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  • Ajanta › Origins

Ancient civilizations › Historical places, and their characters

Early Judaism › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: William Brown

During the period of early Judaism (6th century BCE - 70 CE), Judean religion began to develop ideas which diverged significantly from 10th-to-7th-centuries BCE Israelite and Judean religion. In particular, this period marks a significant movement towards monotheism, the codification of traditions central to religious identity (ie the Hebrew Bible ), and new ideas regarding the worship of Yahweh.


With the height of power for the Judean and Israelite kingdoms in the 8th century BCE, Jerusalem became the site of the central temple for Judean and Israelite religion and, consequently, politics. It was a common understanding throughout the ancient world that the temple, and thereby the city, was secure so long as the temple was well-maintained and deity was pleased with the people. In the early 6th century BCE, though, this traditional idea was challenged. In the Jerusalem temple, valuables were seized twice by non-Judean kings and then it was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Neo-Babylonian empire. The fracturing of this traditional notion forced Judeans to reconsider and reconceptualize their religious ideas.

Second Temple Model

Additionally, with the rise of the Persian empire in the late 6th century BCE, people groups originally exiled by the Neo-Assyrians and Neo-Babylonians were permitted to return to their homelands. Consequently, wealthy Judeans were permitted to return to Judah, and they rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. In this period, though, literary evidence also indicates the existence of Judean communities in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Samaria, and Judah (Yehud), commonly referred to as the Jewish diaspora. Due to the geographic spread of Judeans, it is evident that various Judean communities were enabled to develop in distinct ways. So, there was no single, proper religious practice of Judaism. Though united with regard to the central position of the deity Yahweh, there were many ideas of what constituted correct worship. For this reason, some scholars reference Judean religion during this period as early Judaisms (note the plural).
From the 4th century BCE, early Judaism experienced further developments through intercultural exchange with the Hellenistic and the Roman world. Particularly important is that Judeans in Judah were politically independent for a few years during this period. Two major consequences of this political independence were the significant religious developments and the destruction of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the one which had been rebuilt in the 6th century BCE. Most scholars consider this event as the end of early Judaism; from 70 CE forward, Jewish religion falls under the category of “Rabbinic Judaism.”


The destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE challenged traditional notions about the inviolability of Jerusalem.Consequently, Judeans reconsidered the issue of Yahweh's rule during the Persian period (the late 6th century BCE). This is attested in the biblical book of Isaiah. Scholars typically divide Isaiah into two sections on the basis of content and language: 1st Isaiah is chapters 1-39 and 2nd Isaiah is chapters 40-66, with the latter typically dated to the Persian period. In Isaiah 44:9-20, the author speaks against non-Yahweh centered worship of other deities, specifically worship via idols: “They [the idols] do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand” ( New Oxford Annotated Study Bible ).
In Mesopotamia, deities were often worshipped via a statue with an understanding the presence of the deity resided in that statue. Consequently, by regarding statues as lifeless idols, Isaiah seems to be expressing that the deities were not actually present in the statues. Therefore, Many scholars view this as some of the earliest evidence of Judean monotheism. This idea is developed further in Isaiah 45:1-7, where Yahweh claims to have specifically called Cyrus, king of the Persian empire, to take over Babylon as a way of judging Babylon. The text indicates that Yahweh utilizes foreign kings as tools for his judgment, which fits within the broader picture of chapters 40-48 where Yahweh is seen as the author of history itself.
The Hebrew Bible, though, does not represent every tradition of Judeans. Distinct groups of Judeans thrived in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. In Mesopotamia, cuneiform tablets, typically called the “Murashu tablets” and “Al-Yahudu” (translated “Judahtown”) tablets, attest to a community of Judeans who lived and worked near Babylon between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Unfortunately, the records are primarily legal and financial documents. Because the title “Yahu” (Yahweh) is attached to many personal names in the documents, they likely worshipped Yahweh. Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify the religious ideas of these exiled Judeans beyond this, such as the possibility of these Judeans worshipping Mesopotamian deities.
Similarly, letters and documents from a 5th-century BCE Judean settlement at Elephantine, Egypt attest to worshippers of Yahweh. Within these documents, evidence exists that some Judeans may have also worshipped the deities Anat and Ashim.Thus, these respective Judeans did not necessarily follow the monotheistic tendencies of Persian-period biblical literature.

