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Ajanta Caves-Summary


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Ajanta Caves Summary (UNESCO-World Heritage Site)

Ajanta Cave 1:

Most popular at Ajanta caves are the paintings in Cave 1. This cave contains the finest paintings, viharas (monasteries) and murals. This cave is also renowned for the fantastic murals of two bodhisattvas (saintly beings destined to become the Buddha) that flank the doorway of the antechamber.

By the time work on it began, late in the 5th century, viharas served not only to shelter and feed the monks, but also as places of worship in their own right. In common with most Mahayana viharas, the extraordinary murals lining the walls and ceilings depict from the Jatakas, tales of the birth and former lives of the Buddha. The Mahajanaka Jataka (where the Buddha took the form of an able and just ruler) covers much of the left-hand wall including Renunciation, and the scenes where he is enticed by beautiful dancing damsel.

A veranda with cells and porches either side has three entrances leading into a pillared hall. Above the veranda are friezes depicting the sick man, old man, corpse and saint encountered the Buddha, which is shown above the left porch. The hall has 20 ornamented pillars, a feature of the late period caves. Five small monks cells lead off three sides, and in the centre of the back wall is a large shrine of the Buddha supported by Indra, the Rain god. At the entrance are the river goddesses Yamuna and Ganga and two snake-hooded guardians at the base.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Vajrapani) and Bodhisattva Padmapani are the most significant bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. To the right, of the doorway into the main shrine stands Avalokitesvara (or Vajrapani) holding a thunderbolt and to the left is bejewelled Padmapani, his heavy almond eyes cast humbly downward, with a lotus in his hand and a languid hip- shot tribhanga (or 3- bend) pose exudes a distant and sublime calm. Padmapani, or the “one with the lotus in his hand,” is considered to be the changed ego of the Lord Buddha; Padmapani assumed the duties of the Buddha when he disappeared. Padmapani is depicted with his wife, one of the most widely reproduced figures. Padmapani, the lotus- holding form, is surrounded by an entourage of smaller attendants, divine musicians, lovers, monkeys and a peacock. These two bodhisattvas, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and Bodhisattva Padmapani represent the dual aspects of Mahayana Buddhism, i.e. compassion and knowledge. Together compassion and knowledge, the basis of Mahayana Buddhism, complement one another.

Within the antechamber shrine is a huge seated Buddha in a teaching position, with the Wheel of Dharma beneath his throne, his hands are in the Dharmachakra pravartana mudra, the gesture that initiates the motion of the wheel. Buddha in the sanctum, preaching the first sermon at Sarnath. The real focal point of cave 1, however, is the gigantic sculpted Buddha seated in the shrine room- the finest figure in Ajanta. The magnificent Buddha statue in the cave seems to wear different facial expressions. On the wall to the right side of the Buddha is an image of the dark princess being offered lotuses by another damsel.

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Ajanta Cave 2:

Ajanta Cave 2 is another similarly impressive Mahayana vihara, dating from the 6th century. A vihara hall, 14.6sq m with 12 pillars , with five cells on each side of the left and right hand walls and two chapels on each side of the antechamber and the shrine room. The veranda in front has a side chapel at each end. The doorway is carved richly. On the left hand wall is the mural depicting the Birth of the Buddha, emerging from under his mother’s arm, and his conception when a white elephant appeared to her in a dream.

Next to this is the ‘thousand’ Buddhas which illustrates the miracle when the Buddha multiplied himself to confuse the heretic. On the right are the dancing girls before the king, shown with striking three dimensional effects.

The cave is remarkable for its painted ceiling, giving the effect of the draped cloth canopy of a tent. The mandala (circular diagram of the cosmos) is supported by demons like figures. The Greek key designs on the border are possibly influenced by Gandharan art, first to third centuries AD. The ceiling decorations portray a number of figures of Persian appearance apparent from the style of the beard and whiskers and their clothing. Sculpted friezes in the small subsidiary shrine to the right of the main chapel centre on a well- endowed fertility goddess, Hariti, the infamous child- eating ogress. When the Buddha threatened to give her a taste of her own medicine by kidnapping her children, Hariti flew into frenzy, but was subdued by the Buddha’s teachings of compassion. Below, a schoolroom scene shows a teacher waving a cane at class unruly pupils. The Yaksha (nature spirits) Shrine in the left chapel is associated with fertility and wealth. The main shrine is that of Buddha in the teaching position, again flanked by the two bodhisattvas, both holding the royal fly whisk. The panel on your left as you leave the hall is a Jataka telling the story of the Bodhisattva’s life as Pandit Vidhura.

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Ajanta Cave 3:

Ajanta Caves 3 to 7 belong to the late fifth century and Caves 3, 4 and 7 hold a little of interest. This cave has no veranda.

