If the past is another country, as the adage goes, few historical sites typify it as profoundly as the Ajanta Caves in present-day Maharashtra. Not only do the caves signify a high point in the so-called “Golden Age” of India’s cultural history, they also mark the point where a long-established form of economy—international trade—and a form of governance—large empires—were giving way to agricultural economies governed by regional, feudal chieftains. Ajanta tells the story of the remarkable efflorescence and sudden demise of the Vakataka empire, but also of the zenith of Buddhism as a state religion in India.
It seems wrong, somehow, to call the grand Buddhist edifices of Ajanta “caves”. Read any book on ancient Indian history and you will come across discussions about the great wealth of “rock cut caves” the country has. If you knew nothing of this, you might expect some rough-hewn network of caverns, poorly lit, dank, water dripping through years of collected moss.
Ajanta, of course, is nothing like that. Rather, it is an elegant complex of viharas(monasteries), shrines and chaitya-grihas (stupa-halls) which are so grand that when you first see them, the scale of the place beggars belief. It’s almost as if the ancients are drawing a curtain back and saying, “Gaze on our works, you smartphone-toting modern, and despair.”
A slow reveal
To visit Ajanta is to enjoy the art of the slow reveal. If you are coming from Aurangabad, the road first descends from a plateau into a valley. You get off your cab or bus at the entrance to the World Heritage Site and make your way to the shuttle bus service. You trundle along with other tourists and Buddhist monks of various nationalities as the bus makes its way through the deep, forested gorge of the Waghora river, to the entrance to the gate. Then it’s up a bunch of steep steps and along a long ramp till you reach the caves.
Ajanta was “discovered” by a British hunting party in 1819 but it is clear from their accounts that the caves were fairly well known to local villagers at the time. It was a mystery to everyone concerned, though. After a century and a half of scholarship, we know a lot more, though this has made Ajanta an even greater enigma.
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Here’s a quick historical primer: Although the number of caves open to the public run in an orderly number from 1-26 (1 being closest to the entrance and 26 the furthest), this doesn’t reflect the actual chronological age of the caves. The first caves had been excavated around the first century BCE-first century CE, when the area was part of the large Satavahana empire. These caves (numbers 9-12, except 11), right in the middle of the complex, are fairly humble viharas, with the main devotional focus served by the apsidal chaitya-grihas of caves 9 and 10, both of which feature some of the oldest paintings at the site.
It is now clear, on the basis of dedicatory inscriptions, that the oldest caves were patronised by local Buddhist communities, which included monks and wealthy merchants. This is also true of the oldest Buddhist rock-cut cave in Aurangabad, 100km south of Ajanta. The donors were beneficiaries of the extremely lucrative Mediterranean trade passing through the ancient port cities of Kalyan and Sopara on the Konkan coast. There also existed a thriving northern overland route, passing from the Ajanta area, through Ujjain in present-day Madhya Pradesh, and on to the dominions of the Kushana empire in the north.
“Ujjain was heavily involved in east-west trade and was at the nexus of trade itineraries radiating in all directions: westward to the Gujarat ports, eastward to centres in the Narmada valley, to the north towards the Gangetic plain via Vidisha, to Rajasthan and farther northwest to the city of Taxila in ancient Gandhara (Pakistan),” writes art historian Pia Brancaccio in her book, The Buddhist Caves Of Aurangabad: Transformations In Art And Religion (2010).
There was, however, a long hiatus in new caves being excavated in either Ajanta or Aurangabad between the first-fifth centuries CE. Scholars have theorised that this might be due to the bulk of the Indian Ocean trade migrating further south down the Konkan coast, and the interior Deccan region becoming increasingly reliant on local agriculture, which didn’t generate the kind of income that could support lavish rock-cut structures.
However, this was to change in the fifth century, with a branch of the Vakataka empire, with its capital in Vatsalguma (present-day Washim in Maharashtra) coming to control much of the area from the Konkan coast to the western part of the Deccan plateau through a careful network of local feudatory kings. By the late fifth century, during the reign of the most illustrious emperor of the dynasty, Harisena, the Vakatakas had regained control of the old oceanic and overland trade routes and the economic conditions were in place for new, more lavish Buddhist building work to begin.
