Though the Ajanta caves were created for celibate monks, there is nothing
IN the heat of a Maharashtrian summer, we climbed a cliff, trudged into caves, and stepped into a challenging ancient world.
The quandaries of the Ajanta caves are complex, contradictory and very creative. Were they monasteries, which became art galleries? Or were they art galleries designed as monasteries? Or did they serve an entirely different purpose, originally? According to the Archaeological Survey of India’s booklet — the caves are cut out of amygdaloid trap rock.
In other words the rock is hard, solidified lava which, when condensing formed amygdales, which are small bubbles and balloons lined with amethyst, chalcedony and other beautiful quartz crystals. Scholars, however, contend that gem mining was not the reason why the caves were made. They believe that these 30 caves were designed as monasteries and prayer halls for Buddhist monks, and that they cover a period from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD, with a four-century gap in between.
Even more impressive than their age, however, is the fact that they are virtually, an art gallery revealing the lifestyles and attitudes of Indians at least on-and-a-half millennia ago.
The strange thing is that though the caves were created for celibate monks, there is nothing austere about them. On both sides of the entrance to one of the caves, we saw sculptures of affectionate couples. Today, they would certainly have attracted the attention of our self-appointed ‘moral police’ claiming that such public displays of affection went against our ancient cultural heritage!
Interestingly, however, the typical, horseshoe-shaped, chaitya window showed a strong traditional streak. It had been sculpted as if it had been made of wood though it had been carved from living rock. The monks were probably used to living in wooden buildings and would feel more comfortable with this mock-wood design!
In the early days of the religion, Buddha was depicted symbolically. Later, however, he was shown as a human. There are some statues of him placed at focal points in Ajanta, but the majority of the paintings and sculptures are based on the Jataka Tales: a rich collection of beliefs about the previous incarnations of the Buddha and the miracles associated with his birth. There is the tale of his mother dreaming that a white elephant had entered her body. A court soothsayer interpreted it as a prediction that if the child was born in a palace, he would be a king. But if he was born in a jungle, he would renounce the world and become a great spiritual teacher. His mother hurried to return to her father’s palace in Nepal but the child was born when she was journeying through a forest.
Floral designs are a repetitive theme on the ceilings of the verandahs and residential halls, or chaitya-grihas. More than that, however, is the amazing depiction of everyday, secular life. Voluptuous women gossip, traders buy and sell, beggars importune, children gambol. When we first visited Ajanta, years ago, we had been told that the caves had been carved and painted by the monks and we wondered how such ascetic people could infuse so much passionate vitality into the paintings. But now that we learn that it had all been done by professional artists and sculptures, it becomes clearer. Nevertheless, we still wonder why a group of monks who had renounced the world should surround themselves with such alluring worldly scenes.
Why did the artists, for instance, paint the crowned and bejewelled, portrait of the famed Black Princess? There is the belief that she was the dusky Andhra Queen, who was the favourite of the ruler. But if that is true, they why was her portrait painted on the wall of a monastery? Then there is the strange fact that, originally, the caves were not linked to each other. Each had its independent flight of steps down to the Waghora River as if every cave had been excavated independent of the others. Moreover, the floor levels of the caves vary. If the caves had been created by a single authority for the specific purpose of providing facilities for a unified body of monks who worked and prayed together, logic would dictate that they would not have been segregated and excavated at different levels.
Or, were the caves of Ajanta first excavated by individual gem miners who chose their sites depending on the richness of the yield? Ajanta is on the ancient trade route, so the export of the mined gems would be easy. When the mines were exhausted, were they, then, converted into cool summer retreats for the rulers? This would account for the massive and ornate chaitya gateway, the sensuous sculptures and the floral designs on the ceilings. Finally, when the authority of the rulers was being threatened, did they have the caves redesigned for the monks in order to earn spiritual brownie points?
It’s a thought that
will raise the hackles of many experts, but then virtually all reputed
scholars of his age ridiculed Galileo when he defied conventional
wisdom and said that the earth moves round the sun!