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April 2006


Illustration of a Prince - Cave 1

The Ajanta Caves carved out of volcanic rock in the Maharashtra Plateau was not far off from the ancient trade routes & attracted traders & pilgrims through whom the Ajanta art style diffused as far as China & Japan. The Buddhist Monks employed artists who turned the stone walls into picture books of Buddha's life & teachings. These artists have portrayed the costumes, ornaments & styles of the court life of their times.

An Apsara - Cave 17

Bodhisattava Padmapani - Cave 1

The artists applied mud plaster in two coats - the first was rough to fill in the pores of the rocks & then a final coat of lime plaster over it. The painting was done in stages. They drew the outline in red ochre, then applied the colours & renewed the contours in brown, deep red or black.

The attenuated poses, supple limbs, artistic features, a great variety of hair styles, all kinds of ornaments & jewellery indicate skilled artisans.

In a mural in Cave 10, some 50 elephants are painted in different poses bringing out the skill of the artist in handling these bulky forms in all perspective views, with erected tails & raised trunks, depicting sensed danger.

The styles of the later murals reveals a merging of two streams of art, Satavahana of Andhra & Gupta art of North India. This resulted in the classical style which had a far reaching influence on all the paintings of the country for centuries to come.

A high degree of craftsmanship incorporating all the rules laid down by ancient Indian treatises on painting & aesthetics are evident. One cannot but notice the fluid, yet firm lines, long sweeping brush strokes, outlining graceful contours, subtle gradation of the same colour, highlighting nose, eyelids, lips & chin making the figures emerge from the flat wall surface. Animals, birds, trees, flowers, architecture are pictured with an eye to their beauty of form. Human emotions & character are depicted with great understanding & skill - indignation, greed, love & compassion.

Though not an art historian or art critic, I was fascinated by Ajanta from my school days. I entered that world through the then available literature. What was on offer, for the most part, were scholarly works; there was a paucity of information for the lay, interested reader. This is so even today. This and my continued passionate interest in it are the only two reasons for my essay into this enchanting world of sublime beauty.

- S. Swaminathan

the many-splendoured delights of Ajanta, compiled by Prof. Swaminathan


Mural paintings in Ellora are found in 5 caves, but only in the Kailasa temple, they are somewhat preserved. The paintings were done in two series - the first, at the time of carving the caves & the subsequent series was done several centuries later. The earlier paintings show Vishnu & Lakshmi borne through the clouds by Garuda, with clouds in the background.

The sinewy figures have sharp features & pointed noses. The protruding eye typical of the later Gujarathi style appears for the first time in Ellora. In the subsequent series, the main composition is that of a procession of Saiva holy men. The flying Apsaras are graceful . Very few murals in the Jain temples are well preserved.

Information from "A History of Fine arts in India and the West " by Edith Tomory

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