For tourists wanting to experience the wonders of Aurangabad, the world-famous sites of Ajanta and Ellora usually get top billing. Although some distance from the city, they can be easily reached by road and are indeed a must-visit for their marvellous art and historical significance. Inside the city itself, the site that receives top honours is the Mughal-era Bibi ka Maqbara, or the ‘Taj of the Deccan’.
With these high-profile monuments cornering all the attention, few even know of the Aurangabad Caves, a Buddhist caves complex just outside the city of Aurangabad. What are the Aurangabad Caves? And why are they important?
Arranged in three groups, the Aurangabad Caves are a complex of 12 Buddhist caves carved out of the soft basalt of a hill just outside the city of Aurangabad. While dating these caves, archaeologists have relied on a number of clues found in their architecture. Art historian and Professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University, and Padma Bhushan awardee Vidya Dehejia notes in her book Early Buddhist Rock Cut Temples (1972), that there is a remarkable similarity between Cave No 4 at Aurangabad and Cave No 9 in Ajanta. This indicates that both caves were built around the same time –around the middle of the 1st BCE. Various other experts have suggested that Cave No 4 may have been carved in the 2nd BCE. Nevertheless, the cave, experts agree, represents the earliest excavations at this site and it is safe to say that the Aurangabad Caves are as old as Ajanta itself.
In her book, The Buddhist Caves at Aurangabad: Transformations in Art and Religion (2011), Pia Brancaccio details the Aurangabad Caves. Caves 1, 2, 3, 4, 4a and 5 form the western cluster of the caves. The eastern cluster is a mile away and consists of five caves which are different from each other in function, design and imagery. The northern cluster consists of three caves, none of which have been numbered and all of which are incomplete.
But why should the Aurangabad Caves be studied and what sets them apart from other Buddhist caves all over India? Buddhism gained popularity in India in the 2nd BCE and Buddhist caves began emerging on the subcontinent from around this time. The most well-known among them are Bhaja, Junnar, Nashik, Karli, Kanheri and Ajanta.
Work on the Aurangabad Caves had begun during this early period. The emergence of these caves, like other Buddhist caves all over India, is linked to commercial activities in the area and resultant prosperity as well as the agricultural economy. However, as time went by and the political and economic conditions of the Deccan underwent significant changes, many Buddhist sites fell into disuse while many others show punctuated periods of activity.
However, Brancaccio writes that “Aurangabad mirrors the whole spectrum of a popular tradition” and “reveal an uncommon continuity in occupation and patronage since the time of their foundation in the 1st century CE until the beginning of the 7th century, and they trace different stages in the development of the Buddhist tradition that still remain poorly understood”. Thus the Aurangabad Caves act as “a conduit through which we can gain a better understanding of many critical issues that shaped the Buddhist tradition and the art and communities of western Deccan for the first seven centuries of the Common Era”.
Curiously, the Aurangabad Caves find mention in a Bramhi inscription in the Kanheri Caves in Mumbai. On a pillar on the left in Cave No 3 is an inscription which mentions a cave complex at Rajatalaka, the ancient name of the modern city of Aurangabad. The inscription also mentions Paithan, once the capital of the Satavahana Dynasty (late 1st BCE to early 3rd CE), which funded work at the Ajanta cave complex.
As the geopolitical, economic and cultural situation in the Deccan changed over the centuries, this change came to be reflected in the art of the Aurangabad Caves. Cave No 4, which is a ‘caitya hall’, or a Buddhist prayer hall with a stupa at the end, is from the first period of occupation of the site and evidence shows that it continued to be the sacred heart of the site until the end.
The stupa itself, due to its unique bulging shape and style, is dated to at least the end of the 1st CE. However, there was a hiatus in excavations at the site in the second part of the 1st CE, when collective patronage of Buddhism came to an end. A new elite class linked to central powers such as the Gupta (320 to 510 CE) and Vakataka (250 – 500 CE) kingdoms emerged as patrons. This shift in patronage is linked by Brancaccio to the rise of the Mahayana phase of Buddhism in India.
Excavations at Aurangabad restarted around the 5th CE, and Cave No 3 emerged during this period. It is the earliest cave to show signs of being part of the Mahayana movement and bears some resemblance to Caves No 1 and 2 at Ajanta. This was also meant to be a vihara, or a monastery, but the doors to the cells on each side show no signs of wear, indicating that they were never used.
Inside the sanctum is a magnificent Buddha in Bhadrasana posture, flanked by giant Bodhisattvas holding fly whisks. On either side of the sanctum are several life-size, kneeling devotees of the Buddha, including one which appears to have the head of an animal. Faint traces of paint are found on the sculptures that decorate the interiors.
Also from the same period is Cave No 7, the most elaborate and complex cave in the entire complex. The sculptures here bear testimony to the tremendous change that Buddhism had undergone at this time. The entrance to the shrine is flanked by beautiful carvings of female deities. Inside is a Buddha in Bhadrasana surrounded by smaller Buddha images.
To the right of the image are female figures, the central one being that of Tara. Small fragments of paint surviving on the panel indicate that this was once painted. Brancaccio speculates that the imagery of Cave No 7 might indicate the slow emergence of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism.
What makes the Aurangabad Caves even more interesting is the evidence of the presence of religions other than Buddhism at the site. Cave No 5, for instance, had been completely whitewashed by Jain monks who occupied the site for some time. Much of the whitewash still remains. They were also responsible for carving a conch shell in front of the Buddha’s throne.
Even more interesting is the unnumbered ‘Brahmanical Cave’. This unfinished and rectangular cave contains some easily recognisable Hindu images. There is Durga as Mahishasuramardini, together with Chamunda and Ganesha on the back wall. Saptamatrika images can also be seen here. Brancaccio writes that this cave represents the final phase of development at Aurangabad. “Feudalism and an economy increasingly based on land ownership came to be the ruling model, Hinduism and its art triumphed and esoteric Buddhism began to emerge as a component of this new order.” She also notes the dominance of female imagery during this period. This is a phase in the development of Buddhism that isn’t well documented in Buddhist texts, and Brancaccio speculates that what we see here may be the emergence of pre-tantric Buddhism.
The Maharashtra government has never promoted the Aurangabad Caves as an important tourist site and, sadly, these ancient treasures remain low-profile.
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