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The Secret of Ajanta Cave Painting

Updated: Mar 9

Part - 1

Ajanta Cave paintings are a marvel of ancient Indian art that has captivated the world for centuries. These beautiful and intricate paintings are in the Ajanta Caves, a series of twenty-nine rock-cut cave monuments in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India. The caves were built in two different phases, with the first phase dating back to the 2nd century BCE and the second phase taking place around 400–650 CE.

The paintings in Ajanta Caves are considered some of the finest surviving examples of Indian art, providing a glimpse into ancient India's life and times. The paintings often depicted the sacred existence of Lord Buddha and his followers and mundane daily scenes. However, if we take the time to examine them closely, they impart divine knowledge. Additionally, we may discover a remarkable grammatical aspect of the paintings that could lead us to believe they were not created by humans but by heavenly beings.

Indeed, it is hard to believe that those paintings bearing the concept of modern art, including the sense of the multiple perspectives of Cubism and the panoramic view, uniquely represent the connecting link composition in 2000 BC, before the birth of Christ.

Here, I am about to unfold some secrets of Ajanta cave painting.

Jogimara cave inscription
Jogimara cave inscription

The reason for cave paintings is difficult to define, and it is a mystery why primitive men began painting on cave walls. It is perhaps astounding when we find some beautiful masterpieces in caves created by uncivilized, primitive humans; however, it is clear that the sense of creativity in the human soul is everlasting. Therefore, we can surmise that it is the primary nature of humans to express their feelings and emotions. Historians have sequentially discovered many cave paintings in India. Some of these paintings depict the prehistoric era. Still, the Jogimara cave painting in Ramgarh mountain of Madhya Pradesh is recognized as the first cave painting from a historical period. Those cave paintings in the Fresco buono style are less impressive than those in Ajanta and Ellora. Let's focus on the cave paintings of Ajanta, which are considered the epitome of Indian art. To start, we need to know where Ajanta is located and a brief history of the cave complex.

Ajanta is located in the state of Maharashtra, India, situated approximately 300 kilometers away from Aurangabad. The cave system is hewn into the cliff face and comprises 30 caves constructed over 600 years, ranging from the 2nd century BCE to the 6th century CE. These caves are adorned with breathtaking frescoes that depict scenes from Buddhist mythology. In the valley of Waghora, there is a stunning waterfall created from the flowing river itself. It is known as Saptakunda Waterfall. This location is known for its serene atmosphere, and a visit here will reveal why Buddhist mendicants chose this spot for their worship.

Ajanta Caves
Ajanta Caves, a stunning view.

I want to share the insightful research of Dr. D. Kosambi, a historian who suggested that the cave paintings, including those at Ajanta, were strategically located along major trade routes that passed through the hills and valleys. This was done to collect taxes on goods from international traders while also providing temporary shelter for travelers and spreading the teachings of Lord Buddha.

Bodhisattva Padmapani ajanta cave
Bodhisattva Padmapani, cave 1

The Ajanta cave painting was only discovered around 200 years ago 1829. Before this, the only mention of the Ajanta cave was from a traveler mendicant named Hyun Sung, who visited the place in 640. All the information we have about Ajanta comes from this account. In 1803, the battalions of the last emperor of the Mughal kingdom, Aurangzeb, and Lord Wellesley's troops sought temporary shelter in caves. Unfortunately, they damaged the area by cooking and engaging in noisy activities while under the influence of alcohol. The Royal Asiatic Society featured an article about the Ajanta cave painting in their magazine in 1829, but it was largely ignored. Historian Dr. James Ferguson took an interest in the report and visited the site in 1839. He later published a book about his findings in 1844. A request was made to the East Indian Company to provide funds for reproducing all the cave paintings. The plan was to employ a group of skilled artists for this task. Major Gill was the first artist to successfully reproduce Ajanta's paintings over 20 years (1844-1863) with his diligent efforts. I want to express gratitude to Mr. Gill. However, I must bring to your attention a regrettable incident. The thirty large rolling canvases were transferred to London for exhibition upon submission to the East India Company. Unfortunately, a massive fire broke out during the presentation, destroying all the exceptional work Mr. Gill did. Only five canvases were left to document the Ajanta.

It was discovered that the frescoes of Ajanta were being damaged by public curiosity. However, in 1879, a photographer named Burgess found 16 caves with well-preserved paintings when he went to capture them on camera. Dr. Griffiths, the principal of the Bombay School of Art, took it upon himself to reproduce all the paintings with the help of his students. They worked diligently from 1872 to 1885 to complete the task. Following Dr. Griffiths' replication, the Indian government published a two-part album in 1896 showcasing the fantastic murals of Ajanta.

Image Resource - Ajanta Caves

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