Murashu Tablets

Additionally, there were forms of folk religion; religious ideas and practices which did not take a prominent position or become the standard ways of religious belief and practice. Because the Hebrew Bible likely reflects the ideology of wealthy scribes, common folk religion is not well represented in historical evidence. Despite possible opposition by certain groups, by the end of the Hellenistic and Roman period, it is generally accepted that monotheism was a defining factor of Judaism.
There is one major shift in ideas which helped monotheism to become more standard in Judaism. Namely, Judean scribes reimagined the former divine pantheon as angels. This shift is best exemplified in 1 Enoch. Typically dated to the 3rd century BCE, 1 Enoch is one of the earliest texts which attests to the belief in angels as “helpers of the deity and responsible for the workings of the cosmos as well as for carrying out divine tasks relating to the human sphere” (Grabbe, 243). The appearance of these beings, who serve as Yahweh's council, is a re-imagination of the older West Semitic gods, who served as Yahweh's council. Furthermore, because no ideas emerge in a vacuum, it is likely that categorization of angels and demons were in full force by the end of the Persian period and 1 Enoch simply reflects already circulating traditions. Thus, with the creation of 1 Enoch, Judean scribes were able to deal with the problem of the West Semitic pantheon in a satisfactory manner.


According to Exodus 12-13, Passover was instituted in order to prevent the death of the first-born children in the 10th plague.Although the historical possibility of the ten plagues in the book of Exodus, and consequently the origins of Passover, cannot be confirmed, it has strong parallels with another festival from an archaeological site in Syria (12th century BCE). At this site in Syria, literary records attest to the zukru festival with strikingly similar features: it is held on the 14th day of the first month, lasting seven days, blood is smeared on the doorposts and first-born animals are sacrificed. Due to these similarities, the underlying ideas in Passover likely have pre-7th century BCE origins; however, as a particular commemoration of an exodus from Egypt, Passover is more likely a development from the Persian period.
This festival, as part of people's lives, is further attested in the Elephantine Papyri (6th century BCE). Notably, though, the description of Passover in the Elephantine Papyri differs from the Hebrew Bible. Unlike the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 23:3-8), it prohibits fermented beverages. Although the difference is minor, it does indicate differing ideas about what constituted proper ritual practice.
Likewise, the Passover ritual was practiced by Samaritans as early as the 4th century BCE, as attested by the Samaritan Pentateuch. For the most part, it is the same as the Pentateuch in the Hebrew Bible; however, unlike the Judeans in Judah, the Samaritans would have performed the ritual on Mount Gerizim. They did so because they believed Mount Gerizim to be the holy mountain, as opposed to Judeans who believed Jerusalem a sacred site.
Finally, a fragment from a scroll at Qumran (located at the Dead Sea; dated c. 3rd century BCE to 1st century CE) restricts young boys and females from joining in the Passover feast (Parry and Skinner). This practice is only mentioned within this fragment and not in any other literary traditions, thereby pointing towards the diversity, yet general unity, in the practice of Passover.
