the oldest of which were excavated during the two centuries preceding the beginning of the Christian era. But the golden age of Ajanta corresponds to the Ve and VIe centuries of the Christian era. The Gupta dynasty then reigned over all of northern India and maintained cordial relations – sometimes reinforced by matrimonial alliances – with the Vâkâtaka sovereigns, settled in the north of the Deccan. We owe to them the creation of the majority of the caves, but the extraordinary impact of the Gupta culture is felt in a very marked way on the art of Ajanta.

The Vâkâtaka, like the Gupta, were of Hindu obedience. But, in accordance with the ideal of the perfect sovereign, they made it their duty to ensure that harmony reigned between the various religions present in their States. They therefore also protected Buddhism and certain very high figures of their court – several ministers even – clearly financed constructions on the site, as evidenced by several inscriptions.

Sublime caves, a unique universal heritage

Two types of caves coexist in Ajanta. Five are “chaitya”, a term which originally designated a sacred place, whether natural or built by man. The chaitya of the excavated architecture is a long vaulted room ending in an apse and comprising two aisles. A stupa, sometimes including a niche housing a Buddha, stands in the center of the apse. The façade is a screen wall pierced with doors and surmounted by a large horseshoe opening forming a canopy and providing lighting inside the building.

The other caves are "vihara", monastic residences it seems, quadrangular rooms of very variable size comprising on one side a veranda open to the outside and on the other three sides, the cells intended for the monks. The oldest viharas are very simple, without interior columns, and do not contain an image of the Buddha. Then appears in the back wall a small sanctuary housing a statue or a sculpted group, with an antechamber.

Some caves, which have remained unfinished, are of great technical interest, as they allow us to understand the different stages of the excavation. The facade and the veranda were carried out before the interior, which began at the top, with the layout and decoration of the ceiling, before gradually descending to ground level, while leaving the reserves of stone necessary for making the columns.

Painting in Ajanta

Paradoxically, the subjects are religious, but by their craftsmanship, by the compositions and their decoration, the paintings of Ajantâ make it possible to imagine what could be the rich tradition of profane painting of the time, today largely disappeared. . The artists, no doubt belonging to itinerant workshops, worked on both religious and secular commissions and inevitably incorporated traditional aesthetic references into their creations. The palette, restricted for the oldest examples, is enriched thereafter, while favoring tints that could be described as autumnal. The pigments were of essentially mineral origin. Technically, the paintings of Ajanta are not frescoes, a term too often wrongly used to designate them. The surface to be painted was leveled and cleaned before receiving several coats of filler. The drawing was traced with charcoal sticks then taken up with a brush before applying pigments bound with glue.

The paintings deal almost exclusively with what can be called the "golden legend" of the Buddha: past lives, cautionary tales and episodes from the life of Buddha Shakyamuni.

The compositions are abundant and therefore sometimes disconcerting, with skillful groupings of characters and subtle transitions from one scene to another. The treatment of the characters testifies to an astonishing mastery of the modeling and the relief effects suggesting the fullness of the forms.

The narrative scenes unfold mainly on the walls, sometimes on the pillars as in cave 10, which is the oldest chaitya on the site. The ceilings, on the other hand, are decorated with geometric and floral motifs in most cases and the palette employed is lighter.

The iconography of the site, sculptures and paintings, comes from both Hinayana and Mahayana.

The door frame of cave 4, dated VIe century, thus presents a very beautiful relief depicting the bodhisattva savior of the eight great perils, facing an image of the teaching Buddha. The chapel of this same vihara houses a seated Buddha framed by the bodhisattvas Vajrapâni and Padmapâni.

The paintings deal almost exclusively with what can be called the " golden legend of the Buddha: past lives, edifying stories and episodes from the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. Dominant source of inspiration for the oldest paintings, about thirty jâtaka are illustrated, and some of them, which seem to have enjoyed great popularity, are represented several times. Then, advancing in time, episodes from the life of Buddha Shakyamuni take on increasing importance.

But the identification of many scenes is still uncertain and sometimes hotly debated between specialists.

The exceptional value of the paintings of Ajantâ appeared obvious very early on and it was clear that their deterioration accelerated after the discovery of the site. As early as 1844, a Council was set up in charge of the conservation of the sanctuaries and the execution of copies of the paintings. The painter Robert Gill, a former British army officer, was to spend 27 years of his life in India to fulfill this last mission, followed by several others. The first restoration campaign was launched in 1920.

Today, faced with the influx of tourists, the question is regularly asked to limit access to the site more strictly.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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