Saturday, August 29, 2009

Buddhist paintings of Ajanta and Bagh

Buddhist paintings of Ajanta and Bagh:


Figure 1

Budha, Maitreya, and Yaksha couple Mahayana phase

Situated in the north-western region of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, are the Ajanta caves. 30 in number according to the ASI and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ajanta caves provide us with some of the earliest surviving examples of the Indian Buddhist paintings. This group of 30 rock cut caves lie within the horseshoe-shaped escarpment along the narrow Waghora river gorge. They were lost to the modern world before the accidental rediscovery in 1819 by the British officer John Smith, of the 28th Madras Cavalry, on a tiger hunt. Much curiosity was generated post the discovery and many scholars and historians have since studied the caves; its architecture, paintings, murals, and statues.

The caves may be roughly divided into two phases, the first phase dating from 2nd century BC to 2nd Century AD representing the austere phase of the Hinayana Buddhism and the second phase, following a hiatus for a few centuries, between 4th/5th century AD to 8th Century AD. The second phase was dominated by the Mahayana period, during the Vakataka dynasty.

First Phase:

The Satavahanas rulers (3rd century BC to 3rd century AD) carried out the excavations of the first phase of caves, and cave numbers 8,9,10,12,13 and 15A may be attributed to them. The Hinayana philosophy does not allow for the pictorial representation of Lord Budhha himself but the presence may be depicted symbolically, for example the wheel of Law or a Bodhi tree.

Second Phase:

During the Vakatakas dynasty around 23 new caves were excavated, and the earlier ones modified and extended. The founder of the dynasty was Vindhyshakti, and the dynasty was also related to the Guptas through matrimonial alliances. Majority of the paintings which were done during the 5th-6th century AD belong to this phase.

The investigators of the site assigned the numbers to the caves according to their sequence along the wall of the ravine, and does not have anything to do with the dating/ order of creation of the caves.

Stylistically the caves are of two types – caityas and viharas. The caityas or the chapels are long rectangular prayer halls with an apsidal end. They have vaulted ceilings and two rows of octagonal pillars divide the interior into a central hall with the votive stupa; the object of veneration, and the side aisles that provide the passage for circumambulation (pradakshina path). The Mahayana caityas houses images of Buddha also. The caitya caves at Ajanta include cave numbers 9,10,19,26, and 29.

On the other hand, viharas are the living quarters or the monasteries of the monks. Typically the viharas have a verandah, a square or rectangular hall without columns with small cells around and an inner shrine with the Buddha image or a votive stupa. The vihara caves include the early cave numbers 8,12,13, and 15A and the later cave numbers 1,2,6,16,17.

Most of the paintings are found in viharas though caitya caves 9 and 10 also have some paintings. The paintings were found in various states of preservation.

Technique and Colours:

The paintings of Ajanta were done in the tempera style and not the fresco as was earlier believed. In the tempera style the colours are applied when the

plaster is completely dry, while in the fresco style colours are applied on the wet surface. The surface of the paintings was prepared by the application of two coats of plaster. The first layer was usually the coarser layer and made of fibrous material including paddy husk, sand, gravel, lime, and even jute. The first layer was an inch or an inch and a half in thickness. The second layer that was applied was smoother in nature and prepared the ground for painting. Thin layer of limewash was applied as the last layer. Over this layer the artists applied colours to make the painting. These paintings were

done in extremely poor light conditions as the interiors of the caves were

dark and rarely any light reached in. Various theories have been impounded about how the artists managed to paint some of the finest paintings in such poor light conditions, ranging from the use of oil lamps, to the mirrors to magnify the little light that was received.

The vibrant colours that were used were all of either mineral or plant origin. For example red was prepared from hematite; yellow from yellow ochre; and green from terra verte (a kind of earth); blue was imported from Iran and thus used sparingly. From these basic colours various combinations and hues were prepared.


