Centuries ago, there was a benevolent king who ruled a vast kingdom with the help of his wise prime minister. But he died suddenly and was succeeded by his weak son. A treacherous governor murdered the son and seized the kingdom. After a few years of conflict, the traitor was defeated and expelled by a loyal governor.
Interestingly, all the four protagonists in this medieval drama – the king, the prime minister, the treacherous governor and the loyal governor – endowed a series of Buddhist caves to earn religious merit. And, as incredible as it sounds, this is not the plot of a cinematic potboiler but the story behind the construction of the Ajanta caves!
The world-famous caves at Ajanta are a series of 30 Buddhist rock-cut caves, with exquisite paintings and murals, located in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. Arguably the finest surviving picture gallery of ancient Indian art, they go back more than 1,500 years. But while the spotlight has always been focused on Ajanta’s fabulous paintings and their impact on popular culture, very few have written about the drama and intrigue that surrounded the construction of these caves and their sudden abandonment.
Noted historian Dr Walter M Spink spent more than 50 years studying Ajanta’s caves and published a monumental seven-volume book series on them. While writing this magnum opus, Dr Spink used available evidence to carefully reconstruct events that took place 1,500 years ago.
Dr Spink reminds us that Ajanta’s history began millions of years ago, when monsoon waters began the gradual process of creating a deep ravine in which the caves are located. Through the ravine flows the Waghora (tiger) River, to the plains beyond. Around the 1st century BCE, during the reign of the Satavahana Dynasty (2nd century BCE - 3rd century CE Buddhism flourished here, thanks to the patronage of local merchants and traders. The earliest of Ajanta’s caves (Caves 10 and 12), were excavated during this time. These caves were not unique but very similar to other cave complexes in Western India, such as Karla, Bhaja, Kanheri and Nashik, all in Maharashtra.
Harisena and the Vakataka Empire
From the 3rd Century CE, the Vakataka Dynasty (3rd to 5th centuries CE) emerged in the Deccan as a successor to the Satavahanas. They were contemporaries of the Gupta Empire in North India and also paid a tribute to them. From their capital, Vatsagulma (present-day Washim town in Maharashtra), they presided over a prosperous kingdom, thanks to the trade routes that passed through their territory. We know of this from paintings that depict foreign merchants in the Ajanta caves.
In about 460 CE, Emperor Devasena was succeeded by his son Harisena. Though the Vakataka rulers were Hindus (Saivite), their ministers, feudatories and a large part of the population were Buddhists. Dr Spink believes that it is Harisena’s Buddhist ministers who prevailed upon Harisena to sponsor the ambitious undertaking to construct a vast and modern Buddhist monastery in the ravines near Ajanta village. Unlike other cave complexes in Western India, where the laity or commoners made endowments to the caves, Ajanta was a purely a ‘private’ undertaking, sponsored exclusively by the ruling elite of the Vakataka Empire. This would also lead to its dramatic abandonment in just a few decades.
In 466 CE, work began on a number of caves at Ajanta, most notably Cave 1 endowed by Harisena, and Cave 16 endowed by his Prime Minister Varahadeva. Both these caves are the most magnificent and the most richly decorated caves in the complex.
Troubles in the Empire
While construction of the caves proceeded swiftly, all was not well in King Harisena’s kingdom. He was the overlord of two feudatories, the King of Asmakas (name unknown), who ruled parts of Marathwada, and the King of Risikas (Upendragupta), who ruled Khandesh in North Maharashtra. Both of them also endowed their own caves at Ajanta.
Between 471 and 474 CE, the Asmakas and Risikas repeatedly attacked the region around the cave complex, and tried to disrupt work on each other’s caves. The Asmakas were exceptionally troublesome feudatories and they kept rebelling against Vakataka authority. The war went on for three years and work at Ajanta stopped. During this time, most of the local workers moved to Dhar, where they worked on the magnificent Bagh caves near Dhar in Madhya Pradesh. Sadly, due to the poor quality of rock there, few of the paintings at Bagh have survived.
The work at Ajanta resumed in 475 CE, only to stop two years later due to the sudden death of King Harisena in 477 CE. Noted 7th century Sanskrit grammarian, Dandin, in his text Visrutacarita, provides a detailed account of the last days of the Vakataka Empire. He hints that Harisena died quite suddenly and might have been assassinated or poisoned by the Asmakas. Dr Spink believes that this is why the Ajanta caves were never ‘officially inaugurated’.
Following Harisena’s death, his weak son too was treacherously attacked and killed by the Asmakas. Harisena’s grandchildren took refuge in Mahismati (Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh) and the Vakataka Dynasty’s rule came to an end. Chaos reigned in the empire and the area around Ajanta was taken over by the Asmakas.
Work on the Ajanta caves reflected the political changes that took place in the Vakataka kingdom. When the Asmakas took control, work on their caves (Caves 21-26) began and on the others stopped. When they were expelled, work on the other caves continued, and work on the Asmaka caves halted. At any given point, those in control made the workers work only on the caves that they had endowed.
King Harisena had patronising Cave 1; his famed minister Varahadeva donated Cave 16 “for the best of ascetics”; the King of Risikas (Upendragupta) had spent huge sums on Caves 17–20 and 29; and the rebellious Asmakas had built caves on the entire western end. But by late 478 CE, the political chaos meant that all patronage came to a sudden end.
