(23) Enjoy the masterpieces of Indian Buddhist painting at the Ajanta Grottoes! Visit amazing Buddhist sites that have been forgotten for a thousand years

adjanta Buddhist Columns & Dharma Talks

Travels to Buddhist sites in India and Sri Lanka (23)
Enjoy the masterpieces of Indian Buddhist painting at the Ajanta Grottoes! Visit amazing Buddhist sites that have been forgotten for a thousand years

The day after my shock at Ellora, I set out for my next destination, the Ajanta Grottoes.

Ajanta GrottoesWikipedia.

The Ajanta Grottoes are about 100 km from Aurangabad and can be reached in about two hours.

The suburbs are a farming area with endless fields. This region is famous for cotton, and its white flowers can be seen in this photo.

The road to Ajanta was well maintained and the ride was smooth with no traffic jams.

The plains are over and we are entering the mountains. Finally, Ajanta was near.

It is said that the Ajanta Grottoes are located behind the mountain in front.

However, you cannot go there by private car from here. For environmental protection reasons, you must take a special bus to get to the ruins.

In front of the bus stop, there are many food stalls and souvenir shops, but be careful here. The peddlers here are notorious for their persistence. Our guide reminded us to ignore them. Probably, the senior tourists who visited India were also baptized here.

We arrived at the bus stop. I thought it might be a clean bus because it was called "environmental protection," but it was just an ordinary bus. But it was an ordinary bus, and quite old. Well, it is probably better to allow only a few buses to enter than to have a large number of people come in with their own cars. This is quite understandable. First of all, it is important to have the will to protect the precious ruins.

The bus continued on its way through the mountains. Indeed, the greenery was deep. I could understand why the ruins would be hidden from view by the trees.

You have arrived at the entrance gate of the Ajanta Grottoes.

Beyond the gate was a plaza with a huge banyan tree providing comfortable shade. This is where the road to the Ajanta Grottoes begins.

There are many slopes as we proceed through the mountains. It is a bit like climbing a mountain.

After climbing the stairs, the Ajanta Grottoes came into view through a gap in the trees! There is something romantic about ruins found at the end of the jungle! I was excited too.

Finally, we arrived at the Ajanta Grottoes. These caves were built on the dark rock face in front of us.

The Ajanta Grottoes can be divided into two main periods when the caves were opened. The first period is thought to have been from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD, and the second period from the late 5th century to 600 AD.

Only about five monastery caves were built in the first period, and the rest were built intensively in the second period. All of Ajanta's famous murals and sculptures were created in this second period.

Now, let's see the Ajanta Grottoes in person.

The first cave you will see on foot from the entrance to the grottoes is Cave 1. It is here that the highest peak of Indian painting, which made Ajanta world-famous, is depicted.

The hall is dimly lit but faintly illuminated for good visibility.

As soon as I entered, I was amazed at the richness of the colors. This was nearly 1,500 years old. It is nothing short of a miracle.

At the back of the front of the hall, beyond the space separated by pillars, sits a statue of Buddha. It may be difficult to get a sense of perspective from the photo, but the partition, which looks like a picture frame, is the entrance to the room beyond. Beyond this is the hermitage room where Buddha is seated. I was struck by this structure.

In other words, this shore and the other shore. Beyond that entrance is the world of the Buddha, which is different from our world. It is an excellent structure that invites the viewer to enter the Buddhist world through the senses.

The two paintings on either side of the Buddha are the Lotus-te Bodhisattva (on the left) and the Vajra-te Bodhisattva (on the right), known as the greatest mural paintings in Indian history.

Before we take a closer look at these two bodhisattvas, let's take a look at the commentary on this mural.

What made Ajanta famous were the murals that remain in the Phase II caves, especially in Caves I, II, XVI, and XVII. The murals were introduced in Japan in the early Taisho period (1912-1926) and were said to be related to the murals in the Golden Hall of Horyuji Temple. Although Indians were blessed with a natural talent for sculpture, they were somehow less gifted in the fields of painting and calligraphy, and their Sanskrit scripts in manuscripts were not as good. Even in painting, few masterpieces have survived until the influence of the Persians in later times. However, the wall paintings of Ajanta are still the greatest masterpieces of painting in ancient India, even after 150 years.

It is not known what kind of people these painters were. They may have been foreigners from the West. The main themes of the murals are Buddhist biographies and jatakas (stories of the Buddha's practice as a bodhisattva to attain enlightenment in his previous life), but they also depict images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, the court, and people's lives. There are various painting methods, such as the use of shading as in modern Western oil paintings, or the use of almost no shading as in Tibet's mandala paintings. Blue lapis lazuli and other stones and yellow ochre were used as pigments.

Among the wall paintings in Cave 1, I am particularly attracted to the two bodhisattvas on either side of the entrance to the Buddhist temple in the nave. The way they are depicted with their bodies bent into three parts (the three-bend method), showing their graceful movements, and the gorgeous crowns they wear are said to have influenced the Japanese art of the Asuka period.

Shueisha, Musashi Tachikawa, photo by Jigo Omura, "Ajanta and Ellora: Rock Temples and Murals of the Deccan Plateau of India," p. 12

He said, "An Indian with a natural talent for sculpture, but somehow not so good in painting or calligraphy, and not so good in the Sanskrit script that survives in manuscripts."What an interesting point to make.

Indeed, as we have seen with regard to sculpture, the sculptures of Kajuraho, Elephanta Island, and Ellora are truly works of supreme art.

It is interesting to note, however, that even these Indians were not very good at painting. It is true that painting in India does not conjure up much of an image.

At best, these are religious paintings that are "very Indian" in style.

And as mentioned in the commentary above, these lotus-armed and vajra-armed bodhisattvas are still considered masterpieces of the Indian painting world, even after 1500 years of history.

