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Ajiṇṭhā Caves, Part II

AJIṆṬHĀ Caves, Part II


Dr. Rajesh Kumar Singh

B1-264, Siddharth Bungalows

Sama – Savali Road, Vadodara 390022, Gujarat, India

Email: rksingh1970@gmail.com, +91-9429925036



Some Aspects of the Anthropological and Sociological Background in the Hariṣeṇa-Period


Introductory. 2

Sthānaka or Ṭhāṇā near Ajiṇṭhā. 5

Mahiṣāsuramardini at Ajiṇṭhā. 6

Roman gold coin at Ajiṇṭhā. 6

Sociology under Hariṣeṇa. 7

Sanskṛit was the prevalent language. 12

Captions for figures. 14

Works Cited. 15

Notes. 17




Ajiṇṭhā appears to have been more than a monastic establishment. Probably, it was just another of the several pilgrimage destinations from the times of the Mauryas and Sātavāhanas. Its popularity would have been modest and limited like numerous others that dotted India; the nearest comparisons may be from the western Deccan itself, such as those at Bhājā, Koṇḍāné, Beḍsā, Kārḷé, and the earlier phases of Aurangābād,[1] Kanherī, and Pitalkhorā. However, the perception of its sacredness would not have matched the likes of the stūpas at Sānchī, Nāgārjunikōṇḍā, Amarāvatī, Kapilavastu, Lumbini, Sārnāth, Sānkāsya, Bodhgayā, or Devanīmorī. Those monasteries had the Buddha’s relics or the footprints, which were not here. The two sumptuous temples, caves 9 and 10 (Figure 1), with three functional and adjunct upāśrayas (caves 12, 13, and 15A)—could well have been in use from the first century BCE to the fifth century CE. There is no evidence for it; only an inference may be drawn. There are reasons providing the inference. Had the site not been in use, it would have been decrepit, full of growth and jungles inside and outside, and no person would have gone there for veneration or worship. Abandoned temples are not likely to have attracted the attention for the new initiatives that were planned in the Hariṣeṇa period. New additions to an old sacred site cannot be initiated unless the place is at least visited by the people; unless the monks, laity, and concerned patrons find the place worthy enough for a case of revival, rejuvenation, or expansion. Our conclusion still does not indicate why the तीर्थ tīrtha (pilgrimage site), if it was still alive, did not receive a single addition of a temple or upāśraya for nearly half a millennium.

The temples must have glittered with colours. Apparantly, it was not only the interiors, but also the exterior that were decorated and painted. There were attached additional wooden façade components that in keeping with the tradition must have had impressive woodwork.[2] Worship and festivals would have entailed the use of festoons, golden embellishments, flowers, fragrance, sounds, music, and lamps.[3] The carvans of travelling merchants, armies, and people must surely have visited the monastery while passing through the highway just a few kilometre from the site; that is actually the ancient highway. The people who lived in the nearest proximity, especially those who hailed from the Ṛiṣika, Aśmaka, or Mūlaka countries are most likely to have visited the place on excursion (or otherwise), for it provided water round the year. Even today, water is so scarce in the region. Local farmers and businesspersons remain in utter distress. Villagers have to dig up to 200 feet for borewell spending anywhere from one to two lacs, which is an exorbitant amount only a few are able to afford (and not without loans). The entire Deccan region has vast tracts of monolithic lava traps. In most regions, dig anywhere beyond a few feet of soil, and you will hit the rocks. Water was surely a huge problem for the carvan on the ancient highway. How could they bypass these waterfalls and small reservoirs along the Wāghur River, especially in the long summers of the region? Even today, the farmers keep waiting for the monsoon. Even a few weeks of delay makes a cascading effect on the population. At times, the lives are attached to the monsoon. Maharashtra has the maximum number of farmer suicide rate in India. Therefore, the importance of the monsoon, waterfalls, rivers, or rivulets, should not at all be undermined in any assessment of how people interacted with the site, and what role the local geography, geology, and climate played in regulating the larger anthropological and cultural affairs of the rock-cut monasteries of the Deccan.

