Ajanta Cave Paintings

Ajanta Cave Paintings

in Interview
Published on: 13 October 2016
Interview by Rajesh Kumar Singh with Monika Zin, New Delhi, January 2016

R.K.S.: We have Prof. Monika Zin with us today who is a professor of Indology and Indian Art at the University of Munich. She is quite well-known in the area of Buddhist studies: the early and mainstream Buddhism in India.  Now she has, in the last ten years or more, moved  her area of research towards Central Asia. Her work in Central Asia and its art is widely being recognised as a milestone. Prior to that, her work was focussed on Ajanta. She published two works which are, in my opinion as a student of Indian art, a guide to Ajanta paintings. They include the drawings of the Ajanta paintings. Many of the paintings are now in such a poor state of preservation that even with the naked eye we are not able to see the details. So with a great deal of hard work she has drawn each and every devotional, ornamental as well as narrative painting in the caves of Ajanta. It is of great help to the student of Indian art. Her next work was in German called Sansarachakra which is of immense importance. The entire book is on the single theme of sansarchakra painted on the left wall of Cave 17. Thereafter she has compiled a work consisting of multiple volumes called ‘Handbook’ which is a sequel to Prof. Schlingloff’s publication. It is under publication right now.


So with this very brief introduction I would now like to talk with her on the subject of Ajanta. I must not forget to also underline that she is one of the four or five widely regarded leading subject experts today. As a student, as a learner, I have much to learn from her.


M.Z.: Thank you Rajesh. It is a wonderful introduction. Well, my parents were the first ones to introduce me to Ajanta during my childhood. Twenty years later I met Prof. Schlingloff who took me in as an assistant. From that moment on I have been involved with Ajanta.



R.K.S.: When was that?


M.Z.: It was in University of Munich, beginning of the '90s. I was done with my PhD in Indology. Schlingloff got to know that I had studied art history and could draw, so he involved me in his research. And from that moment on we have been working together.  



R.K.S.: So when and why did this idea of making drawings of Ajanta come to your mind?


M.Z.: It was not my idea. Prof. Schlingloff started with it. Mathias Helmdach was doing it already before me. I later redrew many of Helmdach’s paintings. I drew many of the paintings first for Schlingloff’s books and later for my own books. 


There is something really very peculiar about making drawings. You cannot just hire anybody to make drawings because you can draw only what you know. You must know the story so you can find particular details of the story in that. Of course you need good pictures, good photographs to make it. Only today, from your own pictures I can recognise so many tiny details which I could not earlier.  



R.K.S.: So you had to first do the photography work before?


M.Z.: Sometimes. Sometimes I referred to different publications. Of enormous importance were copies by Griffith. Actually they were not by Griffith but by his students from Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art. These drawings, of which we have a set of black and white photographs at our institute in Munich, were really the most important and essential references because paintings in the 1880s were in much better state of preservation as compared to today.



R.K.S.: I have observed your drawings. You have not left anything, even things that are not visible clearly now with high end camera or lens etcetera. You have still been able to draw them and identify them. How did you manage that?


M.Z.: That has been quite a task. Sometimes for one drawing you need a week or longer. To recognise the subject matter you have to refer to descriptions. I have my own techniques of working with Photoshop. I sometimes change everything into pink. With pink you can see more details.


I am trained in all this. I have been doing it for ten years. So after a while you really know how to work. It is easy for me to recognise groups of people, and when you know the text also it becomes easier. For instance, sometimes we just see a small part of a beak and we can recognise the rest.



R.K.S.: After having done this meticulous, painstaking, laborious and fruitful work, how is it that now suddenly you decided to move to another area of expertise?


M.Z.:  This is not the end of Ajanta research work. What we have done is just the beginning. Only now people should start with the research. Now since key identifications have been made, manner of representing different personalities and things have been recognised, only now can we really start with the research and get into more details, maybe find alternative explanations of paintings.    



R.K.S.: Now since you are working with Central Asian Buddhist art, what connection do you find between Ajanta and Central Asia? Is there any direct connection?


M.Z.: There are indeed direct connections. It has really surprised us. The research is still going on, so we do not have ready answers. For the time being the idea is that it was a time after 500 AD, maybe one generation earlier or later, a period we try to call Pax-Hephthaliana. The Hephthalites came from Central Asia and were in Bactria, Gandhara, Kucha region and also part of India. During this time, not only from Gandhara, but also from Central India or even Ajanta direct influences could come to the paintings of Central Asia. We are talking about Ajanta because we have Ajanta. Ajanta survived, other places did not. We have to be aware of that. There were probably many such Ajantas, maybe not hundreds but many places with wonderful paintings. Ajanta survived. There are certain aesthetics we have only in India but not in Gandhara, for example. Also certain literary sources were illustrated in Ajanta and not in Gandhara. In Gandhara we do have jatakas but not many. Also jatakas about animals were not popular in Gandhara.


