Ajanta, the fountainhead

Published : Oct 08, 2004 00:00 IST

The Padmapani, the Bearer of the Lotus. This gentle figure is one of the masterpieces of Indian art. Cave 1, Ajanta. -

The Padmapani, the Bearer of the Lotus. This gentle figure is one of the masterpieces of Indian art. Cave 1, Ajanta. -

The paintings of the Ajanta caves, which were done in two phases based on Buddhist themes, have influenced the painting traditions of not only India but Sri Lanka and some countries in South-East Asia.

THE Upanishads were composed in the 9th or 8th century B.C. These philosophical texts have had a profound influence on all later Indian religious thought. They speak of the relationship between the individual soul and the divine creator and the essential unity of the whole of creation.

The material world is seen as mithya, an illusion. They say it is desires and attachments that keep one bound to this ephemeral world. One has to lift the veils of the material world and look beyond to the eternal.

The philosophy of aesthetics, which developed to great heights in India, particularly in Kashmir under thinkers such as Abhinavgupta, was closely related to these thoughts contained in the Upanishads. It was believed that the ecstasy experienced on seeing something truly beautiful, whether in nature or in art, is akin to Brahmananda or eternal bliss. It was believed that the moment of the experience of beauty was one in which the veils of illusion were lifted and one was able to see one's own intrinsic unity with the whole of creation. Thus, art played a very important role in Indian religious life.

With the belief that the world around us is an illusion and that the soul is a part of the universal spirit, Indian thinkers and artists constantly turned their eyes inward. This inward vision and a sense of great peace and tranquillity are the hallmarks of the greatest art that India has produced. It is these qualities that are expressed finely in the exquisite art of the Guptas and the Vakatakas created from the 4th to the 6th century A.D. There are sculptural pieces from the northern plains of India, which take us to rare heights of aesthetic expression. The gaze of these figures is riveted to the tip of the nose and there is a sense of sublime harmony. In paintings, it is the murals of the caves of Ajanta that bring to us this great vision in the art of India.

About a hundred kilometres from Aurangabad, in the gorge of the Waghora river in the Sahyadari hills, is an enchanted place. Here, at Ajanta, two streams met: one, of the sophisticated development of the art of painting, even at this early date, and the other, filled with the compassionate philosophy of the Buddha. These streams came together to create a body of painting which has inspired the art of a whole continent. The paintings of Ajanta are known to be the fountainhead of all the classic paintings of Asia.

In the 3rd century B.C., the great Buddhist emperor Asoka sent religious emissaries to Maharashtra. Perhaps taking inspiration from Asoka's rock-cut Barabar caves in Bihar, Buddhist monks began to excavate Viharas, or monasteries, and Chaityas, or prayer halls, in the Sahyadari hills. As many as 800 rock-cut caves were made in western India over the period from about the 2nd century B.C. till the 7th century A.D.

These magnificent caves are a wondrous and enduring tribute to the Buddha and his path. Of all the inspired monuments created for Buddhist monks, the most eloquent one was at the site of Ajanta. Here, with hammer and chisel, with paint and brush, was created one of the greatest bodies of the art of mankind. Its inscriptions proclaim that it was meant to last forever.

The monument of Ajanta has 31 caves, which were excavated in the horse-shoe shaped gorge of the Waghora river in two phases. The first was around the 2nd century B.C. and the second was between the 4th and 6th centuries A.D. Both phases of the excavation and the creation of art were patronised by Hindu kings, the Satvahanas in the early period and the Vakatakas in the latter period. The caves are numbered serially, as one approaches them from the east, and not according to the dates of their excavation.

The early caves at Ajanta are of the Hinayana order of Buddhism and the later ones are of the Mahayana order. Hinayana Buddhists did not believe in making any figure of the Buddha. Instead, they worshipped symbols, such as the stupa and the wheel.

The paintings of cave 10, of the 2nd century B.C., are the oldest surviving paintings of the historical period in India. The headdresses, ornaments and clothes worn by the figures are very similar to those seen in sculptures of this time at Bharhut and Sanchi.

The large body of surviving, magnificent paintings were made during the 5th and 6th centuries. By then the Mahayana form of Buddhism had evolved, in which the Buddha is represented in human form and worshipped as a god. Mahayana Buddhism also believes in Bodhisattvas, beings who are on their way to enlightenment and who would help all of humanity to attain salvation.

The paintings of the 5th and 6th centuries at Ajanta mainly depict the Jataka tales. These are the stories of the Buddha in his previous lives, when he was still on the path to enlightenment. These stories or parables depict the qualities of a virtuous life and are told to serve as examples for the followers of the Buddha. On the ceilings of the caves is the depiction of the teeming life of the world, its flowers and fruit, the animals of the world and mythical creatures.

