One of the best e xamples of rock architecture in India, Ajanta & Ellor a caves of Maharashtra are among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Seven Wonders of India. They are an intriguing example of Buddhist art in India.
Situated in the state of Maharashtra near Aurangabad, Ajanta & Ellora caves are situated at a distance of approximately 95km from each other. Murals and sculptures depicting the life of Buddha are a perfect work of art using only chisel and hammer. The carvings in the caves are done by Buddhist monks and these one-of-akind caves portray outstanding work of ancient Indian artisans.
Ajanta or ‘Ajintha’ as the place is known, remains ‘unconquered’ true to its name. But there is no haughtiness of demeanour about these man-made caves. There is something wonderfully humane—almost lyrical—in their granite veneer. Hewn into the Sahyadri Hills, the Ajanta Caves were excavated in a rock surface that looks like horse-shoe shape and have around 300 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments. These caves are approximately 2nd century BC old and include paintings, murals, sculptures that illustrate the previous life of Buddha. The form of literature depicted in Ajanta Caves is known as Jataka Tales and is native to India. The Ajanta Caves highlight all live forms of Buddha in both human and animal forms.
The cave has a huge front with massive, very symmetrical pillars tapering upwards. The niches on the left and right has sculptures of men and women holding lotus flowers and conch shells, considered auspicious in our culture. The door of the cave is big enough to let in an elephant but certainly not the stupendous central statue of the sitting Lord Buddha in the ante-chamber, for it was never carried there from outside, as sometimes mistakenly assumed. This breathtaking statue had been hewn out of the adamantine womb of the monolithic rock. It had ‘grown’ inside and acquired a life of its own. Its visage revealed different aspects when exposed to light from different angles.
The Tale of Caves
The Shakyamuni Buddha, with his symbolically disproportionate hands and ears, smiling now and meditating the next moment, alone is sufficient to perpetuate the renown of these caves. The paintings in the caves are inspired by Tibetan Sri Lankan style of painting and the carvings resemble wooden construction.
The site where we see the Ajanta Caves today was abandoned post the end of Harisena’s reign and got covered in thick forest, until 1819. It was later rediscovered by a British officer. It consists of 30 rock-cut caves showcasing some of the splendid paintings and sculptures ever recorded in the Indian history. This is evident in the murals of Cave 2. The outlines have been drawn very prominent so that they act as guidelines for the spectator, thus producing the effect of a relief. Although most of these paintings have been treated chemically so as to protect them against the ravages of time, the original colours, mostly mineral in origin, prepared and mixed in the crudest possible manner, do show here and there. For instance, in the twenty-three Swans painted on one of the ceilings of Cave 2, the striking feature is that all of them have struck different poses. Reference may be made to the inimitable paintings of the famous Black Princess of Ajanta, the Mahajanaka Jataka, and the Miracle of Shravasti in Cave 1, the Dying Princess of Cave 16, the Toilet Scene of Cave 17, and its canopy like ceiling, a vivid imitation of fluttering cloth.
Ajanta Caves have a tremendous period value not only from the viewpoint of Indian art and architecture but also that of the various developments, which were registered by Buddhism during those one thousand years. Towards the end of the 3rd century AD, Buddhists had accepted image-worship, and this trend is distinctly reflected in all the Caves that came up during the next five hundred years. Conversely, there is no image of Buddha in the Cave belonging to the earlier period, as, for example, in Cave 10. But Buddhist art reacted very favourably to the cult of image worship, and before long it made its mark with images such as the meditating Buddha of Cave 1, the Buddha in his ‘pralamb paad mudra’ or ‘vyakhyan mudra’ (sitting on a platform with feet on the ground) in Cave 17, and the standing Buddha of Cave 19.
Element of modernity
Being enormous in its conception and noble in its execution, Ajanta has that unaging, imperishable quality about it which lends an element of modernity to its two thousand years. Its influence is all-pervasive because its appeal is universal. It imbibed all that was good in its day since it had that all-inclusive catholicity of outlook. Take for instance the façade of Cave 19, every inch of which appears to have been carved under the influence of Hindu architecture. A magnum opus of the ‘division of balance’ principle, it is among the most magnificent cave fronts in the country. Its exquisite porch with that highly ornamental cornice, its niches with their fine sculptures, its semi-circular Chaitya Vatayan (a kind of window), and that beautiful frieze on top of it—all these and much more make it a façade par-excellence. Cave 19 is a prototype of many important modern buildings, not least among these being the earlier mentioned Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi. Its interior is no less charming than its imposing front. The ceiling is once again Gajaprishtakriti but with a difference; it is an imitation of timber, complete with beams, planks, et al. The Pradakshina Path is bordered with harmoniously carved columns, the two rows of columns meeting behind the main stupa-like niche housing the image of standing Buddha. Unlike Cave 12, with an array of living cells and inbuilt beds and even pillows, Cave 19 is a veritable temple. It is a temple dedicated not only to the glory of the Lord but also to the glory of our ancient art and culture.
Also known as Verul, Ellora Caves dates back to 6th and 10th century. There are a total of 34 caves, comprising 7 Hindu, 12 Buddhist, as well as 5 Jain caves. The cave temples, extending over 2km, were carved during the rule of Kalachuri, Rashtrakuta and Chalukya dynasties and are a display of architectural splendour of ancient India. They are believed to have been carved out from the vertical side of the Charanandri Hills. Many believe that after the Ajanta caves were deserted, the carving work of Ellora Caves started in around 550AD. These dates coincide with the decline of Buddhism in India. The work in the caves began during the rule of the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas who were great patrons of Brahmanical movement.
Sites of attraction
Ellora caves can be segregated into three different types, Buddhist Caves, Hindu Caves and Jain caves. The Buddhist Caves date back to 5th and 7th centuries and are the earliest one among the three. They are home to monasteries, structures like living spaces and kitchen of the monks made from the hill-rocks. Carvings in the Hindu Caves started in the 7th century and boasts magnificent designs and are an example of planning and implementation. The third set of caves, Jain caves are not as big as the other two in the group. These caves exhibit Jain religious philosophy and splendid artworks.
Another attraction in the Ellora Caves is the Kailasnath Temple (Cave 16). The largest rock-cut cave made from a single rock, Kailasnath temple is about 150 years old and boasts Dravidian style of architecture. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has a U-shaped courtyard with structures of god and goddess on the sculpted side panels. The temple also host an idol of Nandi bull in the main courtyard. Another beautiful spectacle in the temple is the idol of Ravana, lifting the Mount Kailas with Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva seated on a throne. The most mesmerising part of the Caves is the Vishvakarma that exemplify Buddhist shrine along with stupas. Ellora Caves have multi-story building that served as living quarters, kitchens, sleeping cell to the monks that lived here.
Words: KOMAL MEHTA