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Iconography of the caves

Ajanta Caves

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Iconography of the caves

In the pre Christian era, the Buddha was represented symbolically, in the form of the stupa. Thus, halls were made with stupas to venerate the Buddha. In later periods the images of the Buddha started to be made in coins, relic caskets, relief or loose sculptural forms, etc. However, it took a while for the human representation of the Buddha to appear in Buddhist art. One of the earliest evidences of the Buddhas human representations are found at Buddhist archaeological sites, such as Goli, Nagarjunakonda, and Amaravati. The monasteries of those sites were built in less durable media, such as wood, brick, and stone. As far as the genre of rock cut architecture is concerned it took many centuries for the Buddha image to be depicted. Nobody knows for sure at which rock cut cave site the first image of the Buddha was depicted. Current research indicates that Buddha images in a portable form, made of wood or stone, were introduced, for the first time, at Kanheri, to be followed soon at Ajanta Cave 8 (Dhavalikar, Jadhav, Spink, Singh). While the Kanheri example dates to 4th or 5th century CE, the Ajanta example has been dated to c. 462 478 CE (Spink). None of the rock cut monasteries prior to these dates, and other than these examples, show any Buddha image although hundreds of rock cut caves were made throughout India during the first few centuries CE. And, in those caves, it is the stupa that is the object of veneration, not the image. Images of the Buddha are not found in Buddhist sailagrhas (rock cut complexes) until the times of the Kanheri (4th 5th century CE) and Ajanta examples (c. 462 478 CE).

The caves of the second period, now all dated to the 5th century, were typically described as Mahayana, but do not show the features associated with later Mahayana Buddhism. Although the beginnings of Mahayana teachings go back to the 1st century there is little art and archaeological evidence to suggest that it became a mainstream cult for several centuries. In Mahayana it is not Gautama Buddha but the Bodhisattva who is important, including deity Bodhisattva like Manjushri and Tara, as well as aspects of the Buddha such as Aksobhya, and Amitabha. Except for a few Bodhisattva, these are not depicted at Ajanta, where the Buddha remains the dominant figure. Even the Bodhisattva images of Ajanta are never central objects of worship, but are always shown as attendants of the Buddha in the shrine. If a Bodhisattva is shown in isolation, as in the Astabhaya scenes, these were done in the very last years of activities at Ajanta, and are mostly intrusive in nature, meaning that they were not planned by the original patrons, and were added by new donors after the original patrons had suddenly abandoned the region in the wake of Emperor Harisenas death.

The contrast between iconic and aniconic representations, that is, the stupa on one hand and the image of the Buddha on the other, is now being seen as a construct of the modern scholar rather than a reality of the past. The second phase of Ajanta shows that the stupa and image coincided together. If the entire corpus of the art of Ajanta including sculpture, iconography, architecture, epigraphy, and painting are analysed afresh it will become clear that there was no duality between the symbolic and human forms of the Buddha, as far as the 5th century phase of Ajanta is concerned. That is why most current scholars tend to avoid the terms Hinayana and Mahayana in the context of Ajanta. They now prefer to call the second phase by the ruling dynasty, as the Vaka?aka phase.


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Iconography of the caves
How to Reach Ajanta by Flight
Exploring the Caves
Cave One
Caves 9 10
How to reach Ajanta by Road
Attractions
Getting Around Ajanta
Cave Four
Cave Two
Caves of the later period
Caves of the first period
More ...


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