And in Kucha in Central Asia or northern silk route, around 70 jatakas are seen in the paintings. We can compare it with those seen in Bharhut. Ajanta too has plenty of jataka stories. actually. In Central Asia many jataka illustrations have an animal as the Bodhisattva, like a monkey, elephant or a bird. Sometimes we see direct connections between Ajanta and Central Asia. Like in vanara jataka from Cave 17 the monkey, vanara is lying there and someone is trying to kill him keeping a stone above the head. The monkey is lying on the side of the pond and there is a tree behind him. There are many possibilities of showing somebody killing a monkey, but this is exactly how we have it represented in Kucha. So there must have been direct connections. We have several examples like this, and sometimes coming not only from Ajanta but from the Andhra School.


So the influences were definitely there. And also in terms of dating, we have this difficult gap. Narrative art in Gandhara stops around 300 AD and paintings in Kucha start probably around 470 or something, not much earlier. So what was in between? And this 470 AD really corresponds much better with Ajanta and corresponds with Gandhara. So we definitely have direct connections.


And also regarding aesthetics, dark reds dominate the paintings in Kucha. It is like in Ajanta. We have tiny flowers depicted on the ground in the paintings in Kucha. They were repeating the same shapes, the same way of depicting stories as in Ajanta. Likewise with groupings of scenes etc. So they were really prototypes adopted from places like Ajanta, maybe not directly from Ajanta but from places like Ajanta.



R.K.S.: I would like to pose another question. Of the two phases that Ajanta has, how do you date the first phase?


M.Z.: For me it is the Satvahana time. I will say first century BCE.



R.K.S.: First century or second century BCE?


M.Z.: For me first century, contemporary to Sanchi and to some parts of Kanaganahalli.



R.K.S.: Have you found any direct connection between Kanaganahalli and Ajanta of the earlier phase?


M.Z.: Yes, sure.



R.K.S.: And what are these connections?


M.Z.: Let us start with similarities of representation of what women are wearing, furniture, what objects look like etc. So connections and similarities between Sanchi I Great stupa and Ajanta 10 are probably quite well known. In the same way we can also find connections between Ajanta 10 and 9 and Kanaganahalli.


Ajanta is important in point of history, in Buddhology because for the very first time we have Buddha’s life story represented in several scenes together in Cave 10 on the left wall. We do not have it in Sanchi, not even in the later period. We may have it in separate scenes. 


It is difficult to say what was earlier, what was later. We do not have Nativity in Sanchi, we do have in Ajanta 10 and we do have in Kanaganahalli. But now what is earlier? Because in Ajanta Maya is standing holding a branch of the tree, but this characteristic gesture of Shalabhanjika is still not there. One, it was established, it was repeated and we have it in Kanganahalli. There Maya is standing with one arm holding a Shala tree (Shalabhanjika). So in this point the tradition was born and it was going to be repeated. So now the question is which one was earlier. Is it Kanaganahalli with the iconography which was going to be repeated or Ajanta where the tree is there but Maya is standing only holding it/resting on it.


M.Z.: Satavahanas themselves were not Buddhist.



R.K.S.: What kind of people must they have been? We are told that there were some 16 schools of Buddhism in early times. So what are your views on what 9 and 10 tells you about the early phase?


M.Z.: You mean in the Satavahana times? In Ajanta 9 and 10 we have two really important paintings, more important than anything else in terms of affiliation with a school.  This is the story about Kshemavati and Udayana which was depicted in Andhra several times. We have several times depiction of that in Amaravati. This is the story about the pious Kshemavati, wife of Udayana, the king of Kaushambi who also had another wife who was non-Buddhist and bad. She hated the good one, the pious Kshemavati. So in several ugly acts she tried to convince the king to kill that wife. So we have a series of representations in Andhra where the bad wife, Anupama, put a snake into the veena of the king and accused Kshemavati of trying to kill the king. The king takes his bow and arrow and shoots three arrows on her, but since she was Buddhist she radiated a feeling of maitreya and the arrows fell down. Behind the stupa in Ajanta Cave 10 we have the king shooting arrows, we have Kshemavati, but we do not have the veena. I recognised that there was a person carrying birds on the shoulder and somebody carrying something like a cage. There is a literary basis for this. It is the same story but the kings had different reasoons to shoot Kshemavati. Here the bad wife tells the king that Kshemavati cooked for the Buddha but refused to cook for the king. The king shoots Kshemavati for this reason in this illustration.  


