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It was 627 A.D. when Hsuan-Tsang, a Buddhist monk, left China under the cover of night and headed westward, to seek out original Buddhist texts and teachings. He was dissatisfied with the contradictions that he found in several schools of Buddhism extant in China at that time, and made his way across the Himalayas to India, the land where Buddhism was born. When he spent fourteen years in India gathering scholarly books, documents and copious notes, Buddhism had already been a presence in India for 1000 years prior.
Siddhartha, later known as Buddha (बुद्ध, Sanskrit, meaning ‘the enlightened one’) was born in Lumbini (in present day Nepal) in circa 550 B.C. As the historical narrative goes, he was a prince, cosseted in the palace as a child. Through divine machinations that transpired when he was a young man, he realized that life was filled with suffering that
culminated in death. This realization led to his transformation into an ascetic, and initiated him on a quest to realize the ultimate Truth of this existence. He attained this enlightenment in Bodh Gaya (in present day Bihar, India), expounded his knowledge and philosophy to receptive followers, and gave up his earthly body in circa 450 B.C. In his day, Buddha would have been known as a ‘Sramana’ (श्रमण, Sanskrit). This term came to connote a group of itinerant monks who practiced severe austerities to attain spiritual liberation, but did not subscribe to the existing dominant social structures and rituals as expounded by the Vedic Hindu faiths. One of the Hindu tenets that was rejected by Buddha was the worship of anthropomorphic representations of divinity. However, the need of his followers for an image to meditate upon and adore resulted in the carving of images and temples.
There is scant archaeological evidence related to Buddhism prior to the time of Ashoka (304-232 B.C.). A Maurya emperor and a victorious conqueror, Ashoka lorded over an empire that rivaled the largest in the world at its time and stretched from Afghanistan in the west to Bengal in the east, and excluded only the southernmost tip of India. However, after a particularly bloody battle in Kalinga (in present day Odisha) in 260 B.C., Ashoka regretted his life of cruelty and wholeheartedly embraced a path of tolerance and Buddhism. His patronage of monks, missionaries, and monasteries as far afield as Sri Lanka, Greece and Egypt, and promotion of the religion through royal edicts arguably caused the metamorphosis of what was a minor philosophical school into a religion that the world inherited.
While royal means led to impressive achievements including the construction of free-standing Buddhist temples called stupas like the one in Sanchi (in Madhya Pradesh), lesser royalty and monks used simple tools to carve into rocky mountains. In addition to the use of natural caves and the extension of natural caves into retreats, caves were excavated from rocks and fashioned as utilitarian retreats for monks to shelter from the elements and for meditation, and these then evolved into more ornate places of worship. Such Buddhist cave excavations were largely concentrated around 200 B.C. to 600 A.D. and approximately a thousand rock-cut caves in India are attributed to Buddhists. Several examples exist in the Deccan Plateau centered around the Western Ghats mountain range.
The Ajanta cave system is in Maharashtra, and comprises twenty-nine identified caves. These caves are carved out of a horse-shoe shaped mountain face flanking the Waghora river, and are among the greatest surviving examples of ancient Indian cave-art. The site is protected under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. These caves are about 15 kilometers from Ajanta village, about 100 kilometers by road from Aurangabad airport, and 55 kilometers from the Jalgaon train station.
I found myself in the Aurangabad airport one sunny mid-morning in January 2010, waiting for a taxi along with a couple of friends. Our plan was to spend the afternoon visiting the Ajanta caves, and take a flight back to Mumbai from Aurangabad late that evening. While that worked for our hectic schedule, taking in the caves at a more sedate pace, along with a visit to the neighboring Ellora caves, would probably have been a better idea.
The construction of the Ajanta caves occurred in two phases: the first occurring at around 200 B.C. under the patronage of the Satavahana dynasty, and the second at about 450-600 A.D. by the Vakataka emperors, notably Harisena. The caves were not created chronologically in the order that they are seen now, and embellishments of the caves appear to have been carried out continuously. Thus, as one can imagine, dating of the caves may be approximate. While several of the caves were excavated with the intention of making ‘viharas’ or residential retreats for monks, other caves were ‘chaitya-grihas’ or prayer halls.
