Carved into a precipitous gorge in northern Maharashtra, Ajaṇṭā's thirty Buddhist cave monasteries were excavated in two phases. The three finished Śātavāhana caves (ca. first century c.e.) typify contemporaneous and earlier Western Indic cave monasteries. Ajaṇṭā's other caves all date to the Vākāṭaka emperor Hariṣena's reign (ca. 460–480 c.e.). The Śātavāhana and Vākāṭaka excavations reveal differences in donorship, layout, and design.
Containing numerous and generally terse Prakrit inscriptions, the earlier caves evidence a collective and socially eclectic pattern of patronage. Most of the Sanskrit Vākāṭaka donative inscriptions are later intrusions into abandoned caves. Of the four programmatic inscriptions, three are lengthy eulogies in verse. They record that individual members of the ruling elites donated one or more caves in their entirety, giving them to the Buddha as his residence rather than to the three jewels or the saṄgha as theretofore.
Differences in site layout and cave design reflect these changes. Both phases manifest two architectural types based on structural wooden prototypes. Ajaṇṭā's worship halls share apsidal plans, caitya windows, barrel-vaulted roofs, and monumental stŪpas, while differing in the nature and amount of their painting and sculpture. Repeated buddha figures and joyous worshipers throng the Vākāṭaka stūpa halls. Most significant is the hieratically scaled buddha who, as it were, emerges from each central stūpa. Framed within an architectural structure, these active buddhas transform the later stūpa halls into gandhakuṭīs, the Buddha's personal residences.
Early vihāras (residential caves) typically take the form of large flat-roofed quadrangular rooms without pillars. Doorways leading to cells punctuate their sparsely decorated interior walls. The Vākāṭaka donors added internal pillars, a colonnaded porch, and rich decorations in relief and paint onto this basic plan. A rear cell located immediately opposite the main doorway was expanded into an ornate pillared antechamber with a large internal cell. Tenanted by a monolithic statue of the Buddha preaching from a cosmic throne, this cell is (1) the gandhakuṭī where the Buddha resides as the spiritual and administrative head of his monks, and (2) the shrine where he is worshiped.
These innovations speak to differences in Buddhist practice and belief. Vihāras with shrines signal a departure from the earlier centralization of public worship, when the only shrines were stūpa halls. In the early phase, the most potent manifestation of the Buddha's living presence was the central stūpa that embodied his body relics (śarīra); at Vākāṭaka Ajaṇṭā, the most potent manifestation was the monumental Buddha image dwelling in his gandhakuṭī. Profuse ornamentation transformed relatively austere monasteries into richly jeweled cave palaces atop a cosmic mountain, appropriate residences for the Vākāṭaka Buddha, who, as the Emperor of Ascetics, was the prime cosmic being. The belief in and practice of the bodhisattva path evidenced in caves 17 and 26 simultaneously reveal his imitable and human aspects. Vākāṭaka Ajaṇṭā's fabled narratives participated in these changes. Characterized by an idealized naturalism that represents beings in action, the Ajaṇṭā style "cosmologizes" landscapes and beings. It thus expresses the simultaneously transcendental and imitable nature of the Buddha performing his wondrous deeds.
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Leela Aditi Wood