Memos from Asia

Ajanta-Ellora Caves: The Rock-Cut Architectural Craftsmanship of Ancient India

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Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves are the two famous monuments displaying the architectural extravaganza of ancient India.

The ancient sites are located in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra and are situated at about 100 km from each other. Both caves are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The sites are the biggest tourist attractions in Maharashtra as well.

Ajanta Caves were carved out from a horseshoe-shaped cliff in the forest ravines of the Sahyadri Hills in the Deccan plateau. The caves at Ajanta are situated closer as compared to the ones at Ellora.

Ajanta caves near Aurangabad, Maharashtra state in India

Ajanta Caves, which are about 400 km from Mumbai, are fully dedicated to Buddhism and are known for their paintings rather than sculptures. On the other hand, Ellora Caves bear witness to three great religions of ancient India –Buddhism, Brahminism and Jainism – besides depicting the ethos of religious tolerance existed then.

Ajanta Caves

The Ajanta Caves consist of 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments built between second century BC and 480 AD featuring Buddhist religious art works, rock-cut sculptures, monasteries and worship halls.

These are the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art, particularly expressive paintings that present emotions through gesture, pose and form.

The Ajanta Caves were built in two phases with the first beginning during the 2nd century BCE and the second stage between 400 AD and 650 AD. The site is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The Ajanta Caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.

The Ajanta Caves have five Chaityas, which are basically prayer halls while other caves are known as Viharas or monasteries with residential facilities.

The Ajanta Caves constitute ancient monasteries and worship-halls of different Buddhist traditions carved into a 75-metre (246 ft) wall of rock.

It is also said that Ajanta Caves had been a monsoon retreat for monks besides a resting place for merchants and pilgrims in ancient India.

There were mentions about Ajanta Caves in the memoirs of several medieval-era Chinese Buddhist travellers to India and a Mughal-era official of Akbar era in the early 17th century.

The Ajanta Caves were forgotten and remained covered by the thick jungle for centuries together until they were rediscovered by a British tiger-hunting party in 1819.

Caves excavated during Satavahana period

There are various opinions about the time when the Ajanta Caves were built. There is an opinion that caves 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15A belong to the earliest group. They were built during the era of Satavahana dynasty.

The murals in these caves depict stories from the Jataka tales, which are which are literature concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form.

The Ajanta Caves also reflect the artistic influence of the Gupta period.

According to Walter M Spink, an American art historian who conducted extensive study of Buddhist art in India, particularly the Ajanta Caves, these caves were built between 100 BC and 100 AD, likely under the Satavahana dynasty (230 BC – 220 AD) that ruled the region.

Another version on these caves is about the Maurya Empire era (300 BC to 100 AD).

After the caves were built during the Satavahana period, no further works were done until the mid-5th century. However, Buddhist pilgrims had visited the site and it was in use. This was marked in the records of Chinese pilgrim Faxian around 400 CE.

Caves built during Vakaṭaka era

The second phase of the constructions at the Ajanta Caves site is said to have commenced during the 5th century CE. There were disputes on the time of the construction of the caves in the second stage which was done between the 4th to the 7th centuries CE.

Spink is of the view that most of the works of the caves were done in a very short period between 460 AD and 480 AD during the rule of Emperor Harishena of the Vakaṭaka dynasty.

The view of Ajanta caves, the rock-cut Buddhist monuments.

Though this view has been criticized by some of the experts, this version has gained acceptance among authors of general books on Indian art.

Caves of the second period comprise 1 to 8, 11 and 14 to 29, while some are believed to be the extensions of earlier caves. Caves 19, 26, and 29 are Chaitya Grihas or prayer halls, while the rest Viharas or living places. The most elaborate caves were constructed during this period.

Paintings of Ajanta Caves

Apart from worship-halls of different Buddhist traditions, the Ajanta Caves also feature paintings on the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha, pictorial tales from Aryasura’s Jatakamala and rock-cut sculptures of Buddha idols. Caves 1, 2, 16 and 17 at Ajanta have the largest collection of ancient Indian wall-painting.

