AJANTA The thirty Ajanta caves are laid out in an arcing ravine cut by the Waghora River in the mountains of west central India. Although now designated a World Heritage monument by the United Nations, Ajanta had been totally forgotten until nearly two hundred years ago. It was then that some English soldiers, tiger hunting in the region, chanced upon the remote site. Their startling discovery is confirmed by a record scratched on a pillar in the spacious cave 10: "John Smith, 28th Cavalry, 28th April, 1819."
Ajanta had two distinct periods of patronage. The first was its Hinayana Buddhist phase, dating from approximately 50 b.c. to a.d. 100. The severe chaitya halls 9 and 10, used for worship, and the viharas 12, 13, and 15A, dormitories with cells for the monks, were excavated during that period. Inscriptions recording "the gift of the facade" or "the gift of a wall" or "the gift of a cell" prove that these early caves were community efforts, as were many contemporary sites in western India, where Buddhism flourished during the period of Satavahana rule.
After about 100 b.c., Ajanta lay dormant for over three centuries. The Chinese Buddhist traveler Fahsien reported shortly after a.d. 400 that monks still lived at the site. However, he did not visit it, finding the region hostile, and that "the (local) people all have . . . erroneous views, and do not know the . . . Law of Buddha."
However, the situation changed dramatically in the 460s, when a remarkable renaissance took place at Ajanta under the aegis of the powerful emperor Harisena of the Vakataka dynasty. Having already inherited extensive domains, including the Ajanta region, at his accession, by the time of his unexpected death in 477, Harisena controlled all of central India from the western to the eastern sea. In fact, during his all too brief reign, this "moon among princes" was surely the most illustrious ruler in India, bringing India's famed "Golden Age" to its apogee, which Ajanta's Vakataka phase, completed in less than twenty years, directly reflects.
By about 465, less than five years after work had begun, twenty sizable caves were already underway, sponsored by a select group of courtiers, whose piety was happily matched by their financial resources. Thousands of excavators and artisans must have been drawn to the site by its growing fame, with skilled sculptors and painters being sent there from the major cities to work on the courtly donations. Even while learning how to excavate caves in the recalcitrant basaltic cliffs, their goal was to make monuments that would "rival the palaces of the lord of gods," and "endure for as long as the sun and the moon continue," as the site's inscriptions tell us.
Among these major sponsors, besides the emperor Harisena himself, whose sumptuous cave 1 is the finest in India, we know of his prime minister Varahadeva, who chose the most central location for his influential cave 16, and King Upendragupta, the pious but spendthrift feudatory who ruled ancient Rishika (the Ajanta region) and "expended abundant wealth" on no less than five impressive excavations. At the same time, the ambitious monk Buddhabhadra oversaw the creation of a dozen caves. The lavish funds at his disposal surely came from his connections with the rival province of Asmaka, with whose chief minister he had been "connected in friendship through many previous existences."
Ajanta's inauguration was exuberant, but in about 468 a serious "recession" occurred, caused by the threatening stance of the troublemaking Asmakas. Therefore, to conserve resources for military purposes, the feudatory ruler of the Ajanta region suddenly ordered work stopped on every cave, except for his own undertakings and the emperor's cave 1. But by about 472, war must have flared in the region, for now work stopped on these "privileged" royal caves as well.
Significantly, when activity began again in about 475, after that local war, which probably involved Rishika and Asmaka alone, the Asmakas were the new feudatory lords of the region. At this point Ajanta's craftsmen, who had briefly departed to more secure sites such as Bagh, returned to Ajanta, full of useful new ideas. Excavation and decoration now went on even more vigorously than before, even though the defeated local king, Upendragupta, was never heard from again. Indeed, as a signal of victory, the Asmakas forbade worship in his beautiful chaitya hall, cave 19, even though their own rival hall, cave 26, was still being developed.
Ajanta's final florescence, when most of the site's renowned murals were created, began about 475. However, this last phase of consistent patronage was tragically short-lived. In 477, the great emperor Harisena mysteriously expired—probably due to the machinations of the perfidious Asmakas—and as a result the site rapidly went into its own deathly convulsions. All general excavation work was now abandoned as the worried patrons, expecting trouble and eager to acquire merit while they could, rushed to get their shrine Buddhas completed and dedicated.
It soon was clear that such anxiety on the part of the great patrons was justified; no sooner had Harisena's inept son ascended the throne than the warlike Asmakas boldly asserted their independence, even while plotting to take over the vast Vakataka empire for themselves. In the ensuing conflict, according to pertinent evidence from Dandin's Tale of the Ten Princes, the new emperor, Sarvasena III, "became mincemeat" on the field of battle, while the Vakataka house itself—like the caves it had sponsored—never recovered from the assault of its revolting feudatories.
Surprising as it may seem, while Ajanta's established patrons were in control of the site, no one else was ever allowed to make a single votive donation. It was only when the old elitist controls were gone, after 478, that the monks still living at the site, along with impatient local devotees, began eagerly donating a spate of intrusive Buddha images, to make merit for themselves. These helter-skelter donations, carved or merely painted, appear in great numbers in or on every excavation in which the shrine Buddha had been previously dedicated, and thus brought to life.
However, this frantic pious activity did not last long. It was suddenly disrupted, leaving dozens of the very latest images in various stages of completion, as if work had been abruptly cut off on a particular day—surely because the flames of the insurrection were now scorching Ajanta itself.
This was the end of votive offerings at Ajanta. After 480, not a single image was ever again made at the site. A few monks remained in residence briefly, but then they too were gone, leaving the site totally abandoned. By the last decade of the fifth century, in the aftermath of the war that had so thoroughly shattered the empire, the region had apparently been taken over by a Hindu power with no interest in such a Buddhist retreat. Ajanta, in its remote ravine, now lay forgotten, remarkably preserved by its very isolation.
See alsoBuddhism in Ancient India
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