The subject matter of the paintings and sculptures found in Ajanta are the details or the narratives from the Buddha’s life as well as the lives of Buddha in the previous incarnations. The depictions are borrowed from the narrative in the Jataka and Avadana tales.

The Jataka tales are the allegorical tales based on previous life of Buddha in both human and non-human forms. The canonical book comprises 547 poems, and though used as vehicles of Buddhist ethical teaching, these stories are mostly of secular origin. The main protagonist of the Jataka tales however remains Buddha.

Whereas in the Avadana tales, the story revolves around noteworthy deeds and the protagonist could be anyone. They correlate the virtuous deeds of past lives with that of subsequent births. Two important avadanas; Purna Avadana and Simhala are painted in Cave numbers 2 and 17 respectively.

Apart from this the walls are also adorned with illuminated history of the time including court scenes, street scenes, and domestic life and even animal and bird studies. The whole mood is that of activity and narrative. The narratives were painted on the walls and not on the ceilings, as it would have been difficult for the devotees to follow the narrative while constantly looking upwards.

However the ceilings are also adorned albeit with decorative motifs, animals, and even figures. The ceilings depict the mithuna couples, kinaras (half-human, half-horse), many composite animals where the physical features are not just of any one animal for example makara (elephant plus crocodiles) etc. Flowers and other fauna details also are depicted on the ceilings, at time they adopt a realist form and at others are stylised

representations. The idea was to adorn and beautify the ceilings and not leave them bare. Vibrant colours and motifs are used for the purpose, and at

time roundish pot-bellied dwarfs painted at intervals provide the comic relief, and adds to the humor. Certain motifs that were liberally used were lotuses, swans, vidyadharas etc. were not only decorative in character but also considered auspicious. In fact these are taken from the Brahmanical culture thus blurring the boundaries between the two religions.

Cave 1

The mention of Ajanta paintings can not be complete without mentioning the paintings of the Boddisattvas Padmapni and Avalokitesvara, both in Cave 1. Dating to late 5th century AD, this is one of the finest viharas of Ajanta. The cave is almost a virtual testimony to the finest of Buddhist art. The viharas at this period had started to be used not only as residences for the monks but also as a place of worship. Here a cell in the back wall has a colossal image of Buddha in the dharmachakra parivartan mudra.

The vihara comprises a verandah and a hall bordered with cells. Above the left porch are friezes depicting the three ominous signs in Buddha’s life; a sick man, an old man, and a corpse.

The twenty pillars with heavily decorated bracket-capitals support the hall ceiling. The best known paintings of the two Bodhisattvas flank the entrance

to the shrine chamber. On the left is Padmapani and on the right is Avalokiteswara.


Figure 3

Bodhisattva Padmapani

Padmapani: The painting of Padmapani, the compassionate Bodhisattva is one of the finest examples of the Indian sacred art. Padmapani languidly standing with the blue lotus in the tribhanga pose is an exquisite amalgamation of both the sensuous and the spiritual. The painting not only depicts the complete harmony and peace reflected in the bodily posture but also the completely at peace and full of passion spiritual state of mind of the Boddisattva. The face of the Buddha-to-be is a perfect oval with sharp aquiline nose, full lower lip, bow-like brows, slim waist, and very long arms; the lakshans of Mahapurush as documented in the canons like Shilpshashtra. He wears a few rich pieces of jewellery, such as an ekawali (single strand of pearls), an elaborate pointed crown studded with gems and jewels and a sacred cord. His expression of “calm is enhanced by the figures which crowd him from all directions and establish him as an island of spiritual disengagement, unmoved and unattentive to the forces and sounds of maya which engulf him.” (Roy C Craven). The half-closed eyes render a spiritual expression in the eyes and at the same time a mood of dispassion from the world. A beautiful amalgamation of the spiritual with the sensuous. The use of shading or vartana; lighter tone accents on the forehead and nose ridge further imparts more plasticity and a three-dimensional effect to the painting.