Sabbath is the idea of resting, in some manner, from Friday evening until Saturday evening (ie the seventh day). The historical origins of Sabbath are unclear; however, biblical tradition ties the importance of Sabbath to the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3. In the narrative, Yahweh ceases from creating on the seventh day. Texts like Exodus 31:12-18 reflect on this by understanding the aforementioned creation as early evidence for a covenant between the Israelites and Yahweh. However, because Genesis 1:1-2:3 likely dates to the Persian period, the centrality of the practice of Sabbath probably emerged sometime between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Thus, while earlier texts make reference to Sabbath (2 Kings 4:23, 11:4-12, 16:17-18), it only becomes a major central theme in literature dated to the Persian period.
For example, 1 and 2 Chronicles comment relatively consistently on what entails the practice of Sabbath. These texts, which are reinventions of 1 and 2 Kings and date to the Persian period, note aspects of Sabbath with regard to the temple: sacrifice in the temple on Sabbath (2 Chr. 2:4, 31:3) and a row of bread prepared for Sabbath (1 Chr. 9:32). In the book of Nehemiah, some of which dates to the 5th century BCE, Sabbath regulations become more specified: buying food, selling food, transporting materials, and loading materials for transport are all determined to be out-of-line with the Sabbath day of rest.Notably, though, there is no mention of Sabbath in the texts from Elephantine. Although the absence of Sabbath in the Elephantine texts does not necessarily mean they did not practice Sabbath, it does raise that possibility.
Sabbath became particularly important to early Judaism during the Hellenistic period. In the 2nd century BCE, the Seleucidruler Antiochus IV sought to establish control over Jerusalem. According to historical records, part of his strategy was to Hellenize Judeans. So, he attacked Jerusalem on Sabbath, dedicated the Jerusalem temple of Yahweh to the deity Zeus by burning pork on an altar, and banned the Torah and circumcision. Opposition to these normative aspects of Judean religious identity and practice created a rift between Hellenistic, non-Judean leaders and Judeans. This rift encouraged Judeans to define themselves by these factors (Sabbath, Yahweh's temple at Jerusalem, the uncleanliness of pork, Torah, and circumcision) even more than before the actions of Antiochus IV. In response to Antiochus' actions, a group of Judeans, first led by Mattathias, rebelled and established the foundations of a Judean kingdom, to be ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty.
Other rituals
One major ritual of early Judaism was circumcision. Broadly construed, it was understood to represent the covenant between the Judeans and Yahweh (Gen. 17:10-14; Ex. 4:24-26; Josh. 5:2-12; Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4, 9:25, 9:26). Other festivals also developed, such as Yom Kippur, New Moon festivals, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. While each festival attained unique theological meaning and practice within Judean traditions, they did reflect a broader, ancient correlation between festivals and the agricultural calendar. In the 2nd century BCE, Hanukkah became an important way to remember the consecration of the Jerusalem temple in response to the actions of Antiochus IV.

Mikvah, Qumran

Additionally, the Mikvah became a common ritual necessity in the 2nd century BCE. The Mikvah was a special pool of water in which adults were supposed to be immersed for ritual purity. Over 850 Mikvahs have been discovered in various contexts ( burial sites, homes, synagogues, agricultural centers, etc.), suggesting that ritual bathing was an essential practice after the 2nd century BCE.
Finally, synagogues are first attested (archaeologically) in the Hellenistic period. An inscription on a 3rd-century BCE plaque in Egypt says the following: “On behalf of king Ptolemy and queen Berenice his sister and wife and their children, the Jews (dedicated) the proseuche” (Grabbe, 235). 'Proseuche' is the Greek word for 'place of prayer'. Due to increasing centrality of prayer during the Hellenistic period, the development of a prayer-house is a natural consequence.