The story behind was that Kshemavati had invited the Buddha and his monks. Somebody delivered to her dead birds which she cooked. And after that somebody delivered to her live birds. Like a good upasika she sent them to heaven. She let them free. This the bad wife did not tell the king. This story we know today from Divyavadana and Mulasarvastivada. This is the first example which really connects this early tradition with Mulasarvastivada, and this is not the only one.  In Ajanta 9, on the right side, on the right side wall just on the very beginning there is a story about the snake, naga Elapatra. We have two different versions of this: the southern one which has survived in Pali sources and the northern one. The Pali version is depicted in Bharhut. The northern one is illustrated in Ajanta. We know it from the Mulasarvastivada tradition that has survived today. So what does it mean? Actually it is really difficult to say. We are not aware if the partitions between different schools based on geographic areas existed so early. So I can only say Ajanta paintings illustrates stories known from versions of the Divyavadana which have survived till today.


For Ajanta, the Mulasarvastivada school was going to be of great importance for later times, in the fifth century. That was the leading school. Most of the representations you can find have the Mulasarvastivada tradition as the literary basis.  



R.K.S.:  So how many such examples do we find? You recounted two examples. Are there many such examples to show that there was Mulasarvastivada and no other sects? How do we infer that we did not have other sects there?


M.Z.: We do not. In Ajanta 10 there is representation of Maya giving birth as I said before and there is definitely one god receiving the Buddha. This is also like in the northern tradition where Indra is seen receiving the Buddha, not the four kings of direction as represented in southern tradition. However, it is difficult to say about particular school affiliations, but what we really can say is that it is much more connected with texts we know today that are in Sanskrit or hybrid Sanskrit, not Pali.  



R.K.S.: The reason why I ask is that in Andhra we had the Aparasailyas who were more predominant. If Ajanta had connections with Andhra in the Satavahana period, how come we do not have Aparasailyas here? Also the Chaityakaras. 


M.Z.: The difficulty is that we do not have texts of the Aparasailyas and Chaityakas. They have not survived. So what we have is our knowledge that they were there and we have depictions.   



R.K.S.:  Conventionally we call the earlier phase Hinayana. So is it okay for you or should we call it Mulasarvastivada?


M.Z.: No, no, we cannot say for sure. First of all, we don’t know how old Mulasarvastivada is. Maybe we should call it Sarvastivada. We don’t know if vinayas existed already in this time. It is also difficult to call it Hinayana or Shravakayana. But whatever you call it, it is a label so we understand what we are talking about. So early Buddhists in opposition to Mahayana and the pantheon of Bodhisattvas and so on are what we are talking about. Ajanta or the fifth century Ajanta were actually not so much Mahayana as we would like to have it.



R.K.S.: This fifth century is like a cobweb of problems. With your research I wanted to know how we can explain the distinct gamut of paintings that we see in the fifth century AD. More particularly I would like to know why we do not see Bodhisattvas when the fifth century begins. Bodhisattva in Ajanta, in any form, comes in the very end, very last years of the fifth century.


M.Z.: Well, I really think they were in Ajanta 17. In the veranda, on the left side is this samsarachakra depiction. The Bodhisattva there really belongs to the programme.  What is really great about Walter Spink is that he did this fantastic work making distinction between the programme of the caves and intrusions. It is really a milestone. It is really very important. In Cave 6 you have something absolutely great. There is a miniature representation of two Bodhisattvas, one is Avalokitesvara as a saviour from perils, and another one is one of the bodhisattvas with different genies.



R.K.S.: In the shrine antechamber?


M.Z.: No, no, on the veranda. I have heard these paintings disappeared in recent years. So maybe my pictures taken 20 years ago are the only representation of that. The painting is of importance. It is actually the reason why I still call the Bodhisattvas kings of rocky landscapes. I still call them Bodhisattva kings. The Bodhisattva placed next to Avalokitesvara also seems sort of equal. They are of same size and on the same wall, minute but wonderfully painted.     



R.K.S.: Why would these Bodhisattvas be depicted like this? They do not have a jata-mukuta but a ratna-mukuta? Why is the Bodhisattva depicted like a prince?


M.Z.: Bodhisattvas are always shown like a prince, in Gandhara and elswhere. But Ajanta seems to be just on the turning point.  It is a very old tradition to depict rocky mountains. It is not only in the Buddhist tradition but really everywhere. It is a very pan-Indian representation of how you go into a sanctuary. There is this wonderful so-called Parvathi temple in Nachna Kuthara where there is a temple on the plinth. Outside there were depictions of rocks. So when you want to go to the temple you have to cross the mountains. When you read Mahabharata or any such text, anybody who wants to go to the gods has to cross the Himalayas because the gods' seat is on Sumeru and so on another side. So there might have been this sort of stereotype then.



