Ajanta Paintings of Maharashtra

The Ajanta caves were lost in time and it was not until the 19th century these caves were unearthed from the thick undergrowth by a company of British soldiers.

These caves predominantly represent Buddhist thoughts which have been frozen on walls of these caves since 2nd century B.C to 7th century A.D. There are 30 Chaityas and Viharas which have paintings illustrating the life and incarnations of Buddha. Five caves (9, 10, 19, 26 and 29) are Chaitya-Grihas and the rest are Sangharamas or Viharas (monasteries). The caves 1, 2, 16 and 17 are ranked high among the greatest artistic works of the contemporary world.

Each one of these paintings reflect the finesse of the craftsmen and leave visitors spellbound. The Ajanta caves were meant to provide seclusion to the Buddhist monks who took solace of the fact that they were in serene surroundings in midst of numerous images of Buddha, Nymphs and Princesses. The flying Apsara in cave 17, the preaching Buddha in cave 16 to the sculptured Nagaraja in a relaxing sitting posture with his consort and a female attendant are to name a few of the popular caves. Most of these mysterious caves are illuminated by the natural light that peeks in during the day.

The paintings in Caves 1,2,16 and 17 have the best of craftsmanship and may require days to appreciate the art. In Ajanta Cave1, through sheer grace rather than flamboyance, Prince Buddha is depicted delicately holding the fragile blue lotus. He exudes gentleness and kind of divine innocence. His half-closed eyes give an air of meditation, almost of shyness. One can also see the court scene in cave number 1, which is believed to be of conversion of 'Nanda', a fellow prince like Buddha who had decided to join Buddha's monastic order. His dilemma was leaving his wife Sundari and pleasures of princely life for one of austerity, sacrifice and discipline.

The female figures in the paintings of Ajanta display the true mastery of the artists who have used a magnificent array of colours, hairstyles, poses and costumes. In Cave number 2 Buddhist icons were sculpted according to a set of codified rules that used symbolic hand gestures. The scenes also show Maya, Buddha's mother standing in the garden at Lumbini and a scene where Mahajanaka Jataka, the queen and her attendants are seen. Also seen are such motifs as the wheel, the deer, the throne and sacred Bodhi tree.

There are several Chaitya Grihas or prayer halls at Ajanta. The plan consists of a central nave with pillars, behind which is a circular passage. The hall is often apsidal or with a curved back wall, possibly taken from a wooden design. At the end a stone miniature Stupa, or emblem of Buddha, was carved to serve as the focal point of the prayer hall. The paintings at Ajanta in Cave 17 depict stories from the Jatakas or tales of the previous incarnations of the Buddha. The Buddha is seen with his right hand raised as if giving a sign of reassurance and protection. The Buddha is shown seated in padmasana, a yogic posture, or lotus pose of meditation. He is often shown with his hair tied in a top knot surrounded by a halo of light, representing nirvana or enlightenment.

Cave 19 at Ajanta is amongst the best surviving examples of a rock cut chaitya griha which boasts of an elegant porch topped by the distinctive 'horseshoe' shaped window and is flanked by yakshas or guardians, standing Buddha figures and elaborate decorative motifs. The interiors are profusely carved with pillars, a monolithic carved symbolic stupa and images of Buddha which heralded the introduction of Mahayana phase. Seated under a Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, the Buddha meditated, during which he was tempted by Mara and her voluptuous daughters. Lowering his hand, Buddha touched the earth to attain enlightenment. The Parinivana (ultimate enlightenment or liberation) came when Buddha left the world- as depicted in the 7m (23ft) image of the reclining Buddha in Cave number 26.

Ajanta provides a unique opportunity to study the early phases of Buddhist sculpture, painting and architecture which later influenced artistic traditions in central Asia and Far East.