The Hebrew Bible, also known as the Tanakh or Old Testament, is an anthology of Judean texts written, composed, and compiled between the 8th century BCE and 2nd century BCE. Thus, the Hebrew Bible did not begin as a single book; rather, it developed over time through the compilation of many Judean texts. The texts, though, were not always understood as divinely inspired, authoritative, holy texts; the role of Judean texts in religious expression developed between the 6th century BCE and 1st century CE.
Typically dated between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, the book of Kings narrates the history of ancient Israel and Judah from the reign of David up to the 6th-century BCE destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Likewise, the book of Chronicles narrates the history of the same period; however, it was written in the Persian period and copies much of the material from Kings. Subsequently, it adds to and takes away from the pre-existing texts in Kings. The changes help us to see how the role of the Hebrew Bible shifted in early Judaism.
For example, in 2 Kings 21:1-16, the Judean king Manasseh is said to have “shed very much innocent blood, until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another, besides the sin that he caused Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of [Yahweh]” (NASB, 2 Kings 21:16). In other words, the author decides that Manasseh was a bad, evil king who was considered corrupt for performing divination and for sponsoring the worship of deities other than Yahweh. Responding to these actions, Yahweh promised to destroy Israel (2 Kings 21:11-13). 2 Chronicles 33:10-17, though, amends the actions of Manasseh, noting that he repented before Yahweh, removed all idols in Judah, strengthened cities in Judah, and offered sacrifices of well-being and thanksgiving to Yahweh.


These differences illustrate a new understanding of the Davidic dynasty. Being from the Davidic line, Manasseh's actions in Kings possibly delegitimized the deal brokered between Yahweh and David, namely the covenant between King David and Yahweh; however, Chronicles relegitimizes the Davidic dynasty through the addition of Manasseh's repentance, military leadership, and religious leadership. Chronicles rewrites Kings is such a way that propagates the centrality, value, and legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty.
The differences also illustrate the growing importance of Yahweh's law. While describing the evil deeds of Manasseh in Chronicles, the narrator explains the standard which Manasseh did not meet through the words of Yahweh: do “all that I have commanded them according to all the law, the statutes, and the ordinances given through Moses
(2 Chronicles 33:8). Kings notes the law, statutes, and ordinances from Yahweh, all of which were common aspects in ancient religious practice;however, it does not specify it as the law given through Moses. Chronicles specifies the law as given through Moses. This addition suggests that obeying the law as given by Moses was becoming a central aspect of religious practice during the Persian period. Although it is difficult to identify exactly what constituted the law of Moses in the Persian period, it is possible that it was what we now understand to be the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (commonly known as the Torah or Pentateuch).
As the Hebrew Bible began to be perceived as offering divine instruction, ideas within it began to serve as practice and belief markers for Judeans, even though various Judean and biblical texts sometimes expressed distinct theological and worldviews.So, rather than being holy, sanctified texts, texts in the Hebrew Bible were representative of practices and ideas central to the identity of some Judeans.
Broadly construed, the role of the Hebrew Bible as a religiously authoritative document became more central during the Hellenistic period. During this period, texts like Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (2nd century BCE) treat the Torah as a form of universal wisdom. Prohibitions and laws in the Torah were present because the Torah was natural law. Even so, various Judean factions held different ideas about how the Hebrew Bible and Torah were religiously authoritative. Lester Grabbe describes well the ways in which people disagreed about the Torah in early Judaism:
The most problematic item [in defining Jewish identity] is possibly “Torah” since there is evidence that different Jews had different ideas about what should be included in the concept (canon), the interpretation of that which was included (exegesis), and the relative importance of the accepted traditions (authority) (294).
There was no single way to practice Judaism. Although the various groups shared the same traditions more broadly, they often expressed them in unique and distinct ways; the Hebrew Bible itself even reflects a diversity of Judean religious traditions.Recognition of this diversity within shared traditions is essential for understanding early Judaism from a historical perspective.

Aihole › Who was

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Aiholi (Ayyavole) was an ancient walled city in Karnataka, central India. Aiholi was the first regional capital of the Karnakata region under the rule of the Calukyas. The large number of early Hindu temples and shrines at the site mostly date from the 6th to 8th century CE when the city was at its zenith of prosperity and power.