Cave 16 of Ajanta is the earliest of the second period of creative activity, which began in the 5th century. It was made out of a donation of Varahadeva, a minister of the Vakataka king Harisena. Many of the paintings have been lost to the ravages of time. However, a few scenes from the life of the Buddha survive upon the walls of this cave. These include the story of the Buddha's conversion of his half brother Nanda. One of the great paintings of Ajanta is one in which we see Nanda's wife struck by grief because her husband has left her and gone away. This painting is called "The Dying Princess". John Griffiths, the British painter who spent 13 years from 1872 painting reproductions of the Ajanta murals, says about this painting, "For pathos and sentiment and the unmistakable way of telling its story, this picture cannot be surpassed in the history of art."

The next great cave to be created at Ajanta was Cave 17, which was made by a feudatory of Harisena. The walls of this cave are crowded with numerous Jataka stories. Many of these depict the Buddha in his previous births in the form of various animals, including a monkey, a buffalo and an elephant. The Indian belief that the soul in its journey of evolution is born in the form of animals as well as men and women had led to the most sympathetic and humane treatment of animals in Indian art. Indeed, the Indian artist is often at his best in the sensitive depiction of animals.

On the right wall of Cave 17 is painted the Kapi Jataka, in which the Buddha is born as a Bodhisattva monkey. He saves the life of a hunter who had fallen into a pit. Later, as the monkey sleeps, the man tries to kill it for he is hungry. The Bodhisattva monkey wakes up in time and scolds the man for being so selfish as to want to kill the very creature who saved his life.

A very powerful painting in Cave 17 shows the Buddha who has come before his wife Yashodhara and son Rahul. She had tutored the child to ask the Buddha for his rightful inheritance, being born the son of a prince. The Buddha is shown putting forward his begging bowl, which is all that he has to offer. Yashodhara is depicted bedecked with all her jewellery, to entice the Buddha to stay back with her.

Cave 1, of the late 5th century, was directly patronised by King Harisena. It has some of the magnificent paintings to be seen at Ajanta. To the left of the entrance to the antechamber of the main shrine of the cave is a painting of the Bodhisattva Padmapani, the Bearer of the Lotus. Around the Bodhisattva are painted playful monkeys and a joyous musician. Yet, amid all this activity, the Bodhisattva responds to a deep harmony: he looks within. There is a great sense of sublime peace that pervades this figure, which is one of the greatest masterpieces of Indian art.

To the right of the entrance to the antechamber is painted the Bodhisattva Vajrapani, the Bearer of the Thunderbolt. Whereas the Padmapani portrays peace, the Vajrapani brings before us the majesty of the spirit. The Bodhisattva wears a glorious crown, reflecting the grandeur of divine grace.

The narrative in the paintings of Ajanta flows sometimes from top to bottom and sometimes from bottom to top. At other times, it proceeds from left to right or from right to left. This is a marvellous visual example of how time is seen in Indian thought. In the Indian vision, time and place are a part of Maya, the veil of the illusory world. What has been and what is are only equally real, as each of them can at best present a moment of the reflection of the eternal truth. The past, the present and the future are enacted simultaneously and eternally in the perennial drama of the world.

The tradition of painting inherited by the artists of Ajanta has been documented as the Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana. This was a verbal tradition, which would have come over many centuries, passed on through guilds of painters, and from father to son. It was penned on paper by perhaps the 5th or 6th century A.D., at the time of the second phase of the great paintings at Ajanta.

This ancient treatise places a sophisticated grammar in the hands of the painter. Foreshortening, the rules of perspective, three different ways to carry out shading and literally hundreds of details on how to paint are placed before the artist. He is given a framework of suggestions on how to depict different kinds of people. However, he is informed that rules do not make the painting. Finally, "the eyes of the painting have to be opened". It has to be given a life of its own by the painter. This is a marvellous instance of carrying forward a tradition and yet always calling upon the artist to create a work out of his own vision.

In the paintings of Ajanta, the painters' knowledge of perspective is obvious in the receding pillars and in examples such as the elliptical depiction of the mouth of vessels. Volume is depicted by the most beautiful shading, which brings out the roundedness of form in a very sophisticated manner for paintings of such an early date.

The concern of the artist, however, was not to depict the photographic reality around him. His philosophy told him that the material world was a veil of illusion. He had to lift that veil and look beyond. We see in the work of the ancient painters nuances and a sense of the tangible world, the beauty of form, its volume and weight, and yet are taken always upwards towards something which is more and beyond.