Figure 4


Another noteworthy and very popular Ajanta painting is that of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani. His brilliant tiara with lots of pearl festoons and filigree work is mesmerising in itself and shows the delicacy and detailing the artist has done. His facial features have also been brought into prominence by shading technique. The most venerated Bodhisattva in the Mahayana pantheon, his eyes here reflect his real beauty, he has been depicted with a powerful gaze.

Mahajanaka Jataka, Cave 1

A popular jataka tale narrating the story of a king named mahajanka and how he shuns all his desires and kingdom and becomes an ascetic. Shivali, his wife, tries to dissuade him, but on failing follows him on the path of renunciation. The painting begins with the ritual bath-rajyaabhishek-and the prince is painted as being seated on a stool with two attendants poring water on him, the face here is not idealised as accounted in the canons, and is

shown in a realistic manner, however the figure is much larger than those in 015

Figure 5

Scene from Mahajanka Jataka

the background to depict his higher status. The throne is worked upon in gold and surrounding the king are the minion lady attendants, dwarfs also appear in many paintings as the attendants. The stippling effect is liberally used in the paintings to impart the effect of shading. Next scene is that of the Mahajanaka going out with his entourage to hear the sermons, here as a prince he is painted in an idealised manner with the face having elongated eyes as described in the canons. Men and women are shown sporting various kinds of hairstyles. The chattra covering the king is a pointer to his royal status. The painting is a good mix of realism and perfection. The ascetic is shown sitting higher than the prince thus exalting his spiritual status. In Ajanta paintings the background is not painted realistically but symbolically for example the rocks depict a rocky terrain and the paintings of deer and green colour etc show the jungle scene. Ajanta paintings have elaborately drawn out hairstyles and kinds of textiles thus pointing to the fact the styles etc that were prevalent at that time in the society. Infact one of the paintings show the figure sporting a tie and dye (bandhini) style of dress. And this is one of the earliest examples of this style of pulak-bandha textile art being prevalent at the time. The figure of Shivali with very expressive eyes and seated in a graceful manner is equivalent to the beauty with which Parvati is depicted. The episode where Shivali tries to lure the king back by sending

many concubines has been beautifully depicted in the now famous Dance Scene. The scene is very carnival-like and celebrates life. The scene also depicts that performing arts were also practiced and were famous at that time, the rhythmic movements of the dancer sporting a tie-dye blouse and a skirt in patola pattern, is very graceful. The ladies are playing cymbals and

drums; popular from performing arts point-of-view. When the King is leaving the palace there is a painting of geese that were considered as auspicious symbols, the procession is playing musical instruments and the painting depicts the poignancy of the theme; men leaving to achieve something higher than a life lived in luxury. The last scene show Mahajanaka holding an alms bowl and his eyes are full of compassion.

Cave 2

Is remarkable for its exquisite paintings of the ceiling that gives it the effect of a cloth canopy. The mandala or the circular diagram of the cosmos used in Buddhism is supported by demons.

Cave 2 also has the painted narrative of the jataka tale of Vidhurpandita, the Boddhisattva. The painting is aesthetically done and narrates the tale very effectively. However, unlike Mahajanak jataka, here the figures are slightly squat and short. Technique of shading is used to impart plasticity but the ornamentation is not as elaborate. The reason could be since this story features the tribal kings, so shown wearing less jewellery than what Shivali had worn.

Cave 2 also has the painting Miracle of Sravasti where Buddha take on 1000 forms to dispel disbelief, however this is a particularly badly done painting

with the eyes of the figures wide open, expressionless face and flat texture with no shading. Even the mudras are also wrongly made, there seems to be no finesse in this painting.


Figure 6

Miracle of srasvati

Cave 9

One of the earliest caves, dating around first century BC, the caitya has a vaulted ceiling. Some of the paintings recall the style of Sanchi but there are also later murals depicting Buddha in person.

Cave 16

One of the most beautiful viharas, it has a detailed inscription on the left outer wall, recording its antecedents. However most of the paintings in this cave are now faded.

