Located north of Aurangabad in the Sahyadri range of Western India, Ajanta is one of the greatest examples of ancient Buddhist monastic rock-cut architecture in all of India. The site dates from 200 BCE to 500 CE and has a rich amount of material of interest to Buddhist pilgrims, tourists, and academics alike.
Photo from Flickr
History of Ajanta and its Caves
The Ajanta caves are located far from an urban establishment but near ancient trade routes which Buddhists were fond of utilizing thousands of years ago. Around 30 rock-cut caves are cut into the volcanic rock, forming a semi-circle around the Waghora River. The earliest five caves do not contain images of the Buddha and have long been considered ‘aniconic’ since they pre-date the earliest known Buddha images by a century or more. The rest of the caves are highly ornamented with Buddha and bodhisattva images. Many are likely early caves devoted to the Mahayana movement within Indian Buddhism.
There are two primary types of architectural styles at Ajanta. The first, more closely associated with the earlier aniconic phase of Buddhism, is made up of apsidal temple-halls, often called caityas. The other form is the monastery, the prototypical square or quadrangular monastic residence. Both styles are thought to have been derived from earlier versions built in wood and brick, although no such structure has ever been found complete in the extant architectural record.
Ajanta was first discussed in academia as early as 1819. However, it was not until the later half of the 20th century that the caves gained worldwide prominence. The scholar James Fergusson and his fellow British officer James Burgess made the first serious attempt to date and sort out a chronology for the caves. They suggested that there was a second major construction phase beginning during the Gupta era, likely around or after 500 CE. More recently, Walter Spink has suggested that the second phase is slightly earlier, dating to the reign of Harisena in the late 5th century. The second phase is characterized by its elaborately ornamented Buddha and bodhisattva images. Additionally, in this later phase, the differences between monastic residences and worship halls became lessened, as most monasteries now included some sort of shrine within their walls. The type of worship Buddhists engaged in during each phase may be clearly viewed by the size and architectural layout of the caves.
Use of the Caves
Beyond its resplendent architecture, Ajanta’s painting and sculpture is nearly unparalleled in the history of Buddhism in India. The sheer amount of time, wealth, and devotion that went into the worship chambers expresses both the popularity and attraction of Buddhist meditation, worship and renunciation. The site was largely patronized by lay supporters and sometimes local kings. The laity needed the monks for mediation, as they possessed the objects of worship (images, stupas, etc.) to venerate for merit as well as the received teachings of the Buddha. In return, the laity would offer food and financial support to the monastic community. It is difficult to distinguish how many monks and potentially nuns would ever occupy these spaces, as one leading hypothesis about ancient Indian Buddhist monasticism posits that the permanent monasteries made wandering even easier. It is highly doubtful that the entire complex was ever fully occupied at one time. Instead, certain caves may have fallen into or out of favor within the community depending on the season and amount of rainfall.
Chaitya Shrines of Ajanta
Tracing the site’s chronology, one may begin with the caitya worship halls. The earliest lack many rudimentary features which suggests that much of the architectural style still relied on the use of perishable materials such as wood. Now, all that remains in some spots are hallowed out pieces of stone where wooden fragments may have been inserted. Later caves abandon the use of wood and contain reproduced wooden designs in stone, surely an advancement in stone-cutting technique over time. The earliest cave has octagonal pillars and half-arched aisles. On the walls are fragments of murals displaying the Buddha in his past lives as animals, gods, kings, and men on the path towards awakening. These are the earliest surviving paintings in India. The focus of the cave is in the back end of the elongated pillared hall where a stupa, or hemispherical stone reliquary mound sits. Stupas usually contain relics of the Buddha or prominent local monastic saints. To worship stupas, devotees could circumambulate the stupa to earn merit for themselves, or venerate it with offerings such as flowers, incense, or food. The stupa is a typical example of an aniconic image of the Buddha. Whereas the Buddha is not actually seen, his presence is known by the fact that his relics are intended to be housed inside of the stupa.
Some chaityas exist from the second phase of construction (5th century CE) at Ajanta as well. One innovation to the form is called a gandhakuti, or ‘perfumed hall’, a well-discussed living chamber for the Buddha attested to in textual sources like the Pali Canon. However, according to tradition, the Buddha never traveled to places such as Ajanta, so the presence of a gandhakuti at places like Ajanta is symbolic in nature. Such a chamber devoted to the Buddha invites his charismatic presence back into the monastery without him actually being present. Beyond his teachings, his presence could be felt in the gandhakuti and in halls containing stupas, thus reaffirming his substantial power over the monastic and lay orders. One cave constructed during Gupta period in the 5th century replicates earlier caves’ style but is more elaborate. It has a porch and three entrances. The stupa at the end of its shortened caitya hall contains an image of the Buddha seated on a throne surrounded by bodhisattvas. The painted walls in this cave are also more elaborate than nearly any other at the site, suggesting its date is later than the others. Lastly, its heavily ornamented status exemplifies that even in the 5th century CE Buddhism was still well-supported by the laity.
Monasteries of Ajanta
The monasteries at the site also undergo some change over time. The earliest ones were simple rectangular structures with courts surrounded by rectangular monastic cells on three sides. Inside the cells are stone beds with a hallowed out shelf for material objects or images. Later, during the second phase of construction, images of the Buddha were added to the larger cells located in the center-back area, intended, perhaps, to establish a type of chapel dedicated to worshiping the Buddha’s image inside of the monastic quarters. Later caves were grouped around caitya worship halls, suggesting that the monks never wanted to be far from their worship halls, where they would presumably meet the laity. Even later monasteries became multi-storied and increasingly gained more and more worship cells. One cave even has smaller shrines flanking a central shrine while the stone bas-relief carvings on pillars and walls, too, gradually became increasingly devotional and complex in style. By the time the Mahayana movement may have spread into the Ajanta caves, the monastic residences would have been more than ready to accommodate the newly fashioned bodhisattva ideal, which focused on good deeds, compassion, skill-in-means, and new, powerful celestial bodhisattvas, all of which would have provided new fodder for artistic creations.
- V. Dehejia: Early Buddhist Rock Temples (Ithaca, 1972).
- J. Fergusson and J. Burgess: The Cave Temples of India (London, 1880), pp. 280–349.
- S. L. Huntington and J.C. Huntington: The Art of Ancient India (Boston and London, 1985).