Ajiṇṭhā has a lovely waterfall with steep hills, cliffs, and greenery (Figure 2). Even in summer, when the river goes dry, the riverbed used to conserve water, which was the case until some years back before a dam was constructed upstream. Even during the periods of brāhmaṇical predominance, the site of Ajiṇṭhā was not mutilated; there is nothing to suggest any act of vandalism. The paintings of the earlier phase remained prestine, not just during the interval of the five centuries in question, but even afterwards until the modern age. Such aspects rule out the possibility that the site was banned or outlawed during the periods of brāhmaṇical resurgence.

The brāhmaṇical patronage by Hariṣeṇa and other kings of the two branches[4] point to the royal policy. On one hand, Hariṣeṇa did nothing to hurt the sentiments of Brāhmaṇism. On the other, he created room for the Buddhist communities so that they could no longer feel marginalised in his kingdom. This scenario is indicated by the unique coexistence of the brāhmaṇical and Buddhist patronage activities under Hariṣeṇa. Most certainly, the fabric of harmony once propagated by the likes of the Mauryas, Sātavāhanas, Ikṣvākus, and the Guptas was reinforced in the Vākāṭaka domains. The fact that two of the most notable personalities of the region—one being Monk Buddabhadra of the Aśmaka country, and the other being Dharādhipa[5] alias Upendragupta II[6] of the Ṛiṣika country—were directly involved in the patronage and renaissance of the ambitious patronage activities at Ajiṇṭhā indicates the likely prevalence of an economic and political clout wielded by certain sections of the Buddhist population. The mercantile community of the age comprised significantly of the members of the Buddhist laity, just as today in India, some specific communities are renowned for business acumen: the Pārasīs, Jains, Paṭels, Mārwāḍīs, etc.

The particular sociological conditions during the Hariṣeṇa period have never been explored as much as they deserve. The aim here is not to provide a survey of the prevailing sociological structures, but to highlight those areas or issues that apparently had a bearing on the political, theological, and art historical conditions. The Vākāṭaka heritage most clearly indicates that there prevailed a harmonious coexistence of the mainstream religions. The mainstream seems to have comprised of the brāhmaṇical and Buddhist religions. No evidence has come of the Jaina patronage under the Vākāṭakas. Even the patronage to the Buddhists is limited to the reign of Hariṣeṇa. No wonder why Hariṣeṇa has been eulogised in the Ajiṇṭhā and Ghaṭotkacha inscriptions. The inscriptions of Varāhadeva—who was the donor of Ajiṇṭhā Cave 16 and the monastery known today as Ghaṭotkacha at Gulwāḍā, who was also the secretary of Mahārāja Hariṣeṇa—does not clarify whether Varāhadeva was a Hindu or Buddhist. On one hand, the adjectives and similis used in his appreciation are drawn from the brāhmaṇical sources, but on the other, the donor’s interest in the Bodhidharma has been described in a way that makes it hard for the reader to believe that the donor was not himself a follower of the religion. The same is true of the Ṛiṣika King, Dharādhipa alias Upendragupta II. He donated many elaborate cave temples at Ajiṇṭhā including caves 17, 18, 19, and 20. He also funded many other temples elsewhere, as his donative inscription claims with exaggeration that he had ‘adorned the earth with the stūpas and vihāras’. In any case, he would not have been making such lavish donations if there were no people to go to the temples. We may, therefore, deduce that a part of the people in his kingdom were Buddhists. The same may be said of the Aśmaka country. Unfortunately, inscriptions do not provide any insight into the patronage activities of the Aśmaka king. However, special reference is given to his minister Bhavvirāja in whose honour Monk Buddhabhadra raised his temples at Ajiṇṭhā. Possibly, the Aśmaka king was not a Buddhist. Had he been a Buddhist, or had he been directly involved at Ajiṇṭhā, his name ought to have been mentioned in Buddabhadra’s inscription. Perhaps, the Aśmaka king was neither directly involved nor he had any objection to the Buddhist projects at Ajiṇṭhā or Aurangabad. The eulogy in Cave 26 was rather inscribed for his minister Bhavvirāja without significant reference to Aśmakarājā himself. This is not, however, a view that Spink would subscribe to. He believes that the Aśmakas were most directly involved at Ajiṇṭhā. He believes that all of the caves that the present author attributes to Monk Buddhabhadra (caves 21, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, and possibly 28) were actually funded by the Aśmakas. He has an elaborate theory for the Aśmakas. In Spink’s annals, the Aśmakans are in fact the friends turned foes of Ajiṇṭhā and the Vākāṭakas.[7]

