Ajanta Cave 1
Considered one of the most prominent of the rock-cut Ajanta caves, Cave 1 is a Buddhist vihara located at the eastern end of the cave complex. Cave 1 is dated to the late fifth century CE, during the second period of activity at Ajanta. It is believed to have been commissioned by the court of the Vakataka king Harisena.
Typical of most viharas, the main structure of the cave features fourteen residential cells excavated into its side walls. A large open courtyard in front of the façade is provided with two rooms on the left and right sides. The inner chamber is surrounded by a pillared peristyle and houses a garbhagriha at one end of the rectangular hall. The cave features considerable sculptural decoration, with carvings at the base and capital brackets of every pillar and pilaster as well as the architraves and friezes. While the portico of the cave has now completely collapsed, the façade is widely regarded by scholars as the most well-carved among all the viharas at Ajanta, with sculptures on all the front surfaces of the entablature.
A colossal sculpture of the Buddha is carved in the shrine, seated on a throne in the padmasana, with his hands in the dharmachakra mudra. He is flanked by chauri bearers on each side, possibly bodhisattvas. The bodhisattva on the left is seen holding a vajra or thunderbolt and is presumed to be Vajrapani; the one on the right holds a lotus and is presumed to be Padmapani. The dharmachakra or “wheel of law”, flanked by worshippers and deer, is carved below Buddha’s throne, indicating that this is a depiction of the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. Apart from the monks depicted among the worshippers, there are also carvings of royalty, suggested by their rich clothing. These may be depictions of the patrons of the cave; one of the male figures is headless, and some scholars have suggested that it is Harisena, depicted alongside his wife and two sons. The sculpture also depicts apsaras and gandharvas flying above the Buddha, bearing garlands.
The capitals and panels of the pillars in the cave depict the Buddha and stupas, flanked by devotees and other attendants. Other sculptural decorations include figures of animals, humans and mystical beings such as apsaras and gandharvas. The façade of the cave features carvings of domestic scenes and mithuna couples; the frieze panels depict numerous animals such as elephants, sardulas and fighting buffaloes. The animal carvings on the doorways, including lion heads and sardulas, have been interpreted to have royal significance. The doorways of the cave feature sculptures of dvarapalas, with the entryway into the main cave and the inner shrine being guarded by sculptures of nagas.
Cave 1 is also known for housing some of the most intricate of the Ajanta murals. The entrance to the shrine’s antechamber at the rear end is flanked by murals of two large bodhisattvas. The one on the left is 2.12 metres long and 2.07 metres wide and depicts the bodhisattva Padmapani, surrounded by terrestrial and celestial attendants. Although he is generally depicted as an ascetic, with matted hair, a pilgrim’s flask and a lotus, the mural here presents him as wearing an ornate crown, perhaps a reflection of the courtly tastes of its patrons. The mural on the right wall depicts Vajrapani, the bodhisattva associated with knowledge, power and kingship. He is depicted as heavily bejewelled and wearing an elaborate headdress, leaning on a burly anthropomorphised vajra. An attendant, also richly crowned, is shown making an offering of fresh flowers to the bodhisattva. This mural is over 2.27 metres long and 1.64 metres wide.
Other murals depict stories from texts such as the Jatakas, especially those that focus on the Buddha’s previous lives as a king and a bodhisattva; this preoccupation with royal imagery is one of the reasons why Cave 1 is generally associated with Harisena. The Sibi Jataka is depicted on the wall to the left of the main entrance, and is the first mural visible when the cave is entered. While the version depicted here appears to be based on Brahminical texts such as the Mahabharata, a mural closer to the Buddhist version can be found in Cave 17. Also along the left wall of the cave is what is possibly a depiction of the Mahajanaka Jataka, over 7 metres long and varying from 1.36 to 1.92 metres wide. Some scholars dispute the identification of the king as Mahajanaka, and instead identify the mural as depicting the Mahavastu Avadana.
Scholars have suggested that Deccan elites of the fifth century, including royals, noblemen and merchants, participated in a highly refined aesthetic and material culture while simultaneously patronising Buddhism — which in principle preached renunciation and asceticism. This explains the intricacy and abundance of ornamentation and detail in the cave’s sculptures and murals; many sculptures depict scenes that are considered to be of royal interest, such as hunting and war.
The narrative frieze on the left wing of the cave, which is partially broken, appears to depict scenes and stories from the life of the prince Siddhartha. Stories from his journey towards enlightenment, such as the Temptation of Mara and the Offering of Milk-Rice Pudding by Sujata, have been carved on the capitals of the pillars and pilasters of the main façade. These have led scholars to conclude that the cave may have represented the ideal spiritual development of a prince through the Buddha’s own spiritual odyssey.
Cave 1 is relatively well preserved. This has been attributed to the fact that it was never finished or dedicated for worship, as indicated by the absence of deposits from lamps as well as the lack of damage that might have been caused by garland hooks. There is evidence that the sculptures in the cave may have been covered in plaster and painted, although there is very little that remains of these painted surfaces today.
The murals were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Ajanta caves complex in 1983, and are a major tourist attraction to the present day.
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