During this time, there were hundreds of workers and craftsmen working on the site, in addition to the monks who lived here. Now, the anxious, still-resident monks and local devotees took over the caves, and tried to keep them going, paying the stranded artists a pittance to carve and paint a hodgepodge of Buddha images, hoping to secure what merit they could in their collapsing world. Then, as the threat of war mounted, even this incremental work stopped. Bereft of patronage, the workers, as well as monks, began moving out to other areas. By the early 480s CE, Ajanta was rapidly sinking into obscurity.
Rediscovery of Ajanta
For the next 1,300 years, the Ajanta caves were completely forgotten and the site was claimed by the forest. Empires came and went but Ajanta remained untouched. On 28th April 1819, Capt John Smith, a British East India Company army officer, was hunting in the jungles near Ajanta when he stumbled upon these forgotten caves. He would go on to inscribe his name in Cave 10 – ‘John Smith, 28th Cavalry, 28th April, 1819’, which would become a part of Ajanta’s lore.
Over time, due to the beauty of its paintings, Ajanta’s popularity grew across India and the world. Since Ajanta lay in the territories of the Nizam of Hyderabad, the ‘Nizam’s Archaeological Department’ carried out wonderful conservation work in these caves. On the Nizam’s instructions, roads and bridges were constructed and a rest house too was built here for visitors. Numerous books and articles have been written on Ajanta and these mostly talk about its paintings and the story of its rediscovery. But very few piece together the events of 1,500 years ago that led to their creation. Today, visitors to Ajanta can get overwhelmed by the sheer number of Caves 1 to 26, and the details of the paintings within. To simplify the caves for visitors and to connect them to the high drama behind their construction, we divide the caves into five parts...
The Earliest Caves – Caves 10, 12, 13, 15A
These are the earliest caves to be excavated at Ajanta under Satavahana patronage, and date to the 1st century BCE. The most impressive among them is Cave 10. It is a large chaitya hall or prayer hall with a stupa in the middle and with Bodhisattvas painted on the pillars. It was this cave that Captain John Smith discovered in 1819, and his inscription can still be seen on one of the pillars. Other caves, such as Cave 12, are simple chaitya halls and lack paintings that can be seen in the Vakataka-era caves.
King Harisena’s Cave – Cave 1
The most spectacular cave in the entire Ajanta complex is Cave 1 (cover photo), commissioned by King Harisena. Because Harisena died suddenly, the cave was neither completed nor ‘dedicated’ for active worship. The walls and ceilings of the cave are covered in paintings that depict scenes from Buddha’s life. The two most famous paintings at Ajanta are located in this cave – the two, larger-than-life-size figures of Bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani on either side of the entrance to the main Buddha shrine.
Next to Cave 1 is Cave 2, which too has very beautiful paintings that depict noble and powerful women in the Buddha’s life. While no one knows for sure who built this cave, its proximity to King Harisena’s cave has led historians like Dr Spink and Dr Jamkhedkar to believe that it may have been endowed by women from the Vakataka royal family.
Prime Minister Varahadeva’s Caves – Cave 16
Near Cave 15 A (an old cave) is the ‘Elephant Gate’ built by Harisena’s Prime Minister Varahadeva, with two large elephants carved on two sides. Once approached directly from the river below, it was known in ancient times as the main entrance to the cave complex. Just inside, a cobra king (nagaraja), seated on his own coils, keeps watch over the ravine below.
Cave 16 is the Prime Minister’s cave. At the entrance itself, deliberately placed there for everyone to see, is an inscription which states that Varahadeva who ‘governed the country righteously’ wishes that "the entire world…. enter that peaceful and noble state free from sorrow and disease". The cave boasts a number of beautiful paintings from the Jataka tales. The most spectacular among them is that of ‘Hasti Jataka’, which tells the story of a Bodhisattva elephant who learns of a large group of people starving, then tells them to go below a cliff where they can find food, and then jumps off the cliff so that they can eat him.
King of Risikas (Upendragupta) Caves – Caves 17 to 20 and 29
Caves 17 to 20 as well as 29 were endowed by the King of Risikas, Upendragupta, the loyal feudatory of the Vakatakas and enemy of the Asmakas. Cave 17 has one long inscription by Upendragupta, in which he explains that he has "expended abundant wealth" on building this vihara, bringing much satisfaction to the devotees.
This cave has 30 murals that depict the Buddha in various forms as well as scenes from everyday life. Next to Cave 17 is a water cistern commissioned by Varahadeva, which in a nearby inscription he claims was always “filled with sweet, light, clear, cold and copious water”.
Cave 19 and 20 are magnificent prayer halls endowed by Upendragupta. These caves have sculptures of Buddha, nagas and other celestial beings. While Upendragupta had planned a grand and ambitious design for his caves at Ajanta, the repeated invasions of the Asmakas put a halt to his plans. Most of his caves were left incomplete.
King of Asmakas Caves – Caves 21 to 26
The Asmakas are the ‘villains’ in the Ajanta story. Their intrigues and rebellions were the main reason Ajanta’s monumental caves were never completed. But, surprisingly, they too endowed a series of caves in Ajanta. The most significant of these is Cave 26, which is a large chaitya or prayer hall, endowed by the King of Asmakas (name unknown). Dr Spink believes it was deliberately built larger, to overshadow the chaitya halls of their hated rivals. The other caves are monastic establishments used as residential quarters of the monks.
Thus, instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of caves, visitors to the Ajanta complex can see them in these five groups. Only then can you truly appreciate the caves and the drama behind their construction.