Sthānaka or Ṭhāṇā near Ajiṇṭhā

Evidently, the people in the surrounding regions of Ajiṇṭhā were also Buddhist, most certainly in the Sātavāhana period. This is learned from archaeology and epigraphy. The donor of Cave 12 was Ghanāmaḍada who donated the ‘upāsaya’ (Prākṛit for dwelling) of Cave 12 with many ‘avarakas’ (Prākṛit for cells). This person was a ‘vaṇija’ (merchant) who lived in the nearby village of ‘Sthāṇaka’ (modern Ṭhāṇā). The village is still there just a few kilometre from Ajiṇṭhā. The present author has found an ancient brick structure in the village (Singh 2012, fig. 17) comprising of very large size bricks of the same type that are found in the brick monastery of Ajiṇṭhā across the Wāghur River.

Mahiṣāsuramardini at Ajiṇṭhā

Equally noteworthy is the recovery of a tiny Mahiṣāsuramardini image during the archaeological excavation across the Wāghur River at Ajiṇṭhā (Archaeological Survey of India 2006). The tiny image was reportedly part of a necklace. The question is how did the necklace with a Mahiṣāsurmardini image land up in the brick monastery of Ajiṇṭhā? Did the necklace with the Durgā image belong to a bhikṣu? Perhaps not. Most reasonably, it might have belonged to a Hindu visitor who dropped it there, perhaps unknowingly, we do not know why and under what circumstances. The Durgā image tells us that the monastery was visited by a person who was likely a Śākta; and not surprisingly so. A beautiful site as this, resplendent with unique ‘suvithis’ (art galleries) must have been a place of curiosity among the locals as well as people from far and wide. The carvans passing by the adjacent highway had to come here. The point only indicates that there was no taboo for anyone to visit the monastery of Ajiṇṭhā; there was no antagonism to prevent anyone from coming there. In other words, we have yet another inference that there was a harmoneous relationship between people of different faiths under Hariṣeṇa.

Roman gold coin at Ajiṇṭhā

From the same site, a Roman gold coin is also recovered (Archaeological Survey of India 2006). How did it land up there? Did it belong to one of the resident monks? Did the monks keep coins or cash? Some Buddhologists would say, no. Gregory Schopen is likely to say, yes (Schopen 2004). There is evidence in some of the monks’ cells at Ajiṇṭhā that suggest that at least some of the monks were in the possession of certain valuables. The evidence is in the form of certain small cubical chambers (approximately 14 x 14 x 6 inches) that are dug in the floor of some cells. One of them even has an extant stone lid. A study of them would suggest that these secret chambers in the floor could only have been used for hiding valuables. For ordinary items, there were niches excavated on the rear walls of the cells. For robes, cloths, etc., some bamboo or wooden poles were fitted out into the holes made on the facing walls. For storing items in large volumes or quantity, there were, at places, special arrangements. For example, on the left and right ends of the rear aisle of Cave Lower 6, several large holes are made on the walls above the human height level in rows. Bamboos or wooden logs were fitted out into them for supporting wooden planks for the creation of lofts. In Cave 11, there is a chamber (somewhat smaller than a monk’s cell) excavated at the rear of the shrine’s left wall. This too was perhaps used for storing the belongings of the temple.

Coming back to the Roman gold coin, it indicates clearly that a Roman trader had visited the monastery of Ajiṇṭhā, which should not be surprising, as the merchants, traders, armies, and ordinary people passed by the adjacent highway, which was connected to the ports of Nalla Sopārā, Chaul, and Bharuch among others. However, it would be very imaginative to presume that a Roman gold coin should have mistakenly slipped out of the purse of a Roman trader, who was otherwise so careful as to bring it safely all the way from Rome. Could it rather be that the gold coin was given as alms to a bhikṣu, or many such coins were donated to the sangha, or, to one of the donors’ contributory fund? Ordinarily, it would not be an unlikely situation, as the monks accepted whatever that was given to them; and money was most certainly needed for the temple projects and its various affairs, if not for the personal needs or expenditure of a bhikṣu. We wonder whether the lay travellers also funded the temple projects at Ajiṇṭhā, contributing to the general fund of the principle donor. This kind of thing always happens in India even today.