R.K.S.: Stereotype that they followed.


M.Z.: You have it on the entrance of other structures, like in Sanchi 3 when you go to the level of the stupa, on the top you have representation of different figures like nagas, yakshas, Hariti and others. Crossing that you come from the profane world to the internal sanctum.


So the representation of mountains on the entrances can be seen in the context of this tradition. So these wonderful kings on the entrances to the Ajanta have been identified as Bodhisattvas. The landscape was identified as Sukhavati, the paradise, which actually it cannot be. In Sukhavati there are no mountains.



R.K.S.: And also these shabaras will not be there and the inhabitants of the jungle or earthly inhabitants will not be there.


M.Z.: So that is popular in Indian or pan-Indian thinking in all religions. Take Kalidasa and descriptions of Kumarsambhava, of what is going on in Himalaya. You have different Kinaras, you have ladies with horse’s head, you have shabaras etc. So this is where the gods are, not people. Only shabaras were there. It is extremely interesting.



R.K.S.: In my personal view your identification and explanation of this Bodhisattva king in the mountainous landscape is beautiful. No one noticed before that this is something we see on the axis of the cave. First we see on the other side on the porch, then we see on the other side of the hall, the rear wall of the hall, and then we see in the antechamber.


We have hundreds of yakshas and hundreds of representations of the Buddha and jatakas, but only at Ajanta we see how they were placed together. We can see that they were really next to each other. The Buddha is next to Hariti or yakshas. That brings us to a really difficult position. Nobody would expect something like this. The preaching Buddhas represent what is good for your enlightenment or Nirvana. Next to them are represented yakshas.



R.K.S.: Shankhanidhi, Padmanidhi…


M.Z.: There are representations of different wonderful coins. So how does it work together? There was a huge problem when I was working many years ago on this book about devotional and ornamental paintings. I was very surprised because we thought that in Buddhist sanctuaries everything must be Buddhist. But this really, to a certain extent, is absolutely not the case. We have imageries which are not intended for Nirvana. It is not for seeking enlightenment but for everyday life, having healthy children, having success in business and having good money. So the imagery is completely different. You cannot say they are profane because Kubera is a god and yakshas are also divinities. They are not so important like the Buddha and the dharma but you cannot say they are profane. So I started to give labels to groups: representations relevant for enlightenment and irrelevant for enlightenment. There are divinities worshipping whom can guarantee that you will reach the next city with your caravan and that your wife will raise your children well during your absence.  


So it is against the doctrine definitely but very human. This also shows for whom these monasteries were really made. Their must have been traders on the route who were expecting these representations. And when in Cave 2 we have the central Buddha in the main shrine and on one side we have deities responsible for healthy children and on another side responsible for money, it tells us a lot. These shrines are not any less important. And what we definitely should not do is ignore this path which was as important as everything else.


There are narrative representations with scenes from the life of the Buddha or the jatakas. These narratives are represented on the walls in the main hall. Just at the entrances we have the Bodhisattvas as kings of rocky landscapes. They are surrounded by different deities. When we go further towards the sanctuary we notice that only there are representations of the Buddha. They are not seen earlier. Earlier there were narratives but the Buddha or the Boddhisattvas were not represented there. On the way into the chamber we have representations which are just in between. The Buddha is in the middle and around are narratives like Maravijaya. The next step is the sanctuary with one Buddha preaching or meditating in the sanctuary.


You will see a lot of Buddhas depicted in the caves, but many of them are intrusions.  So there must have been two different programmes. This programme was probably prepared by a learned monk who probably was a Mulasarvastivadi. There was somebody who was instructing the painters on how to make these representations. Most of the paintings really follow the Mulasarvastivada tradition.


If there was just one person or many, we do not know. But there must have been somebody who was preparing this order of where to paint what. There are jatakas, there are stories from the Buddha’s life and so on. In Cave 16 you have the representation of Buddha’s life story in 31 scenes, but two most important scenes are not represented, his enlightenment and the first sermon. They are not there and never were there. Probably it was believed that they should not be between narrative representations and belong to the area of the sanctum. So in Cave 6 we have them just on the sides, at the entrance to the antechamber. Or in Cave 1 we have them in the antechamber. So turning to the iconic representation, we don’t have them in the narrative. To my mind this is coming from Andhran art where actually in every frieze there is a central Buddha and then you have jataka scenes from the life of the Buddha always on the sides. It is never by chance. They always correspond with the central Buddha. So this is really planned and realised in the caves of Ajanta.