Ducked inside a horse shoe shaped cliff of a volcanic mountain of the Deccan plateau stands India’s oldest art gallery–Ajanta. In thirty majestic caves of Ajanta, the iconic samples of Indian medieval paintings and sculptures are preserved. Ajanta caves are located near the Jalgaon city of Aurangabad district in India.

The archaeological site was buried under dense forest until a troop of British military officers stumbled upon it in 1819. Those deceptively rugged caves revealed some of the finest samples of Buddhist religious art. Ajanta is believed to be a Buddhist monastery constructed and started functioning in the 2nd century BCE. It has all structural elements to support a thriving community.  There are elaborate Chaitya Grihas (Buddhist prayer halls) with Stupas (A central dome shaped structure which was the center of adoration), spacious Viharas (living halls for Buddhist monks), huge sculptures of Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Taras.

The caves are sequentially numbered from one to thirty. However, the construction period of these caves vary greatly. Ajanta was constructed in two phases which are around 600 years apart. The first phase began in the 2nd century BCE during the time of Satavahana dynasty of Deccan. Caves 9,10,12,13 and 15A were constructed during this period. This was closer to the living period of Gautama Buddha. They conform to the Buddhist philosophy of simple living and prohibition of idolatry. The prayer halls (Chaitya Grihas) in these first generation of caves has simple, octagonal shaped pillars and a plain Stupa in the center. The stupa is believed to bury the relics of Buddha within it, symbolizing the living presence of Buddha. William Dalrymple in his article about Ajanta draws parallels between the Buddhist Stupa and the Christian tabernacle.

Communal Buddhist worship directed at the stupa, the domed, mound like structure containing Buddhist relics, which had come to be seen as the living embodiment of the Buddha, rather as later generations of Catholics would look to the tabernacle, the place where the Eucharist is stored, as the location of the Real Presence.

Due to unknown reasons, the constructions in Ajanta suddenly came to a halt in the first century BCE and it was abandoned to be engulfed by the dense forest. After 600 years, circa 500CE the next phase of active construction began in Ajanta. It was under the patronage of the great emperor Harisena of the Vakataka dynasty. The architecture of this new phase clearly shows the ideological drift in Buddhism. Buddhism began as a rational society with simple rules and beliefs. However, over the centuries it transformed into a complex religion with emphasis on worshiping Buddha as God rather than a teacher. In the caves 19 and 26, there are Chaitya Grihas belonging to this second phase. Clearly marking the ideological shift, the Stupa in cave 19 portrays a standing Buddha and that of cave 26 is adorned with an idol of sitting Buddha.

There are also numerous sculptures of Bodhisattvas, Taras, Yakshas, Apsaras and other mythological characters. Perhaps the most famous sculpture in Ajanta caves is the “reclining Buddha.” It symbolizes the Nirvana of Buddha. Nirvana is similar to death but in a true Buddhist sense, it is the process of leaving behind the mortal body and entering into a new dimension of wisdom. The reclining Buddha is rich in detail as the lower part of the sculpture shows the disciples of Buddha offering him flowers and some of them are mourning in sorrow. However, the upper part of the sculpture shows the Gods rejoicing as Nirvana is a relief from the worldly burden.

Ajanta beyond doubt is the most ancient Buddhist art gallery of India. Every prayer hall, portico and the monastery quarters of Ajanta are adorned with the mural paintings. Images of Bodhisattvas, Taras and scenes from Jataka tales are captured in vibrant colors on dark volcanic rock face. The paintings are made with mineral colors such as red and yellow ochres, blue lapiz lazuli, lamp black and white gypsum.  It is a wonder that the paintings that are older than thousand years have passed the test of time and survive as testimony of the craftsmanship of Indian artists.  Without doubt, the most famous images of Ajanta are that of Padmapani and Vajrapani – the compassionate Bodhisattvas.

Jataka tales are another important theme of the Ajanta murals. These are stories about the previous lives and Nirvana of Buddha. The ancient artists have carefully chosen Jataka stories to demonstrate the different aspects of Buddhism.  These tales include Vidhura Pandita (The wise minister of King Dhananjaya) and Ruru (The compassionate golden deer), Buddha performing the miracle of Sravasti, the dream of Maya–about the birth of Gautam Buddha, Sama Jataka and Chhaddanta Jataka.


Salini S

Salini S

Salini S. is an engineering graduate from BITS Pilani, Goa. She lives in Bangalore and works for Cypress semiconductors. She is a travel blogger, and writes about Indian art and architecture. Since 2015, she has been looking after the travel & history portal, Pick Pack & Go.