Aiholi prospered from the mid-6th century CE under the regional rule of the Early Western Calukyas, one of the most important Deccan dynasties in the late Gupta period. Notable rulers were Pulakasin I (c. 535-566 CE) and Pulakasin II (610-642 CE) who were powerful enough to entertain diplomatic relations with distant Persia. Another significant ruler and bringer of prosperity to the region was Vikramaditya I (655-681 CE) who regained control of the Calukya capital Badami following its loss to regional rival, the Pallava king. Aiholi was an important regional capital (one of four) and the fortification walls and gateways which surround the site are unique survivors from the 6th century CE in ancient India. The Chalukya dynasty fell to the Rashtrakutas in the mid-7th century CE.


There is a mix of architectural styles at the site and, due to the lack of later rebuilding, Aiholi provides a valuable record of Indian temple architecture before it fully evolved into a canonical style. Most temples at Aiholi are Hindu but there are some early Buddhist caves and Jain monuments. There are a number of rock-cut caves at Aihole which are embellished with architectural sculpture cut into the sandstone. The Ravula Phadi cave has a ten-armed Shiva dancing along with the Saptamatrikas, Durga attacking Mahisha with a spear, and Bhudevi being rescued by Varaha. The Ravanaphadi cave is notable for its life-size high relief sculpture of four dancing Matrkas and a Shiva Gangadhara, c. 600 CE, which shows the great god gently lowering Ganga - a personification of the River Ganges - to earth using his hair. Jain architecture at the site includes the Meguti temple, perched atop an acropolis, which was first built in 634 CE.
Many of the Hindu temples display typical characteristics of northern Indian architecture - the sikharas (a four-sided superstructure or tower formed using many decorative layers of stonework), the nasika or sukanas (projecting facade medallions), a gavaksa (double-curved arch), and an amalaka (a large ribbed circular stone on top of the sikhara ). The temples have stone slab roofing, many have stone lattice windows, and most have an entrance hall and porch accessed via a short flight of steps, the latter being a typical feature of Early Western Calukya architecture.

Durga Temple, Aihole

A good example incorporating all of these features is the 8th century CE temple of Durga, commissioned by Komarasengama, a private citizen. This structure is also unusual as it has columns running around the building to form a peristyle. The garbhagriha (sacred sanctuary or shrine) end of the building forms an unusual semicircular curve. The sculpted panels such as those depicting Durga in her battle with the buffalo demon and Shiva alongside Nandi are amongst the finest examples of all ancient Indian sculpture.

Shiva with Nandi, Aihole

The temples carry rich architectural sculpture on pillars and ceilings, especially depictions of such major gods as Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. The temple porches also have finely carved ceiling slabs showing nagas coiled in spirals. In contrast, the exterior walls are generally austere and carry neither the sculpture nor niches so common to southern and later Indian temples. Besides the larger temples Aiholi also has a great number of smaller shrines, many of which have domes.

Ajanta › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Dola RC

Approximately 67 miles (107 km) to the north of Aurangabad in the Indhyadri range of Western Ghats lie the caves of Ajanta.The 30 caves, famous for their early Buddhist temple architecture and many delicately drawn murals, are located in a 76 m high, horseshoe-shaped escarpment overlooking the Waghora (tiger) River. The river originates from a picturesque waterfall called sat kund (seven leaps) just off the last cave. It serves as a potent reminder of the natural forces that over untold eons have shaped the basaltic layers of the Deccan plateau. Also a part of the Gautala Wildlife Sanctuary, this primordial landscape provides a fitting background to one of the finest collections of paintings from India ’s antiquity.
Accorded UNESCO World Heritage site status in 1983, the ancient name of the site is untraceable today. Its current name is derived from a neighbouring village, the local pronunciation of which is Ajintha. It would be of interest to note, that Ajita is the colloquial name of Maitreya Buddha.