Cave 17

Yet another very popular cave it is especially remarkable for the number of murals that have survived. The masterpieces include the panel above the doorway depicting the seven Manushi Buddhas together with Maitreya or the future Buddha, seated under their respective Bodhi trees.

Directly below is a line of eight loving or mithuna couples in varied styles of dresses and coiffures. The painted panels on the rear wall of the verandah are well preserved. The figures of the apsaras are well drawn and points to the consummate skills of the painters even in their damaged state. Particularly beautiful and alluring is the figure of a dark-skinned apsara with her turban-like headgear.

The walls of the halls are embellished with various jatakas of which the most noteworthy is the one covering the entire left wall between the two pilasters. This is the Visvantara Jataka that epitomises the Bodhisattva’s virtue of generosity. The crooked Brahmin in the story has been painted with a parrot-like nose and depicted with ugly features and broken teeth thus evoking a sense of repulsion.

This cave has the largest number of paintings. Among the finest are a vast panel depicting Simhala’s shipwreck and the man-eating ogresses that he is surrounded by in the island. This tale is a pictorial narration of the Simhala Avadana and covers a complete wall.

The general format of the early paintings appear to indicate that they formed a continuous narration within a narrow band. However, the later paintings of

Ajanta expanded in all directions to cover the entire wall surface, but the narrative technique was retained. The sequence seems to be interrupted only occasionally by some architectural structure. The paintings are throbbing with vitality and celebrate life, though not without extolling the virtues and teachings that they impart to its viewers.

Bagh Paintings

The Buddhist caves of Bagh are located on the banks of Baghini river, tributary of Narmada, in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. There are nine vihara caves and can be dated to mid 5th century AD. According to Dr. Anupa Pande, Bagh caves may be placed in the Gupta period generally which was the Smarta-pauranic period of Brahmanism and the developed Mahayanic period of Buddhism. Both had moved far from the original aniconic and abstract simplicity of their ancient faith.

Main caves have a quadrangular plan and consist of a vihara with stupa filled sanctum in the rear forming a small caitya griha. The sides have small cells for the monks while the facade is a colonnaded portico.

The Bagh paintings are done in the same tempera technique that was also employed at the Ajanta caves. However, compared to the interest shown by the historians in Ajanta frescoes the paintings of Bagh have not got much attention, and today they are almost destroyed. Only the Gujari Mahal Museum, Gwalior and State Museum, Bhopal houses the valuable copies of the original paintings.

The main theme of the paintings are derived from the life of Buddha and stories related to him, however the Bagh paintings also depict the life of inmates of monasteries and of the Generals and Kings that patronized them. These paintings are not reproductions of natural or historical scenes. They are illustrations of religio-philosophical ideas and sentiments. Artists of the

age did not express their individual styles or perception or even realism but an ideal world through traditional conventions and symbols.

Figure 7

Sundari with face covered

The painting of the newly wed Sundari, wife of Saundarya Nand the half brother of Buddha, who leaves her in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment to follow Lord Buddha, is especially poignant and full of repose. The face of the lady is covered with her hands evoking the karuna rasa, and she is depicted draping a white saree and is sobbing and despairing her husband’s departure. Intense emotion is conveyed by the bent of her pliant body, tense fingers that are spread out in an attitude of utter despair and loss. Hands are exceptionally well drawn and naturalistically styled as they convey more emotion. The hidden face conveys rather than conceals emotions of sorrow. A pair of loving pigeons on the roof of pavilion further heightens Sundari’s loneliness and not only makes for naturalistic surroundings but also adds poignancy to the scene. Face and contours of companions consoling Sundari

are reminiscent of classical Ajanta type; pointed oval face, pensive eyes, drooping mouth, globular breasts and wearing a trivali. The colour white has been used very effectively.

1 comment:

  1. Analysis has shown that all the colors used at Ajanta were of local origin: red ochre, burnt brick, copper oxide, lampblack, or dust from green rocks.... Ajanta Wall Paintings