Sociology under Hariṣeṇa

Bakker’s landmark publication (Bakker, The Vakatakas: An Essay in Hindu Iconology 1997) has already described in detail the artistic heritage and the related socio-cultural fabric of the times of the Vākāṭakas. As the title of the work itself suggests Bakker has focussd on the brāhmaṇical corpus of the Vākāṭaka heritage. Deliberately, he has left Ajiṇṭhā out from his corpus, since according to him the monument has already received the lion’s attention. The co-existence of the brāhmaṇical and the Buddhist heritage during the reign of the Vākāṭaka Hariṣeṇa makes the sociological picture self-evident. But there is a fine print there, which is not to be missed. The corpus of the Buddhist patronage belongs only and solely to the period of Hariṣeṇa. No other Vākāṭaka king or his nearest contemporaries (especially from the late third to the early fifth century CE) are known to have patronised any Buddhist monument. Even for Hariṣeṇa, it is not clear whether he had any direct role to play at Ajiṇṭhā. There is no hard proof about it. It is only Spink of all the scholars who insists that Hariṣeṇa too was involved at Ajiṇṭhā. The proposition is yet to find approvers.

The subject of the sociology around the times of the fifth-century phase of Ajiṇṭhā, therefore, becomes a knotty issue—one that has been systematically avoided in the scholarship on the subject. Part of the problem in studying the subject arises from the fact that we have little if any credible sources to guide us in any direction. A discussion on the subject must—at the present state of research—be speculative. Yet there can be no denying that there is a need to holistically study the factors behind the mysterious—and largely abrupt—abandonment of the work by the original patrons at all of the five rock-cut monasteries that were initiated, rejuvenated, or expanded in the Hariṣeṇa period. Is it possible that the abrupt abandonment of the monasteries will have occurred due to a potential and rather swift brāhmaṇical aggression, unless we are able to point out another potential factor? In Spink’s postulations—as well as in those by Shastri, Bakker, and everyone else who has ventured to write on the subject—the collapse of the Vākāṭakas is entirely a subject of the battle of thrones. Spink’s reconstruction of the events is based largely on the Daśakumārcarita (Spink 2005, 119-62, 169-78, 393-411) while other writers do not stipulate any particular factor. Even while we accept the battle-of-the-throne theory, the question remains as to what happened to the Buddhist patronage after the Vākāṭaka domains came under the rule of the successive dynasties in the post Gupta-Vākāṭaka age. Why do we not see a single important Buddhist patronage in the sixth century CE? Why were the rock-cut monasteries of Ajiṇṭhā, Ghaṭōtkacha, Aurangābād, Banōṭī, Bāgh, and Kanherī—that were either initiated, or expanded and many of the edifices were even greatly completed during the Hariṣeṇa period—suddenly abandoned after him? The question can only be answered when we start probing into the sphere of sociology without limiting the area of inquiry to the political sphere.

All the evidence point out that the society was quite peaceful during Hariṣeṇa’s reign, which permitted the exuberance of pious activities of which the proof are the above-mentioned rock-cut monasteries themselves, apart from those in stone, wood, or brick, which have been perished. There is good reason to conclude that the brāhmaṇical society and Buddhists were not initially at loggerheads. The fifth-century Ajiṇṭhā inscriptions mention in good light the deities that are common to Buddhism and brāhmaṇism. Long ago, some of the Vedic and Purāṇic deities like Indra and Brahmā, that are handsomely depicted at Ajiṇṭhā, had been assimilated into the Buddhist cosmology. Nonetheless, the said deities and the others that were embibed into the Buddhist pantheon remained for Brāhmaṇism what they were supposed to be in the brāhmaṇical cosmology and dharma-śāstras. Although suitable adjectives in the Ajiṇṭhā inscriptions have been employed where needed with reference to such deities and other characters from the brāhmaṇical tradition, the notable fact is that the Buddha in comparison is shown invariably superior in the hierarchy of gods. Such depictions are indeed not numerous, but there could have been more such depictions if only the painting work was completed, or survived everywhere. Our knowledge of the corpus of Ajiṇṭhā painting, in fact, is from the limits of the four caves (caves 1, 2, 16, and 17) at Ajiṇṭhā, and some from Bāgh both of which belong to the Hariṣeṇa period. It is these caves whose donors, under various circumstances, were able to expedite the painting work and bring them to the state of completeness as we think of them now (rather erroneously). Notwithstanding the quantum or frequency of such depictions, we know very well that such depictions at Ajiṇṭhā were hardly new. In fact, they were not new at all. In the past, such themes were depicted commonly in the art of early Buddhism. What are these themes? We can cite an example or two for illustration.

