The Ajanta Caves situated at a distance of 107 km north of Aurangabad district in Maharashtra state, houses some of the finest surviving examples of Indian art. The caves, which attained the name from a nearby village named Ajanta, were discovered by an army officer in the Madras Regiment of the British Army in 1819, during one of his hunting expeditions. Soon after it became a very important tourist destination in the world and are now famous for its murals.
These caves are excavated in horseshoe-shaped bend of rock surface, nearly 76 m in height, overlooking a narrow stream known as Waghora. The serene location of the valley lured Buddhist monks who retreated to these places during the rainy seasons to pursue their religious aspirations through intellectual discourses. The caves were excavated in different periods (circa. 2nd century B.C.E. to 6th century C.E.). Each cave was connected to the stream by a flight of steps, which are now almost obliterated, except a few traces.
Among the 30 caves excavated, five (cave no. 9, 10, 19, 26, and 29) are chaityagrihas (stupa halls) and the rest are viharas (dwelling halls). In date and style also these caves can be divided into two broad groups. The earliest excavations, which are datable to the pre- Christian era, belong to the Hinayana phase of Buddhism, of which similar examples could also be seen at Bhaja, Kondane, Pitalkhora, Nasik, etc. In total, five caves at Ajanta belong to this phase, viz., 9 and 10, which are chaityagrihas and caves 8, 12, 13, and 15A are viharas. The object of worship is a stupa here and these caves exhibit the imitation of wooden construction to the extent that the rafters and beams are also sculpted even though they are non-functional.
During the 5th and 6th centuries there was a flurry of activities at Ajanta, especially during the period of Vakatakas; the contemporaries of the imperial Guptas. Varahadeva, the minister of Vakataka king Harishena (C.E. 475-500) dedicated cave 16 to the Buddhist Sangha while cave 17 was the gift of a prince (who subjugated Asmaka) feudatory to the same king. However, Hieun Tsang, the famous Chinese traveller, who visited India during the first half of the 7th century, left a vivid description of the flourishing Buddhist establishment here. A solitary Rashtrakuta inscription in cave no. 26 indicates its use during the 8th and 9th centuries C.E. The second phase departs from the earlier one with the introduction of new pattern in layout as well as the centrality of Buddha image; both in sculpture as well as in paintings.
Paintings of Ajanta fall into two phases – the earliest noticed in the form of fragmentary specimens in cave no. 9 are 10 are datable to the 2nd century B.C.E. Images of headgear and other ornaments in these paintings resemble the bas-relief sculpture of Sanchi and Bharhut.
The second phase of paintings started around the 5th and 6th centuries C.E. and continued for the next two centuries called Vakataka period. Some variations in style as well as a decline in execution are noticed in these works as found in the caves 1, 2, 16 and 17. The main theme of the paintings is the depiction of various Jataka stories, different incidents associated with the life of Buddha, and the contemporary events and social life also. The ceiling decoration invariably consists of decorative patterns, geometrical as well as floral.
The paintings were executed after elaborate preparation of the rock surface initially. The rock surface was left with chisel marks and grooves, so that the layer applied over it can be held in an effective manner. The ground layer consists of a rough layer of ferruginous earth, mixed with rock-grit or sand, vegetable fibres, paddy husk, grass and other fibrous material of organic origin on the rough surface of walls and ceilings. A second coat of mud and ferruginous earth mixed with fine rock-powder or sand and fine fibrous vegetable material was applied over the ground surface. Then the surface was finally finished with a thin coat of lime wash. Over this surface, outlines are drawn boldly, and then the spaces are filled with requisite colours in different shades and tones to achieve the effect of rounded and plastic volumes. The colours and shades utilized also vary from red and yellow ochre, terra verte, to lime, kaolin, gypsum, lampblack and lapis lazuli. The chief binding material used here was glue. The paintings at Ajanta are not frescoes as they are painted with the aid of a binding agent, whereas in fresco the paintings are executed while the lime wash is still wet which, thereby acts as an intrinsic binding agent.