Introduction

Photograph by: Benoy K. Behl, National Geographic January 2008

The 30 Ajanta caves, ornate Buddhist temples cut into a remote basaltic ridge northeast of Mumbai in India, are filled with sacred imagery honoring Buddha. Some of the caves served as prayer halls and living quarters for the monks who resided in this religious center.

The caves were excavated in two phases. The first few were carved out of the rock between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. But according to recent scholarship, the majority--including the most exquisite--were created between 462 and 477, in a relatively short burst of activity during the reign of the Vakataka Hindu king Harisena. These later caves were commissioned by powerful Buddhist aristocrats in the king's court, who employed hundreds of craftsmen to remove rock, sculpt images of deities, and paint lavish wall paintings illustrating the previous lives of Buddha as well as events from the life of the historical Buddha. During the excavation the laborers looked to earlier wooden temples for inspiration, creating vaulted ceilings, stone pillars, and decorative rafters that weren't needed for structural support. The detailed paintings provide sophisticated portraits of princes, musicians, deities, lovers, and other characters that appear in Buddhist narratives. Many consider these murals a reflection of the apogee of ancient Indian art.

When Harisena died in 477, political unrest spread through the region, financial sponsorship dried up, and the site fell into obscurity until British soldiers stumbled upon it in the early 19th century. Today the caves, many of which have been restored, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bibliography

Neill, Tom. "Faces of the Divine." National Geographic (January 2008), 122-39.

Spink, Walter M. Ajanta: A Brief History and Guide. Asian Art Archives, University of Michigan.

Behl, Benoy K. The Ajanta Caves: Ancient Paintings of Buddhist India. Thames and Hudson, 2005.

Ajanta Painting Technique

First a cave wall was chiseled, leaving a rough surface. Then two coats of mud plaster mixed with rock dust and vegetable fibers were applied, followed by a thin wash of dried lime. Several painters would work on a scene at the same time, outlining a design. Then, using a simple palette of five basic colors, they would fill in the design. Red and yellow were created from ochre, black from soot, white from lime and gypsum, and green from a local mineral. Occasionally blue from lapis lazuli was added.

Bibliography

Behl, Benoy K. The Ajanta Caves: Ancient Paintings of Buddhist India. Thames & Hudson, 2005.

O'Neill, Tom. Faces of the Divine. National Geographic (January 2008), 122-39.

Behl, Benoy K. The Ajanta Caves: Ancient Paintings of Buddhist India. Thames and Hudson, 2005.

Spink, Walter M. Ajanta: A Brief History and Guide. Asian Art Archives, University of Michigan.

Gosh, A., ed. Ajanta Murals. Archaeological Survey of India. 1967.

Huntington, Susan L. The Art of Ancient India. Weatherhill, 1985.

Schlingloff, Dieter. Guide to Ajanta Paintings. Vol. 1. Munshiram Manoharlal, 1999.

Seth, Mira. Indian Painting: The Great Mural Tradition. Harry N. Abrams, 2006.

Sivaramamurti, Calambur. The Art of India. Harry N. Abrams, 1977.

Snellgrove, David L., ed. The Image of Buddha. Kodansha International, 1978.

Spink, Walter M. Ajanta: History and Development. Vol. 1 Brill, 2005.

Weiner, Sheila L. Ajanta: Its Place in Buddhist Art. University of California Press, 1977.

Other Resources

A visual tour of several of the Ajanta caves using 360-degree panographies

A Benoy Behl photo gallery of Ajanta

Ajanta tourist information

A video overview of the caves

Chitrasutra
Stella Kramrisch's translation of the ancient treatise on
painting and image making

Last updated: October 11, 2007