The Ajanta Caves painting provide information on the socio-economic development in ancient India and its relation to the interactions with foreign cultures. Most of the paintings were made in the 5th century CE.

Ajanta Cave: One of the rarest mural paintings that preserved well in the Ajanta Cave Complex. This is a Gupta Period mural painting painted by Buddhist monks showing different aspects of the life of Buddha (Jataka Tales).

There are some interpretations about the foreign connections of the mural paintings at Ajanta.

Certain paintings at Ajanta Caves carry certain foreign figures as well indicating the region’s connections with foreign kingdoms and their people.

For instance, the painting at the entrance of Cave 1 features characters with foreign faces or dresses, the so-called “Persian Embassy Scene”. There are varied opinions about the figures in the painting.

Architectural historians like James Fergusson believed that this depicted the visit of the Persian ambassador to the court of the Hindu Chalukya king Pulakeshin II in 625 CE.

Ajanta Cave paintings

There is another version to this mural fresco at Cave 1 which explains the visit of a Hindu ambassador to the Persian king Khusrau II in 625 CE.

However, Spink and other scholars are of the view that such interpretation by colonial British era art historians has been responsible for wrongly dating this painting to the 7th century.

This is an incomplete Harisena-era painting of a Jataka tale or the Mahasudarsana Jataka, in which the enthroned king is actually the Buddha in one of his previous lives as king. The painting also displays the trade between India and distant lands such as Sassanian near East that was common by the 5th century.

Ellora Caves

Ellora Caves are yet another magnificent evidence of ancient India’s rock-cut architecture. This is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising over 100 caves in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra.

Ellora Caves, which are about 300 km from Mumbai, feature one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes in the world. Unlike Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves are a combination of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain monuments, and artwork depicting the religious harmony among the three major religions in the ancient India. This cave complex is believed to have been made between 600 and 1000 CE.

The caves at Ellora were excavated from the basalt cliffs in the Charanandri Hills and visitors have access only in 34 of them.

Of the 34 caves, 12 are Buddhist caves (1–12), 17 Hindu caves (13–29) and 5 Jain caves (30–34). Each group of caves represents deities and monasteries of each respective religion at that time.

The Ellora Caves are the creations of the Rashtrakuta dynasty that ruled parts of India from 8 to 10 centuries AD and they constructed part of the Hindu and Buddhist caves.

Later, the Yadava dynasty that ruled the central India between 12th and 14th century AD constructed a number of the Jain caves. Funding for the construction of the monuments was provided by royals, traders and the wealthy of the region.

The Kailasha temple

The prime attraction at Ellora Caves is the Kailasha/Kailas temple, which is a chariot shaped monument dedicated to Lord Shiva, and it is the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world. It was built by Rashtrakuta dynasty’s Krishna I, who was a great patron of art and architecture.

Kailas Temple in Ellora, Maharashtra state in India

This temple has been carved out of a massive block of rock measuring 200 feet long, and 100 feet in breadth and height.

Kailasha temple has three-tiered Shikhara or tower which is similar to the tower of the Mamallapuram chariots or raths.

The temple features the idol of Goddess Durga depicting the killing of Mahishasur, the buffalo demon.

Another sculpture in the temple shows demon king Ravana is trying to lift Mount Kailasa, the abode of Lord Siva.

Ellora is one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple caves complexes in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India.

The Kailasha temple also exhibits sculptures depicting the gods, goddesses and mythologies found in Vaishnavism, Shaktism as well as relief panels summarizing the two major Hindu Epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata.

It is estimated that about 400,000 tons of rock rubble was removed from the site during the construction of the Kailasha temple alone. The debris from the site could not be traced yet and it is a big mystery that where did they dump this much quantity of heavy rock.

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