A political and economic history of the Ajanta Caves

Source: The post is based on the article “A political and economic history of the Ajanta Caves” published in the Livemint on 11th March 2023.

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Ajanta caves tells the story of the rise and sudden demise of the Vakataka empire, but also of the zenith of Buddhism as a state religion in India.

What is the political and economic history of the Ajanta Caves?

Trade activities: Mediterranean trade was passing through the ancient port cities of Kalyan and Sopara on the Konkan coast. Ujjain was also heavily involved in the east-west trade.

The bulk of the Indian Ocean trade also migrated further south down the Konkan coast, and the interior Deccan region became increasingly reliant on local agriculture.

Rise of Vakataka empire: In the fifth century, a branch of the Vakataka empire rose with its capital in Vatsalguma (present-day Washim in Maharashtra). They controlled much of the area from the Konkan coast to the western part of the Deccan plateau through a network of local feudatory kings.

By the late fifth century, during the reign of Harisena, their most illustrious emperor, the Vakatakas had regained control of the old oceanic and overland trade routes. The economic conditions facilitated more lavish Buddhist building work to begin in Ajanta.

About Ajanta caves

Ajanta is an elegant complex of viharas (monasteries), shrines and chaitya-grihas (stupa-halls).

Salient features:

-The colossal Buddhas at the heart of every shrine-sanctuary sat enthroned in a manner that easily echoes a king seated among his courtiers, attended to by Bodhisattvas, vidyadharas, yakshas and nagas. This also reinforces the narrative settings of the Mahayana sutras, with the Buddha revealing new teachings in a vast court of Bodhisattvas, Brahminical gods and other divine beings.

Read more: ​​What are Ajanta Caves?

What is the evolution of Ajanta Caves?

Early caves(9-12, except 11): The first caves had been excavated around the first-century BCE-first century CE, when the area was part of the large Satavahana empire. These caves have modest viharas with the main focus on devotion. Both caves 9 and 10 feature some of the oldest paintings at the site.

Caves(1-8, 11 and 14-31) from the reign of Harisena(460 CE-477 CE): Unlike the older ones, these caves are clearly of royal commission: by Harisena himself, his minister Varahadeva, and Upendragupta, the feudatory king of the Ajanta area.

These caves have superlative artworks which were created over just 15-20 years. These clusters hold the bulk of the surviving painted murals. The walls are illustrated with scenes from various Jataka tales.

The walls also depict a snapshot of the Vakataka court including the portrayal of Janaka’s gorgeous palace, the depiction of the women dancers and musicians, etc. In short, this period remarks the mixing of the kingly and the divine in art form.

Note: Cave 1 is a vihara with a Buddha shrine. This is the only cave that was built as a donation by Harisena. The dark-skinned Vajrapani(“pre-Chalukya” tradition) to the Buddha’s left and the light skinned Avalokiteshwara (“Gupta tradition”) to the Buddha’s right are understandably considered two masterpieces of the ancient world.

What are the later developments?

-Soon after Harisena’s death, the Vakataka empire came to a sudden end. Ajanta itself was almost immediately abandoned and subsequent Buddhist centres moved to Aurangabad and to Ellora. This is visible from the caves and shrines at Ajanta which were still unfinished.

Buddhism continued to be a major force in the region, especially at sites like Kanheri, close to the trading ports.

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