In Ajiṇṭhā Cave 2, the narrative of Bhagavatprasūti (the birth of Siddharth) is depicted.[8] In that mural, Brahmā and Indra are depicted elegantly with superior artistic skill, complete with rich iconographic details. At the time of the birth of Siddhārtha, these deities came down from the heavens to attend to the galactic event, and to personally receive the Buddha as he emerged from the right side of Queen Mahāmāyā. In the next episode of the same narrative, Brahmā and Indra are seen as the attendants of Siddhārtha holding the parasol over Siddhārtha’s head as the newborn takes the seven steps. Numerous other legends and narratives are found right from the times of the early Buddhism whereby the deities that Buddhism imbibed from Brāhmaṇism are delineated in a fashion, hierarchy, and status that is subordinate to the Buddha. Many superior beings from the pre-Buddhist or other parallel traditions are placed at the service of the Buddha, e.g. the powerful yakṣas, the venerable nāgas, the delightful gandharvas and kinnars, the śabaras, and sacred trees. Some of the narratives and legends are even adapted from the corpus of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa. The narrative of Śibi-Kapōta depicted in Ajiṇṭhā caves 1, 2, and 17[9] are adapted from many sources that include the Mahābhārata[10]. The narrative of Viśvantara depicted in caves 16 and 17[11]  has parallels with the narratives in the Rāmāyaṇa[12]. The narrative of Śyāma depicted in Cave 17[13] is adapted from the narrative of Śravaṇa Kumar in the Rāmāyaṇa.[14] Although Yakṣa worship was a different cult, it was amalgamated equally in Brāhmaṇism and Buddhism (Coomaraswamy 1928). The yakṣa (genius) in the Mahābhārata is so powerful that he was able to put to death four of the five Pāṇḍava brothers, and without a fight, simply because they had refused to answer the yakṣa’s questions and dared to take the forbidden water from the reservoir whose guardian the yakṣa was[15]. The yakṣa being so powerful remains in Buddhism in the service of the Buddha. Often, he is the lowly doorkeeper (dvārapāla). He guards the temple in various ways: in the skies, he holds the Buddhamaṇḍapa over his shoulders. Often the yakṣas are depicted below the pillars supporting the weight of the temple. Many times, they are depicted flying through the skies and carrying garlands for the Buddha. As bhāravāhaka, he supports the base of the Buddha’s throne. In Buddhism, the head of the yakṣas is Kubera—the lord of wealth who is ever ready to loosen his purse of coins for the ever needy upāsakas. He can be identified holding a moneybag in hand. His big belly is indicative only of his prosperity—and the prosperity that he promises to those who worship him, or better, to those who have taken refuse in the Buddha. It would be endless, and beyond the scope here, to go into all the details and elements that Buddhism imbibed from outside. Such depictions of the Buddhist narratives were nothing new in the fifth-century phase of Ajiṇṭhā. They were common in early Buddhist art and archaeology right from the times of the early Buddhist art in Āndhra, and at Bhārhut, Sānchī, and elsewhere.