Now let us take another look at these bodhisattvas.

lotus-shaped pedestal for a gravestone

I regret that it was too dark to see it clearly, but I was very moved when I saw it live...!

First of all, it is this hand. The grace of this hand pinching the lotus flower is extraordinary. Without a doubt, this is the central point of this painting. This is where the whole world is packed. You cannot take your eyes off it.

The smooth curves from her shoulders to her arms, the slight bend in her waist, the indescribable expression on her face...

It's perfect. Perfect is the only way to describe it. The weakness of this arm is unbelievable. It is beyond natural and realistic.

As I looked at this mural, I wondered what Da Vinci or Raphael would have thought. I wonder what Da Vinci and Raphael would think if they saw this painting. I would love to show it to them! I would love to show it to them!

In fact, I found out later that this Bodhisattva statue is also praised as the "Mona Lisa of the East. I guess there must have been many people who thought the same thing. It is synchronicity.

Vajradhara (Bodhisattva)

This one, Vajradhara Bodhisattva, is also wonderful. This one could be photographed more beautifully due to the light.

The fingertips are also like this.

All the nerves are concentrated on that one point where the fingers meet. The lotus-te Bodhisattva I mentioned earlier is also this very finger.

I was afraid of this. This painting was painted 1500 years ago.

And the fact that it has remained in such a beautiful state is nothing short of miraculous.

The walls and ceilings of Cave 1 are also covered with colorful paintings. All of them are national treasures. Moreover, they are valuable historical materials for understanding the Buddhist culture of the time. I am amazed that so many of them have survived. I can only express my gratitude.

The neighboring Cave 2 is also known for its magnificent wall paintings.

However, as you can see, the missing parts are conspicuous, and my honest impression is that it is inevitably inferior to Cave 1. However, the statues of Bodhisattvas in Cave 1 are too magnificent to begin with. It is impossible to compare it with anything else. It would be a pity for Cave 2 to be compared to something else. The wall paintings in Cave 1 were that overwhelming.

From this point, we viewed the grottoes, which curve in a horseshoe shape, one after another, and the view itself is truly spectacular.

We are just about halfway there. We looked back in the direction we had walked. I can't help but wonder how they could have dug a grotto in such an outrageous place.

And from here, facing forward, there is a narrow mountain in front of you. It is almost a cliff. It was an English officer who came to the top of this cliff and discovered the Ajanta Grottoes.

Also from another angle.

Can you see the pavilion-like structure on the cliff in the middle of this picture? It is said that this is where the grottoes we are in now were discovered.

In fact, the Ajanta Grottoes have been forgotten for nearly 1,000 years.(16) Why have India's Buddhist sites been buried in the ground and forgotten?As I mentioned in the article "The Sri Lankan Buddhist Temple," once a temple is built in a remote area and destroyed, it is buried under trees and soil and its existence is forgotten. As I will discuss in a later article, even Sri Lanka, a Buddhist holy land that continues to this day, has such a history.

The Ajanta Grottoes were also forgotten until 1819, when they were discovered by a British officer who was hunting tigers. An English officer was hunting tigers here when he happened to discover these ruins.

It was still understandable that they had come here to hunt tigers, but as you can see, this place is no longer a mountain but a cliff. How could he have come to such a frightening place even if he was hunting tigers? The British officer's sense of adventure was tremendous.

But in any case, the discovery of these mysterious, long-forgotten Buddhist sites here led to the excavation of Buddhist monuments throughout India. It was after this that famous Buddhist sites such as Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagara were all excavated in earnest. In that sense, the discovery of this site is of immeasurable significance to us Buddhists.

Our veteran guide, who has 35 years of experience with Buddhist sites in India, said that he is impressed by the magnificent scenery here no matter how many times he sees it. I think I can understand that. I too felt uplifted the whole time I was here.

Cave 26, near the innermost part of the temple, is also famous for its Ajanta.

This is a shrine called Chaitiya, which enshrines a chedi, and on its left wall lies a huge reclining Buddha.

This Buddha image is more than 7 meters long and is one of the largest in India. It is so large that I could not even take a picture of the whole thing.

And some of you may look at this chaitiya and think, "Huh?" Some of you may have thought, "What?

That's right. In fact, this place is just like the Grotto of Ellora.

Buddhist Caves of Ellora

It is said that Ajanta predates Ellora by about 100 years. Perhaps because of this, Elora's refinement is by far superior. The quality of Elora, which shocked me so much that my whole body was electrified, was exceptional. Comparing the two, I realize this even more.

I was convinced.

Sculpture by Elora. Paintings are by Ajanta.

This is the deal.

For a taste of the best of Indian Buddhist art, I highly recommend seeing these two together as a set.

Ajanta was also a truly wonderful place. I will never forget the fingertips of that lotus-teeth bodhisattva. That ultimate point where the fingertips touch each other...! It was a miracle. A miracle without a doubt.

I see! Perhaps those fingertips should be compared to Michelangelo's fingertips.

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel ceilingWikipedia.
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel ceilingWikipedia.

I think this world's most famous finger and the Lotus Hand Bodhisattva are on par with each other. I was once one of those who were captivated by this ceiling painting in the Sistine Chapel. I will never forget the miraculous attraction of the fingertips. Such a wonderful fingertip had been sleeping for 1,000 years deep in the mountains of India, unknown to anyone. I cannot help but feel the romance of history.

I want to come back. It was a visit to Elora Ajanta that left me wanting to come back.

Well, this concludes my second expedition to India.

From here I would head to Sri Lanka, where I would spend about three weeks touring Buddhist holy sites.

Sri Lanka is also a really interesting place. From this point on, we will continue to uncover surprising facts that will surprise you. Please stay tuned.

Next Article.

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