It’s these later caves from the reign of Harisena—1-8, 11 and 14-31 (these clusters hold the bulk of the surviving painted murals as well) that tell the most compelling story of Ajanta. Unlike the older ones, these caves are clearly of royal commission: by Harisena himself, as well as by his minister Varahadeva, and Upendragupta, the feudatory king of the Ajanta area. The wonder of it all is that all these caves, with their superlative artwork, were created over just 15-20 years: between Harisena’s accession in 460 CE, to a few years after his sudden death in 477 CE.
An Emperor’s playground
The first cave you encounter when you enter the Ajanta complex, cave 1 (a vihara with a Buddha shrine), is also one of the most magnificent because it is the only cave that was built as a donation by Harisena. There is no direct inscription to support this claim. However, the late art historian Walter Spink, in his magisterial seven-volume study of the caves, Ajanta: History And Development (2005-17), deduces with almost forensic detail why it must have been a direct commission from Harisena.
The Vakatakas were Saivite kings and Harisena was no different. But there was an old, large and prosperous Buddhist community in the region and international trade contacts would only have been enhanced with the patronage of Buddhism, the international religion par excellence. It is no wonder, then, that the sumptuously-painted murals of cave 1 are all about kingship and the courtly life of royal cities.
But this isn’t what standard guidebooks on Ajanta will tell you. According to the mainstream narrative, the cave shrine is just a sacred space where the walls are illustrated with scenes from various Jataka tales. What enriches our understanding of the deeper symbolism of these masterpieces is the fact that nearly all the scenes from the Jatakas painted here show just the courtly life of its subjects. Of the four tales depicted here, take, for instance, the Mahajanaka Jataka. It tells the story of Prince Janaka of Mithila, who renounces his kingdom to become an ascetic in the Himalaya. The tale strongly mirrors the renunciation of Siddhartha, the historical Buddha.
In the Ajanta murals, we see five main scenes from this Jataka. The first one is of Janaka, along with his entourage, listening to the teaching of a Bodhisattva. The second is of Janaka announcing his decision to renounce worldly life. The third is of his wife, Sivali, trying to divert his attention by putting on lavish performances of music and dance. The fourth is of Janaka undergoing a ritual abhisheka bath before he becomes an ascetic; the fifth panel shows him riding out of the city on his horse, again surrounded by an entourage.
In the dense depiction of these scenes, the artists of Ajanta portray Buddhist themes but focus on the courtly rituals of a king, befitting that of Harisena’s stature, who at the time was one of the most powerful monarchs in Asia, possibly even the world.
The portrayal of Janaka’s gorgeous palace, the depiction of the women dancers and musicians, the animated, naturalistic and evocative expressions and poses of the prince, his wife and their entourages, the elaborate finery of the clothes, of Janaka’s throne, his ritual bath: All these make the case that what we are seeing is a snapshot of the Vakataka court. After all, a painter would probably draw from experience, even while depicting mythical tales.
Other mural depictions (from other Jataka tales) of royal hunts, languorous couples in ornate palaces, elaborately ordered gardens, wine drinking and other pursuits of royal prerogative make it very clear that the audience of these artworks was to be the emperor and his courtiers.
This mixing of the kingly and the divine is also evident in the two celebrated paintings of Bodhisattvas flanking the main colossal Buddha sculpture of the shrine in cave 1. The dark-skinned Vajrapani to the Buddha’s left and the light skinned Avalokiteshwara to the Buddha’s right are understandably considered two masterpieces of the ancient world. But what makes them even more fascinating is that they are probably idealised depictions of real people.
Spink is of the opinion that each of the two Bodhisattvas represent different painting traditions of the time: the Vajrapani with a southern, “pre-Chalukya” tradition and the Avalokishwara with a northern, “Gupta idiom”. “…the wonderful jewels—the necklaces, the intentionally mismatched earrings, and Vajrapani’s crown containing its three miniature thrones—must have been modeled on those worn by Harisena and his Vakataka courtiers in the great cities of the empire. The painters did not make these things up; they painted what they knew,” writes Spink.