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Ajanta Cave 4:

Ajanta Caves 4 is the largest vihara at Ajanta, planned on an ambitious scale and not completed. The hall is 27 sq m and supported on 28 pillars. Along the walls are cells; whilst at the rear is a large shrine. Cave 4 is incomplete, but its grandiose designs make it the largest of the Ajanta monasteries.

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Ajanta Cave 5:

Ajanta Cave 5 is unfinished.

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Ajanta Cave 6:

Ajanta Cave 6 is a double-storied vihara with a finely carved doorjamb above its shrine room and some peeling paintings above the entrances to its cells. After climbing the steep steps to the second floor, experience the pillars that emit musical sounds when rapped. On the first floor is an interesting well/underground tank just outside the cave with only seven of the 16 octagonal pillars standing. The shrine contains a seated Buddha.

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Ajanta Cave 7:

Ajanta Cave 7 has no hall. The veranda has two porches each supported by heavy octagonal Elephanta type columns. These lead to four cells. These and the antechambers are profusely carved. The shrine is that of Buddha, his hand raised in blessing.

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Ajanta Cave 8:

Ajanta Cave 8 is a small vihara but is always closed; it contains the generators for the lights.

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Ajanta Cave 9:

Ajanta Cave 9 dates from the 1st century BC, is the 1st elegant chaitya hall with plain octagonal columns and a curved vault; the stupa on its high drum is the devotional focus, you come to, along the walkway. Resting in the half- light shed by a characteristic peepal leaf- shaped window in the sculpted facade, the hemispherical stupa, with its inverted pyramidal reliquary, forms the devotional centrepiece of the 14 m long hall. The fragments of painting that remain, including the procession scene on the left wall, are mostly superimpositions over the top of earlier snake- deities Nagarajas.

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Ajanta Cave 10:

A second- century BC chaitya hall, the oldest, largest, partially collapsed and most impressive of its kind in the ravine is still a grand sight. The cave’s highlights, however, are far smaller and more subdued. In breathtaking detail, the Shadanta Jataka, a legend about the Buddha, a royal figure worships at the Bodhi tree,is depicted on the wall in a continuous panel. In this cave there are no idols of Buddha, indicating that idol worship was not in vogue at the time. Hardly nine caves later, Cave 19 shows idols of Buddha, showing the progression of thought and the development of new methods of worship as the centuries wore on. The hall itself is divided by three rows of painted octagonal pillars, which is dominated by a huge monolithic stupa at its far end. Try the amazing acoustics of the chaityas.

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Ajanta Cave 11:

Ajanta Cave 11 has a veranda and roof painted with birds and flowers, a hall supported by four heavy pillars and a stone bench running along the right side. There are five cells and a shrine of a seated Buddha. Cave 12 and 13 are small viharas. Cave 14 was planned on a grand scale but not completed and can be missed along with Cave 15 which is a long hall with a Buddha carved out of the rock.

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Ajanta Cave 16:

The next cave of interest, Ajanta Cave 16, is another spectacular 5th century vihara, with an inscription dating from Harishena’s reign. Its ceiling is carved to imitate wood and there is an image of Buddha teaching .Cave 16 contains Kneeling elephants and the Cobra King, at the entrance, also it has a 20m long and 3.5m deep veranda that carries six plain octagonal pillars. The magnificent columned hall inside has six cells on each side and a beamed ceiling. On the lion throne is seated “The Teaching Buddha”. A mural on the left wall shows the famous painting known as the “Dying Princess”. The “Princess”, who was a new bride, was actually a queen named Sundari, and she isn’t dying, but fainting after hearing the news that her husband, King Nanda (Buddha’s cousin), is about to renounce his throne to take up monastic orders. Her misery is shared by all and everything around .The right walls show events from Buddhas early life as Siddhartha using a bow. There is a good view of the ravine from here and may have been the entrance to the entire series of caves.

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Ajanta Cave 17:

Ajanta Cave 17, dating in between the mid-fifth and early sixth centuries, the cave boasts about the best preserved and most varied paintings, undamaged by time, in Ajanta. Over the entrance door is a row of seven Past Buddhas and the eighth, the Maitreya or Future Buddha, Luscious heavenly damsels fly effortlessly overhead, also the panels shows royal processions, warriors, an assembled congregation from which you can get an accurate and detailed picture of the times. Sculpted deities are carved on either side .To the left; a princely couple shares a last glass of wine before giving their worldly wealth away to the poor. The wall at the far left side of the veranda features fragments of an elaborate “Wheel of Life”.