However, by the time we come to the Hariṣeṇa-period Ajiṇṭhā things are substantially different. Although the iconographic tradition continued historically, it was elaborated and expanded with more elements, sophistication, and intelligibility. The iconographic and aesthetic innovations had a fixed creative circuit, confined largely to the Buddhist aesthetic tradition and history. The intercourse with other parallel traditions is not as much in painting and sculpture as in architecture, that too in the late years of the site’s development. Due to the reduced Buddhist activities in the third, fourth, and early fifth century CE, such depictions of the subordinating status of the brāhmaṇical deities would have been stirring for many. There may have been a section in the society that took exception to such portyals, especially if they were such orthodox brāhmaṇs who felt that the king of the gods, Indra, and the first of the Trīmūrtī, Brahmā, has been subjected to a propaganda wherein they exist only to prove the superiority of the Buddha. We shall not be surprised of such readings in the times, as it is nearly the time when a counter propaganda is about to take the shape, that is, a brāhmaṇical response wherein the case is just the opposite. The idea was already floated that the Buddha was none other than one of the ten incarnations of Viṣṇu. The idea was to be petrified at Ellora Cave 14, also called the Daśāvatāra cave. This cave was a Buddhist edifice that was converted to a brāhmaṇical temple with depictions of the ten incarnations of Viṣṇu, one of them being the Buddha. Even Banoṭī was converted from the Buddhist to a Śaiva temple.

We do not know what the factors were at Ajiṇṭhā; the foregoing observations must remain in the realm of speculation. These portrayals may not today be perceived as a subject of fight. But, was it equally so in the times? We wonder, since even in the twenty-first century, we have had to witness the worldwide arsons and riots following the depiction of Prophet Mohammad’s cartoons in a Danish newspaper.[16] A small thing can become big when it hurts the religious sentiments of a community.

The portrayal of the superiority of the Buddha over the brāhmaṇical deities and values were not perhaps all that contributed to the sudden division in society, which might have led to the murder of Hariṣeṇa and the consequent expulsion of the Buddhists from the monasteries that Hariṣeṇa had liberally supported. Apparantly, there were other very closely related factors. This was regarding certain Buddhist practices, e.g. advent of Vajrayāna (as in Ajiṇṭhā caves 26 and 10 A, and in Aurangābād), accumulation of wealth by individual monks, the rising prosperity of the merchant class a majority of whose members were Buddhist, the growing brāhmaṇisation of Buddhism, and probably, the perceived corrupt practices in Buddhist asceticism, rituals, and values. This is something that happened repeatedly and intermittently in the history of India. It finally spelt the demise of Buddhism from the land where it was born.[17]

Sanskṛit was the prevalent language

The known inscriptions of the Gupta-Vākāṭaka age have been edited and translated, which show that the inscriptions are all in Sanskṛit language. Not a single inscription of Ajiṇṭhā is in Pāli. In the fifth-century, not a single inscription was painted or incised in a language other than Sanskṛit. It is not just Ajiṇṭhā, but the entire gamut of the Gupta-Vākāṭaka inscriptions is in Sanskṛit mixed with Prākṛit. Notwithstanding, some Buddhologists still try to relate the fifth-century narrative paintings to the Pāli sources.[18]

The painted or incised inscriptions on the monuments or copper plate grants were caused by the people from diverse sections of the society including kings, ministers, administrators, and merchants belonging to both the brāhmaṇical and Buddhist cultures. Many of those belonging to the Buddhist culture were monks themselves. The wide cross section of the donors has used Sanskṛit without an exception. The script was box-headed Brāhmi. It becomes easy then to deduce that the monks and laity were using the Sanskṛit canon, and not the Pāli canon. It also becomes amply evident that the Gupta-Vākāṭaka age was largely Sanskṛitised.[19] This is not to rule out the possible and most likely existence of the vernacular languages and dialects. However, the written and the official language, as well as the language of the Buddhist clergy, was evidently Sanskṛit mixed with Prākṛit.[20] Thus, even on the linguistic ground, we observe that there was no real divide between the brāhmaṇical and Buddhist cultures, that is, if the two could be bracketed as two cultures at the time.

            We may, in the context, mention the work of Dieter Schlingloff. His landmark publication is invaluable for the themes of the Ajiṇṭhā paintings. The publications are (Guide to the Ajanta Paintings: Narrative Wall Paintings 1999) and (Ajanta: Handbook of the Paintings 2013). He has related the narrative themes to the Sanskṛit canon, or when the original is lost, the Chinese or Tibetan translations. Schlingloff’s identification bears a meticulous exercise, wherein each of the figure and event as contained in a painted narrative has been well scrutinized and compared with the different versions of the extant textural sources. He has not only identified the closest source of the ones that were already largely identified before, but he has also been able to correct some of the narratives that were earlier incorrectly identified or not explained to as much detail as he has successfully done. He has made extensive documentation of the secondary literature as well with detailed annotated bibliography suggesting a most comprehensive detour ever undertaken so far, which is ultimately able to reveal the smallest of the details that would otherwise have escaped the attention of the reader. In one word, Schlingloff has left no stone unturned. He has finally put to rest a long-standing debate. He leaves nothing to doubt. His corpus suggests clearly that the painters of Ajiṇṭhā belonged to the Mūlasarvāstivāda nikāya.