The period of excavation (used as synonymous to the carving of the caves) can be divided in two broad phases: The earliest caves (Cave 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15A), belonging to the Hinayana phase of Buddhism, can be roughly traced back to the 2nd century BCE with its period of activity continuing to around the 1st century CE during the rule of Satavahana dynasty (2nd century BCE – 2nd century CE). The later phase of activities, between 5th and 6th century CE, largely took place under the patronage of the Vakataka dynasts (3rd century – 5th century CE). The Vakatakas were contemporaries of the Guptaemperors. The greatest flourish of this phase took place during the brief but remarkable reign of the Vakataka Emperor, Harisena (460 CE - 477 CE). By then the “mythologising tendency of Indian thought” (Coomaraswamy) had already given birth to Mahayana Buddhism from more austere Hinayana practices.
The excavation and creation of the caves seem to have been a more community effort in the earlier phase. Group efforts contributed in the building of various parts of the caves, from the façades to single cells. Later, however, was marked by sponsorship from influential patrons and local feudatories. Inscriptions from Caves 4, 16, 17, 20 and 26 indicate that often multiple caves were constructed under the benefaction of one patron; examples would include local Risika king Upendragupta, Harisena's Prime Minister Varahadeva and the Asmaka monk Buddhabhadra. Royal patronage did not, however, restrict its accessibility to an exclusive clique. Thus, we see, despite being a Shaivaite emperor (at least at the time of accession to throne), Harisena presided over the execution of some of the finest depictions of Buddhist legends.

Stupa in Ajanta


While the peaceful surroundings may be self-explanatory of the initial choice of a Buddhist monastic establishment, the caves also lay close to the ancient trade routes and capital of the Satavahana Empire, Pratishthana (currently Paithan, 130 km to the south of Ajanta). The rule was benevolent, commerce flourished and the cities prospered. Buddhism was already popular and Buddhist bhikshu (monks) travelled across the Deccan plateau as emissaries following Mauryan Emperor Ashoka ’s (304 – 232 BCE) energetic patronage.
The caves of Ajanta were not excavated in isolation, but a range of similar activities resulted in a number of cave complexes across the Western Ghats. Some of these include the caves of Karli, Bhaja, Kanheri, Junnar, Nasik, Kondana and Pitalkhora. It is quite possible that the inspiration for such rock-cut caves came from a set of similar structures in Barabar and the Nagarjuni Hills located in the Jehanabad district, 24 km north of Gaya. These were built during the reign of Ashoka and his grandson Dasarath (232 – 224 BCE), who succeeded him to the throne.
The permanence of rock cut architecture compared to the prevailing free standing wooden structures and locational advantage of such dwellings were powerful arguments in favour of these experiments. The cave complex in Ajanta comprises 30 caves.Of these, five (9, 10, 19, 26, and 29) are chaitya (prayer hall with a stupa at the far end) and the rest are vihara (monastery).The caves are numbered according to their relative arrangement along the horseshoe bend in an anti-clockwise manner from the outer end and not as per the time of excavation or purpose.

Mural, Ajanta Caves


The Ajanta murals, owing to their inherent fragility and an abundance of destructive natural and maleficent human agents, have suffered considerable damage, often irrevocably so. Despite the depredations, the excellent craftsmanship (specifically in Caves 1, 2, 16, 17) shines through the defiled and blackened surfaces even today. The narratives flow unrestricted from one cave wall to the next with an effortless flexibility. A deep understanding of nature and a profound compassion infuse each stroke and every gesture with an ardour and tenderness that produces an indelible impression in the heart and mind of the beholder. It is a world of graceful movements and “serene self-possession” (Coomaraswamy) far removed from personal art of modern time. Brought to life by nameless artists, the murals trace the atman (soul) beyond verisimilitude and transient emotions, mirroring the collective social psyche.
It would be erroneous to consider that all paintings were rendered uniformly. For there are variations of style and work of minor hands comingle with chef-d'œuvre. And yet the poise, poignant faces and expressive gestures bear infinite significance. This includes those hand signals known as mudras which are core to yoga, meditation and Indian dance drama.
The art of Ajanta is that of a school. It is important to remember that pursuit of art for art's sake did not constitute the sole aim and search for beauty was not an end in itself. The great religious art of Ajanta through all its sincerity and refinement acts as crucial markers towards the journey within.