The eyes are the windows to the soul, and the Indian painter concentrated immensely on portraying the feelings of his subjects through their eyes. There are five kinds of eyes to be painted, which are depicted in the Chitrasutra - chapakara or meditative; matsyodara, female or lovelorn; utpalaptrabha, placid or peaceful; padmapatranibha, frightened or weeping; and sankhakriti, angered or deeply pained.

The eyes as they were painted at Ajanta became a tradition, which spread far and wide. In recent times, Indian painters such as those of the Bengal School, Amrita Sher-Gill and others, were deeply influenced by this manner of painting.

These paintings were made by the inheritors of a very long tradition - guilds of painters who painted palaces, temples and caves. The art of painting was their legacy and it was their duty in life to paint, to carry on the visions of a collective understanding that their ancestors had formed, to shape it and to transform it yet again and always by the sense of their personal experience of life, and yet, to continue the thoughts and traditions that had been created over the ages.

As you may imagine, they had no need to write their names upon the paintings. It was a great sense of importance and fulfilment to play one's role as a part of the world; to contribute ones sensibilities and brilliance into that eternal fire of creation.

The mural paintings of Ajanta are not frescoes, as they are sometimes mistakenly described, for they were not painted on wet lime plaster. These murals were executed with the use of a binding medium of glue applied to a thin coat of dried lime wash. Below this surface wash were two layers of plaster covering the stone walls. The first was a rough, thick layer of mud, mixed with rock-grit, vegetable fibres, grass and other materials; the second was a finer coat consisting of mud, rock dust or sand and finer vegetable fibres, which provided a smooth surface for the lime wash on which the paintings were made.

The artist got his colours from the simple materials that were available in these hills. For his yellow and red he used ochre, for black he used lamp soot, for his white he used lime. Only for his blue he used lapis lazuli, which came from Afghanistan. These simple colours were blended to provide the numerous colours and subtle hues, which are seen in the Ajanta paintings.

It was a great moment in history - when the artist had a blossoming tradition of Indian art and the breath of inspiration in him. These humble painters had a great vision, a vision of humanity and compassion, which moves and enthrals us even today.

The Ajanta caves would have been the most important place of pilgrimage for Indian painters until they disappeared from the records sometime in the medieval period. On April 29, 1819, John Smith, a British soldier of the Madras Infantry chanced upon the caves. There was an immediate surge of interest in the newfound body of art. Indian artists were overjoyed to discover the Ajanta paintings. These reflected a marvellous tradition of painting of their forefathers, which had not been known before. Indian art had rediscovered its roots.

The creative impulse of Ajanta is seen in other contemporary sites. Fine paintings of the time are preserved in the caves at Bagh, Pitalkhora and Badami. The Buddhist caves of Bhaja and Kanheri in Maharashtra and those of Kerala were also painted profusely. Paintings from the 6th century to the 10th century are found at Ellora. The Kailasnatha temple at Kancheepuram has the remains of exquisite paintings of the 7th century. The Jain caves at Sittannavasal in Tamil Nadu also have beautiful paintings of the 9th century. The Brihadeesvara temple of the 10th century at Thanjavur has another exquisite body of work. Thus we see an unbroken tradition of painting in India, which began at Ajanta 2,200 years ago.

In 1930, Laurence Binyon, Director of the British Museum and a leading authority on Asian art, wrote: "In the art of Asia what a supreme and central position Ajanta owns! Whoever studies the art of China and Japan, at whatever time he begins, starts on a long road which will lead him ultimately to Ajanta."

The artistic impulses and traditions which are preserved at Ajanta, in the secluded gorge of the Waghora river, travelled southwards to Sri Lanka and from there to countries of South-East Asia. Simultaneously, the legacy of Ajanta moved along the trade routes to inspire painters in Afghanistan, Central Asia and China and from there to Korea and Japan.

Above all, the paintings of Ajanta are one of the most valuable treasures of the art of the world as they enshrine a sublime and compassionate view of life. The attitude of the artist is not one of struggle against the vicissitudes of life. It is one of surrender to the harmony of creation and the recognition of an underlying divinity. The compassionate message of Ajanta is contained in an inscription at the site, which says:

"The joy of giving filled him so much that it left no space for the feeling of pain."

Benoy K. Behl is an art-historian, filmmaker and photographer. He is the author of The Ajanta Caves and is known worldwide for his pioneering photography of mural paintings. At present, his photographic exhibitions on Buddhist sites and Art Heritage and on the Churches of Goa are touring many countries around the world.

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