I found Cave 19 particularly striking, with beautiful tall ornate pillars leading up to an impressive domed stupa that is offset by paintings on the walls and ceiling. Although the caves themselves, along with their location, heightened my senses, I was particularly impressed by the fact that this ancient monument is not merely a conglomeration of man-made rock caves of archaeological importance. A large international group of Buddhist monks was also visiting on that day, and were a testament to the fact that the spiritual draw of Ajanta
continues unabated. Their solemn silence, orderly progression, and obvious piety towards Buddha provided context to my experience, probably one that was intended by the monks who created these caves.
Images and statues of Buddha are present in some of the caves. The earlier Hinayana doctrine of Buddhism did not permit the worship of anthropomorphic images of Buddha, but this was relaxed with the ascent of the later doctrine of Mahayana around the first century B.C. The domed stupas in the prayer halls, and the pillars in several of the caves are carved and painted with decorations that tell stories of the life of Buddha. Interspersed with the images of Buddha are carvings and paintings of dancing girls, cavorting couples, court scenes, and patterns of floral, artistic and geometric patterns – the artisans evidently saw a natural and divine beauty in all aspects of a secular and religious life. Beautiful paintings adorn the walls and ceilings, and the bright colors which remain after a lapse of over 2000 years hint at the vibrance which the caves must have reveled in, when they were created. Even as I tried to take photographs in the dim darkness of the caves as a 21st century tourist, (flash photography is prohibited in the Ajanta caves), I wondered about the conditions in which the artists of yore created the glorious art that we are fortunate to still visualize.
Several other examples of Buddhist cave-art exist in Maharashtra. These include the Ellora caves which adjoin Ajanta, and is relatively more recent (600-1000 A.D.) exhibiting highly ornate decorations; and the Nasik/Pandavleni caves which are a group of 24 caves created between 100 B.C. and 300 A.D. The earliest examples of Buddhist rock-cut architecture are seen in the Barabar Hill caves in Bihar, and is attributed to Ashoka himself. The ‘Chaitra arch’ at the entrance of the Lomas-Rishi cave of the Barabar Hill caves was an important architectural motif for centuries to come, and the highly polished interior walls and floors of these granite caves were remarkable for its time. The Saru-Maru Buddhist cave/stupa complex in Madhya Pradesh is about 120 kilometers south of Sanchi. Although these caves are natural, they contain edicts which proclaim that Ashoka visited the site prior to becoming the emperor. Another important site of Buddhist art and artifacts is the Udayagiri-Lalitagiri-Ratnagiri complex called the Diamond Triangle in Odisha. The artifacts and structures in these sites span the first to twelfth centuries A.D., includes several stupas, and also houses evidence of the tantric Vajrayana Buddhism.
A remarkable facet of this ancient age is the extent of international activity that led to significant artistic and ideological conversations. The paintings on the walls of the Ajanta caves and the highly polished interiors of the Barabar Hill caves allude to a Greco-Indian influence that might have spread from the expeditions that Alexander the Great conducted in the 4th century B.C. The Silk Road spanning various routes from the Far-East to the Middle-East, Africa, and Europe, via India, facilitated commerce, but most importantly this also encouraged an exchange of ideas including those pertaining to Buddhism. The 5th century travels of the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hsien paved the way for the 7th century traveler Hsuan-Tsang. Hsuan-Tsang has even recorded visiting a Buddhist philosopher residing in the Ajanta caves. The various land and sea routes that were developed in the name of commerce facilitated the spread and establishment of Buddhism over the borders of India into Afghanistan, Tibet, China, and Japan, and across the ocean to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, and even further afield with the flow of time.
These ancient caves have been forgotten and rejuvenated during periods in their long history, but the artistic, cultural and religious import that they convey continues to shine through with the permanence of the very rocks that they are made of.
L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. She enjoys experiencing diverse cultures, and reads voraciously to vicariously experience those yet to be explored. She is the author of White Blackmail, a work of fiction and a medical thriller. Links to her recent publications may be found at www.liyengar.com.