The rugged surface of the cave walls were made further uneven to provide a firm grip to the covering plaster made of ground ferruginous earth, rock grit, sand, vegetable fibres, paddy husk and other fibrous materials of organic origin. A second layer of mud, ferruginous earth mixed with pulverised rock powder or sand and fine vegetable fibre helped to cover the whole interior of the cave. The surface was then treated with a thin coat of lime wash over which pigments were applied. Except for the black which was obtained from kohl, all other pigments were of mineral origin. Terra verda or glauconite for green, lapis lazuli for blue, kaolin, gypsum or lime were of frequent use.
One of the peculiarities of the murals in Ajanta is that the power of expression depends chiefly on the swiftness of its outlines.The bold, sweeping brush-strokes portray an intimacy and sensitiveness that, even though the original lustrous colours have all but faded, reveal these to be works of adept minds and assured hands.

Jataka Image in Ajanta


Jataka tales, consisting of narratives related to different incarnations of Buddha, form an abundant wellspring for a magnificent project of the scale of Ajanta. The quaint humour, distinguished gentility and earnestness which characterise these lore was a part of an oral tradition and followed irrespective of creed or allegiance. Their extensive adoption in Ajanta demonstrates an already wide acceptance among priests and populace alike.
As Buddhism evolved from earlier Hinayana to Mahayana faith, the depictions and paintings transformed. In Caves 9 and 10 the Enlightened One was represented only symbolically by the Bodhi tree, paduka (wooden footwear), wheel etc. and not pictorially. In the later phase of the development, deeply influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, murals recruit a venerable pantheon of celestial beings including Kinnara, Vidyadhara and Gandharva among others. Ajanta then appropriately presents us with a cornucopia of beliefs, intellectual atmosphere, culture, institutions, economy, adventures and the ways of the masses and nobility over half a millennium and more.


The parallels between the murals on cave walls and sculptures and sculptural motifs that adorn Ajanta are manifold. Both undergo remarkable transformation during different phases of development, both draw inspiration from magnanimous Jataka tales and both are equally eloquent through expressive gestures or lack thereof. Buddha as the seated yogi is the epitome of repose and stability and Buddha in abhaya mudra encourages dignified self assurance. Besides seated forms, standing poses of no less variation and significance abound, for such subtle movements of hands and limbs communicate the impelling thought itself much more than the subsequent performance or act. So the Indian imager made extensive use of these gracious movements for a powerful impact.
Hinayana Buddhism with its rationalistic philosophy and express prohibition of pictorial depictions of Buddha could not have inspired a metaphysical art comparable to the grandeur of the later phase. So, beyond symbolic motifs and stupa (of Caves 9, 10), little sculptural activity is observed in the caves excavated in the earlier phase.

Buddha Sculpture in Ajanta

Sculptures in Ajanta were both plastered and painted though any trace of the latter is invisible to the naked eye today. The garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) of each vihara contains almost invariably in seated posture the figure of Buddha in dharma chakra pravartana mudra (Buddha in preaching attitude delivering his discourse). The colossal figure of Buddha in Cave 26 or the statues of Buddha that flank the entrance to Cave 19 showcase versatility in scale and narrative structure which is equally supported by delicate features and delineated forms. The façade of Cave 19 with its intricately carved pillars and pilasters, decorative motifs on rows of chaitya arches and other structural peculiarities are wonderful examples of the unison of sculpture and architecture into a harmonious whole.


