The Ajanta caves, listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, is one of the most known and aesthetically acclaimed heritages of India, standing witness to the achievements of the ancient Indian artist, the silpin.

This uniquely preserved evidence of what must have been a prevalent aesthetic tradition continent-wide brings forth the fact that sculpture, painting and architecture were not separate categories in ancient India. A synthetic blend of the three arts inasmuch as seen and preserved at Ajanta is rare to find elsewhere.

Excavated during the 2nd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. (Hinayana Phase) and 5th century A.D. (Mahayana Phase), the caves were left incomplete and abandoned, waiting only to be rediscovered by Captain John Smith of 24, Madras Cavalry in 1819, purely by chance, Professor R.C. Agrawal, Member Secretary, Indian Council for Historic Research (ICHR) however, says that there exists a manuscript of the Mughal period that also makes a mention of Ajanta.

While more light on this aspect is awaited, the current understanding goes that Captain John Smith while on a hunting expedition noticed the ancient caves, which were worship halls and monasteries, in an abandoned state for centuries. It was full of debris and inhabited by wild animals. His signature, etched on one of the pillars of cave ten, bears testimony to his presence. The gentleman reported the find at the Royal Asiatic Society, London in 1821. After this, other British officers also visited the site and reported about it in separate forums. Ajanta’s lost fame was now gaining rejuvenation.

However, the early and mid 19th century descriptions of Ajanta were not received with enthusiasm. They tended to dismiss the paintings as barbaric and uncivilised.

By the turn of the 20th century the opinion turned around, marked by the visits of Lady Harringham, E.B. Havell, Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch and other Revivalists. Foundations of the change were laid by pioneer archaeologists like James Fergusson and James Burgess, who in their landmark publications took a more or less unbiased view, pointing to the historical significance of the caves. They called for an urgent need to preserve them and restore their ancient glory. When the nationalist fervour had gripped India, and the historical and cultural studies had also been coloured by a new resurgent ‘Indian’ perspective, no time was lost for the emergence of a collective sense of appraisal of the Ajanta paintings.

Historical Details of Ajanta

There are 30 caves, of which five (9, 10, 19, 26 and 29) are Chaitya-grihas (sanctuary) while the rest are sangharamas or viharas (monasteries). They belong to two distinct phases of Buddhist rock-cut architecture, separated from each other by an interval of about four centuries.

The Hinayana phase of activity took place from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D., and the Mahayana phase took place in a sudden burst of religious fervour and political patronage during the late fifth century A.D. under the rule of the great Vakatakas. The earlier caves of Hinayana phase numbering six are an offshoot of the same Buddhist movement under the Satavahanas, which produced caves at other places in the Deccan like Bhaja, Kondane, Pitalkhora, Nasik, etc.

No doubt, the most grand and gorgeous activity at Ajanta belongs to the realm of the Vakatakas of Vatsagulma (modern Basim, district Akola, Maharashtra), who were the contemporaries of the imperial Guptas of north India. The two families were matrimonially related. Thus, Varahadeva, the minister of the Vakataka king Harishena (circa AD 460-480), dedicated Cave 16 to the Buddhist Singh, while Cave 17 was the gift of a prince (who subjugated Samara), as feudatory to the same king. On this phase, Walter M. Spunk’s research has been widely noted.

Ajanta Scholarship

The contribution of John Griffiths, Ghulam Yazdani, Charles Fabri and Herman Goetz are also extremely remarkable. Griffiths had the copies made of the paintings and published them with lively essays. Yazdani’s volumes included for the first time systematic accounts of the subject matter, as much as he could identify. In the second half of the 20th Century, four scholars contributed significantly in the study of Ajanta.

Altekar wrote a systematic account on the history of the Deccan, including the Vakatakas. V.V. Mirashi’s expositions on the Vakataka’s inscriptions were to change the future course of historical scholarship on Ajanta. Walter M. Spink followed suit and reconstructed a sequence of development of the cave site under the Vakatakas. Spink argues that the entire Mahayana cave activity involving a majority of the caves at the site were begun and completed in less than eighteen years, between 462 and 478 A.D.

However, most books published on Indian art with references to Ajanta acknowledge that the Mahayana phase was executed in late fifth century A.D., which is a significant point against the earlier dating attributing, two to four centuries for the same. As regards the subject matter, Dieter Schlingloff has painstakingly identified most, if not all, the themes.

Scholars like Ajay Mitra Shastri, Ajay Ghosh, M.N. Deshpande, Nihar Ranjan Ray and Madanjeet Singh are among several others who have made substantial contribution to the Ajanta studies.