Inside the cave, the murals are once more, dominated by the illustrations of the Jatakas, particularly those in which Buddha takes the form of an animal to illustrate certain virtues, Jatakas: the worship of the Buddha, the Buddha preaching; Hansa Jataka, with paintings of geese; Vessantara Jataka, where the greedy Brahmin is portrayed, grinning; the Buddha tames a raging elephant.(Resisting temptation is the theme.); and the ogress who turns into a beautiful maiden by day! Other favourite paintings include the scene of a woman applying lipstick and one of a princess performing sringar(her toilette). This picture scene is on the right hand wall as you enter and as you face the wall on the farthest right pillar.

Luscious heavenly damsels fly effortlessly overhead, also the panels showing royal processions, warriors, an assembled congregation from which you can get an accurate and detailed picture of the times. Sculpted deities are carved on either side.

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Ajanta Cave18:

Ajanta Cave 18 (late fifth century) has little of merit and can be missed.

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Ajanta Cave 19:

Ajanta Cave 19, hardly nine caves later, contains idols of Buddha, shows the progression of thought and the development of new methods of worship as the centuries passed on. It’s indisputably Ajanta’s most magnificent chaitya hall, with restrained yet elaborate carvings. Hindu influence is discernible in the friezes that line the interior of the porch. Inside the hall, the faded frescoes are of less importance than the sculpture around the tops of the pillars. The standing Buddha at the far end, another Mahayana innovation, is even more remarkable. Notice the development from the stumpier stupas enshrined within the early chaityas(cave 9 10) to this more elongated version. Its umbrellas, supported by angels and a vase of divine nectar, reach up to the vaulted roof. This tall shrine has a triple stone umbrella above it. Note the seated Nagaraja with attendants. Guides and caretakers will enthusiastically point out the names of the Englishman, John Smith, who rediscovered the caves—his name along with 1819 underneath, is carved on the 12th pillar on the right-hand side of this cave. Cave 10 was the first cave Smith and his cavalry spotted because of its domed arch which made it quite visible from the bluff above.

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Ajanta Cave 20:

Ajanta Cave 20 is comparatively small and has imitation beams carved into the ceiling.

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Ajanta Cave 21:

Ajanta Cave 21 (early seventh century) has a fallen veranda with flanking chapels.

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Ajanta Cave 24:

Ajanta Cave 24 was intended to be the largest vihara but was not completed. The unfinished Cave 24, which roughly hacked trenches and pillars give an idea of how the original excavation was carried out here.

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Ajanta Cave 26:

Ajanta Cave 26 dates from the seventh century, a couple of hundred years after the others, and form a separate group at the far end of the cliff, the only one worth a close look is Cave 26. Envisaged on a similarly grand scale to the other large chaitya, Cave 19, this impressive hall was never completed. A partly damaged columned façade stretches across the front with the customary side chambers at each end. The 3-m-high window is flanked by sculptured Buddha reliefs. Inside, the chaitya hall, 26 pillars run in an elongated semicircle around the cylindrical (dome shaped shrine) stupa which is richly decorated with Buddha images. The walls are decorated with sculpture, including the temptations by Mara’s daughters. In the “Temptation of Mara” frieze (on your left as you enter the cave), the Buddha is ensconced under a Peepal tree as seven tantalizing sisters try to seduce him. Their father the satanic Mara, watches from astride an elephant in the top left corner. The rise to lead the Buddha astray fails, of course, eventually forcing the evil adversary and his daughters to retreat (bottom right). Nevertheless, the sculpture is most vivid and dramatic at Ajanta.

In the left- hand wall is a carved figure of the reclining Buddha – a depiction of the Mahaparinirvana, his final salvation from the cycle of life and death. A 23 foot-long (7m) Buddha reclines on a couch, his eyes closed in peaceful sleep. One of the sculptural tricks that a guide will display is that when the statue is lit from the left side, the facial expression is solemn, suggesting contemplation. Yet from the other side, there is a smile of joy while from below it suggests tranquillity and peace. The soft sunlight defusing gently from the doorway over Buddhas fine, sensuously carved features completes the appropriately transcendent effect. Beneath him, his disciples mourn his passing; above, celestial beings rejoice, particularly the elephant scattering the lotus as it rushes out of the pond, and the charging bull, waiting to transport him to the land of no tomorrows or rebirths. Also look for the “black princess” and the row of the dancer with musicians. On the way out is a pillar that has four deer sculpted skillfully sharing the same head.

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Ajanta Caves Glossary:

Chaityas – Buddhist shrine

Indra – God of rain

Jatakas- tales about Buddha’s life and teachings

Peepal – Plaksa tree

Stupas – Commomorative monument, Buddhist funerary mound signifying Buddha’s presence

Viharas – Jain or Buddhist monastery

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