Much like the murals and sculptures, architectural elements too evolved continuously under differing influences and motivations. In as much as Ajanta was an application of hereditary knowledge, it was also informed by a process of constant discovery and learning, incorporation of new ideas and forms from other sites such as Bagh, and an ever evolving artistic vocabulary. The architecture of the cave complex is unique because it reflects the ever improving proficiency of the craftsmen, educated in an architectural style already highly developed but unfamiliar with the rock-cut medium. Ajanta in its full flourish therefore represents a successful integration of the splendour of contemporary structures with the peculiarities and potentials of basaltic medium.
As previously alluded to, there are five chaitya in the cave complex with the rest being vihara. A chaitya is apsidal or rectangular in form with aisles on either side of a nave with a barrel roof. Each aisle is separated by a row of pillars. The nave contains a stupa, the object of worship, at the terminal end. The early chaityas meticulously imitated contemporary wooden structures as can be seen on the vaulted roof decorations and pillars.
In contrast to the early stupas of Caves 9 & 10, those built at later dates such as in Caves 19 & 26 have an image of Buddha sculpted on the front face. Another distinguishing feature of Cave 10 is its giant single arched entrance and relatively unadorned façade which gives way to a smaller doorway with a window positioned above. Skilfully decorated façades and pillared porticoes testify to a definite shift in architectural activities from early austerity.

Ajanta Architecture

A vihara, otherwise called sangharama, was a monastic abode consisting of a central hall with adjoining residential cells.Caves 1 & 17 may be taken as the most representative example of a vihara in full development. A pillared porch or verandah with elegant embellishments leads to a commodious central hall, somewhat squarish in plan, with cells for monks hewn into its sides. Further on, an antechamber connects to the garbha griha containing an image of Buddha. Thus, it can be said that architectural development proceeded from early sober, even restrained, astylar form to ambitious, richly ornamented pillared viharas.
Natural weathering agents and scarp retreat in the order of 5-7 m over the centuries have left their devastating impact on the frontispiece of many of the caves and managed to eliminate all of the stairs (except some below Cave 17) that connected each cave to the stream below.


The sudden discontinuation of activities in Ajanta inevitably coincides with the untimely death of Vakataka Emperor Harisena.But the seeds for disruption were sown much earlier. The provinces of Asmaka to the south of Ajanta, Anupa (where Bagh caves lie) to the north and Risika, which included Ajanta were inherited domains of Harisena; he did not have to conquerthem. This explains the fact that within a few of years of his accession to the throne excavatory work started at the site under patronage of different vassals. It is not hard to surmise that the situation was relatively peaceful for the neighbouring rulers, despite having a belligerent history, as they came together to sponsor the projects at the same site.
This, however, did not last for long. By early 469 CE Asmaka started a fierce battle with Risika lords. All work at Ajanta had stopped by 472 CE and this suspension continued until late 474 CE when the Asmaka emerged victorious from the battle.From then on until the sudden death of Harisena in late 477 CE, much effort was afoot. With the passing away of the emperor the golden years of Ajanta too came to an abrupt end; as chaos reigned supreme under an inept successor, violent conflicts broke out over regional supremacy and the Vakataka Empire imploded spectacularly.
By 480 CE all excavations had ceased, most of the patrons had either been dethroned or dispossessed from their seat of power. From the sounds of chiselling and chanting, life had almost returned to a primeval silence interrupted only by chirping of birds or chattering of monkeys. After all, the later phase of growth at Ajanta was driven by a dozen or even less courtly patrons hoping to carve out a monument of magnificent proportions and beauty. Unlike the earlier era where it was a community effort that laid the foundation of Ajanta, this second outpour was bound to dry up with the change of fortunes of its handful of donors.In the end, what instigated its rapid expansion also forced its sudden abandonment.
After a gap of many centuries, Ajanta is again thriving with travellers, scholars and devotees alike from across different continents. Though it no longer serves the purpose for which it was originally built, it has something to offer anyone who can spend a few moments in quiet contemplation indoors. In conclusion, the following words of renowned German archaeologist Ernst Walter Andrae (1875 – 1956 CE), to be found in Keramik im Dienste der Weisheit, can be used to aptly describe the significance of the art of Ajanta, “It is the business of art to grasp the primordial truth, to make the inaudible audible, to enunciate the primordial word, to reproduce the primordial images – or it is not art.”


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