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That Harisena’s reign was politically, economically and culturally an international one, is amply depicted in the murals of cave 1 (as well as other caves). Brancaccio points out that in the Mahajanaka Jataka scene where Janaka is listening to the Bodhisattva, Central Asian characters have been depicted in his entourage. In the abhisheka scene, one of the attendants could well be east African. “Foreign figures appear so commonly in the murals that they must surely have been part of the social scene at the time,” she writes.
Such characters and scenes appear in cave after cave, such as a depiction of two Central Asian men drinking wine in cave 2 or ancient Sogdians appearing in a depiction of the Buddha’s descent from Trayatrimsa heaven in cave 17, to name just two instances.
This international presence is hardly surprising, given the extent of trade with Central Asia and the Mediterranean regions. Western Indian exports—especially of precious stones from ancient Lata (modern southern Gujarat) and cotton from western Deccan, both areas that Harisena controlled—to the Byzantine and Sassanian empires around this time are well documented.
As above, so below
From the earliest depictions of the Buddha, whether in aniconic or iconic form, he has been cast as a universal monarch, a chakravartin who rules over the entire Universe. In such a depiction, the symbolism and accoutrements associated with real-world monarchs—like the ceremonial umbrella or attendants with fly whisks—were commonly used. From the time of the Indo-Greek kingdoms, and especially the Kushana empire, another symbol, borrowed from Greek art, was added, that of the crown.
As art historian Claudine Bautze-Picron shows in her book, The Bejewelled Buddha: From India To Burma (2010), this first took the form of Greek winged cherubs holding laurel wreath-style crowns over the Buddha’s head. In the art traditions of Gandhara and Mathura, this soon transformed into that of celestial beings (vidyadharas) holding a high crown over the Buddha. Over the centuries, this became a part of the iconographic vocabulary, soon travelling to the Deccan through overland trade routes.
In Harisena’s world, the Buddha’s depiction as the celestial monarch became shorthand for the temporal overlordship of the Vakataka emperor. In the sculptural tradition of Ajanta, the colossal Buddhas at the heart of every shrine-sanctuary sat enthroned in a manner that easily echoes a king seated among his courtiers, attended to by Bodhisattvas, vidyadharas, yakshas and nagas.
The royal veneration of the “supreme Lord” thus provided additional validity to the earthly emperor. “It is therefore possible…the intention was to show society how powerful the Buddha was, presenting himself as the supreme teacher, crowned and seated on Indra’s throne on Mount Meru,” Bautze-Picron writes. The narrative settings of the Mahayana sutras, with the Buddha revealing new teachings in a vast court of Bodhisattvas, Brahminical gods and other divine beings, also reinforce this conceit.
Quite ironically, the Vakataka emperor’s identification with the Buddha was to play out in a tragic manner, both for the dynasty and for Buddhism in the Deccan. Soon after Harisena’s death—while most of the caves and shrines at Ajanta were still unfinished—the Vakataka empire came to a sudden end, toppled by its ambitious feudatory kings. According to Spink’s research, Ajanta itself was almost immediately abandoned and subsequent Buddhist centres moved to Aurangabad and, in a century or so, to Ellora.
Buddhism would continue to be a major force in the region, especially at sites like Kanheri, close to the trading ports. But just as the end of the Guptas and the Vakatakas brought to an end the paradigm of large empires, so too would the medieval economy shift, with a vengeance, away from cities and trade to villages and agriculture.
In this destabilised milieu of constant conflict and military adventurism of petty monarchs, the more violent tales of Puranic Hinduism, and the cult of Shiva, would supplant the ethical stories of the Jatakas and the cult of the Buddha, both in the narratives of the celestial emperor and in royal patronage. In fact, depictions of Shiva as an ascetic in dhyana mudra would soon perfectly mimic the Buddha’s iconography. Kings would shift decisively away from Buddhist donations to land grants to Brahmins.
Buddhism itself would survive, and indeed thrive, both in the Deccan and elsewhere in India, but for that, it would have to adapt to a new paradigm of power. Ajanta’s art, meanwhile, would remain hidden and forgotten, a time capsule to a different country.
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