            With regard to the non-narrative or the so-called devotional and ornamental themes, equally pioneering work is done by Monika Zin. Apart from many papers, three of her books make a case for special mention: (A Guide to the Ajanta Paintings: Devotional and Ornamental Paintings 2003), (Ajanta: Handbook der Malereien - Devotional and Ornamental Malereien 2003), and (Samsaracakra: Das Rad der Wiedergeburten in der Indischen Uberlieferung 2007). No one has identified the myriad of tiny motifs, characters, figures, and objects that populate the non-narrative and decorative corpus of the Ajiṇṭhā murals to the extent that Monika has done. Nothing has escaped her attention. Together with Schlingloff, she explains the wider inter-textual, iconographic, and iconological threads in a manner that contributes significantly to the field of research. Her research too suggests unequivocally that the monastics of the fifth-century Ajiṇṭhā belonged to the Mūlasarvāstivāda nikāya, which has become the focus of Buddhological research in the recent decades. Our knowledge of this nikāya is still far from complete. It appears to be a canon in itself.

            To conclude, the foregoing observations are to highlight the need and scope of further studying the sociological dimensions of the times so as to enable us to learn about the people who created Ajiṇṭhā and to find answers as to why many monasteries in that age were suddenly or rapidly abandoned.




Captions for figures

Figure 1          Ajiṇṭhā: Caves 9 and 10

Figure 2          Ajiṇṭhā: the waterfall




Works Cited

Archaeological Survey of India. 2006. “Excavation at Ajanta: District Aurangabad.” Indian Archaeology 2000–2001 – A Review, 92-97.

Bakker, Hans T., ed. 2004. The Vakataka Heritage: Indian Culture at the Crossroads. Groningen: Egbert Forsten.

—. 1997. The Vakatakas: An Essay in Hindu Iconology. Groningen: Egbert Forsten.

Bhatt, G. H., and U. P. Shah, . 1960-1975. Ramayana of Valmiki. Critical edition. VII vols. Baroda: Oriental Institute.

Brancaccio, Pia. 2011. The Buddhist Caves at Aurangabad: Transformations in Art and Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Burgess, James. 1883. Buddhist Cave Temples and Their Inscriptions, Archaeological Survey of Western India series. Vol. IV. London: Trubner & Co.

Coomaraswamy, Anand K. 1928. Yaksas. Washington.

Gombrich, Richard. 1985. “The Vessantara Jataka, the Ramayana and the Dasaratha Jataka.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 105 (3): 427-437.

Schlingloff, Dieter. 2013. Ajanta: Handbook of the Paintings. III vols. New Delhi: IGNCA and Aryan Books International.

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[1] For a recent and comprehensive study of the history of the Aurangabad caves, see (Brancaccio 2011).

[2] According to Cave 10 inscription, there was a wooden façade attached in front that was donated by ‘son of Vāsiṭhi’ (Burgess 1883, 116). There was a person of homonymous name who donated the gates at Sānchi (Dhavalikar 2003, 4). Ajiṇṭhā Cave 9, and even the later caves 19 and 26, had external wooden attachments affixed to the sofits and grooves in the monolithic rafters on the inner sides of the great ‘gavākṣas’.

[3] These were part of worship activities. The proofs of usage and worship activities have been extensively documented by Spink. Naomichi Yaguchi and the present author have further studied the hooks and holes in many caves. It appears conclusively that they were used for hanging garlands. Additional evidence is the presence of the fifth-century carbon soots in some temples. They have been analysed and verified. They came from the lamps and incence sticks used during the worship activities.

[4] See (Bakker 1997) and (Bakker 2004).

