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the many-splendoured delights of Ajanta compiled by Subramanian Swaminathan


September 2007

Phases of Ajanta Art

Pre-Classical Period (2nd-1st Centuries BC)

Classical Period (4th-5th Centuries AD)

Period of Mannerism (5th-6th Centuries AD)

Baroque Period (Mid-6th Century AD)

Period of Decline (End-6th Century AD)

In most forms of art one may discern a gradual and natural progression. A lack of experience in making and employing tools, in narration etc, is generally the beginning. This is often called archaic style.

Then follows a mature phase, a phase of quiet dignity without excesses; and the artists prefer studied dignity and what they call 'good taste'. This is the classical phase.

Repetition of ideas, called mannerism is perhaps the next stage to be followed by over-ornamentation, a style known as baroque.

archaic style

classical phase

It is then the decline sets in. By sheer chance, the development of style from the beginning to its final decline can be witnessed within the physical limits of Ajanta. In this respect Ajanta has no parallel.



Pre-classical Period
(2nd-1st centuries BC)
The earliest paintings of Ajanta of the 2nd-1st century BC cannot be classified as archaic. These paintings present lively men and animals. They have already entered the transitional period that was to carry them on to the classical phase.

Raja with retinue, Cave 10

Only a line sketch of this grand composition, belonging to the same period is availableto appreciate the lost glory.
Shad-danta Jataka, Cave 10

Classical Period
(4th-5th centuries AD)
This style means perfect mastery of the subject. Everything is idealised, realism is only for creating things of beauty and perfection. There is a dignity and nobility, and allows no exaggeration, no excess, no overstatement and no dramatisation.

Calm, unobtrusive modelling and gentle, the swaying movement of the characters bear the stamp of the classical period. A wash technique, called airika creating an illusion of depth is employed here.

The Prince is informing his wife of his impending exile and is offering wine to steady her. The posture of the couple and the sombre colours,
make the painful scene striking. Belonging to the classical period, the scene brings out the emotional atmosphere effectively.

The Prince is informing his wife of his impending exile Visvantara Jataka, Cave 17

Votaries with offerings, Cave 2

Period of Mannerism
(5th-6th centuries AD)
A departure from classicism can be seen in monotony in the sitting posture and in the overcrowding.

Raja with retinue, Cave 10

Baroque Period
(Mid-6th century AD)
Baroque is a style of over-ornamentation and exaggeration, Action takes place in a maze of pillars in royal pavilions. The eye-slits are stretched out of all proportion. Men look effeminate and women exaggeratedly feminine. Both men and women wear excessive ornaments.

The Bodhisattva is heavily bejewlled and His eyes elongated out of proportion Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Cave 1

The eye-slits are stretched out of all proportion

Maha-janaka Jataka, Cave 1

Period of Decline
(End-6th century AD)
Artistic standards were in the decline from the end of the 6th century. Mercifully this phase did not last long, for the Ajanta caves were soon abandoned forever, for reasons unknown

The poses are now exaggerated with heavy heads, elongated eyes, thin legs, superfluous hand gestures etc. The composition is too crowded. The execution becomes careless.

Women in a Palace Scene, Cave 1

The figures of the Buddhas came to be enclosed in separate cubicles. The presentation of figures of the Buddhas, lacks refinement and finish.

Two Buddhas, Cave 10

Miracle at Shravasti, Cave 2

In place of shapely palms and sensitive fingers, they are rather stiff and simplified. The countenance lacks expression.

An Unidentified Scene, Cave 1