[5]  For identification of the donor’s name as Dharādhipa, see (Shastri 1997, 47-48) and Bakker who says: ‘The “name” of the elder brother is odd: Dharādhipa (i.e. “Lord of the Earth,” “King”)’ (Bakker 1997, 36). Bakker unambiguously rejects Spink’s identification as Upendragupta (Bakker 1997, 38).

[6] Spink’s identification of Cave 17’s donor, even if correct, ought to be Upendgragupta II instead of simply Upendgragupta to distinquish him from a homonymous forefather in the given pedigree.

[7] For a summary, see (Spink and Yaguchi 2014, 1-11). For details, see (Spink 2005, 272-314).

[8] Schlingloff’s narrative Index No. 65 (Schlingloff 1999, 17), (Schlingloff 2013, 374-79), (Singh 2012, 118), (Singh 2013, 60)).

[9] Schlingloff’s narrative index No. 46 and 47 (Schlingloff 1999, 2, 16, 43), (Schlingloff 2013, 222-30, 233-37), (Singh 2012, 79), (Singh 2013, 39)).

[10] See (Mahabharata 1933-66, Aranyakaparvan, 3, 130, 19-131; appendix 1, Nr 21; Anusasanaparvan, appendix 1, Nr. 8).

[11] Schlingloff’s narrative index No. 42 and 43 (Schlingloff 1999, 31, 49-50), (Schlingloff 2013, 195-213), (Singh 2012, 179-80, 236), (Singh 2013, 91-92, 126)).

[12] See (Gombrich 1985).

[13] Schlingloff’s narrative index No. 31 ( (Schlingloff 1999, 56), (Schlingloff 2013, 145-151), (Singh 2012, 245), (Singh 2013, 135)).

[14] See (Ramayana of Valmiki 1960-1975, Ayodhyakanda, II.57, 10-58, 46).

[15] See (Mahabharata 1933-66, Aranyaka Parva, 311–312).

[16] Jyllands-Posten, 30 September 2005.

[17] For a comprehensive overview, see (Jaini 2001). A host of other writers associated with the Ambedkar movement have elaborated the subject in much detail.

[18] Meen Talim (Talim 2013) relates the Ajiṇṭhā paintings to the Pāli canon. The blurb mentions: ‘All the murals of Ajiṇṭhā are based on episodes from Pāli Tipitaka.’ On page v, she writes: ‘The Pāli and Sanskritised-Pāli literature have played an important role in providing material for Ajanta apaintings… The source of an inspiration to these paintings can be traced in Theravadin literature from Fifth Century B.C.E. to Fifth Century CE approximately.’ On page x: ‘the fact is that I have found all the murals of Ajanta are mostly based on Pāli Jātakas except one i.e. Hasti Jātaka from Jātakamālā, the source which is earlier…. In this period [5th to 650 CE], majority of the paintings in Cave Nos. 1, 2, 16, 17 and 26 were based on Hinayāna Jātakas, propagating “Paramita” theory…’ On page xii, Talim writes, ‘The study of the original sources infused a confidence in me to identify the unidentified paintings and also bring to light misinterpreted paintings. I was able to point out why and where such misinterpretation have taken place. However, in my heart there is no feeling to supersede any scholar or find fault with anyone. I only desire that the efforts of Ajanta artists, who have taken pains to know original literary source, be given justice. As a professor of Pāli and Ancient Indian Culture I felt it as my duty to work on this project and bring to light the concealed treasure.’

[19] About the gradual Sanskṛitisation of the mainstream Buddhism Romila Thapar observes: ‘The Theravada sect, which had its centre at Kaushambi, had collected the teachings of the Buddha into the Pāli canon. It was the oldest sect and claimed closeness to the original teaching. The Sarvastivada sect, originating at Mathura, spread northwards to Gandhara, central Asia and further. They collated material in Sanskrit. The Canon was also written in Gandhari Prakrit. The nuances of the earlier teaching could have been inadvertently changed in the process of translation, or by composing the text in a language different from that of the original. Added to this was the changing historical context of societies identified with Buddhism and the mutations they introduced into the teaching.’ [ (Thapar 2003, 273)]

[20] In the context of the Gupta-Vakataka age, Thapar’s contention is incorrect that ‘Sanskrit had been the language of the courts and of upper caste Hinduism.’ [ (Thapar 2003, 17)]