The wall space of the Ajanta caves is entirely covered by paintings of stories of the lives and incarnations of Buddha, taken from the Jataka tales. In addition, the paintings of Ajanta placed new importance on the stories of the Boddhisattvas, disciples of Buddha who achieved enlightenment but remained on earth to help others to do so. These images, painted throughout the 150 year period, are realist depictions of men and women set in the world of the artists. A single wall could be worked on by different workshops with little or no concern for uniformity of style. Largely, the narrative progresses outwards from the centre. The scaling of figures is hierarchical, thus important figures are larger. Shading and highlighting is not used to depict a light source but rather for effect, and indeed the paintings are said to glow as a result of the ground used by the artists.
The walls of the caves were first prepared with around 5cm of plaster mixed with cow dung, animal hair, rice husk and mud. This was then covered with a lime wash and was left to dry (the paintings are not therefore frescoes, since these are painted into wet plaster). First, the images were outlined in red and the figures blocked in with terre verde or grey. Pigments were made from locally found minerals, except lapis lazuli which was imported from Afghanistan. When complete, the images were outlined in black or brown and burnished to give them greater lustre. Because the paints were water soluble, and because the organic matter in the plaster has been attacked by insects, the paintings have suffered considerable damage. Nevertheless, they are, as Vidja Dehejia writes, 'the only comprehensive early group of paintings to have survived' (p118, Dehejia, 2002) and are therefore of immense importance.
Being dark inside the caves, it has been suggested that artists would have used a system of oil lamps and reflectors. Certainly visitors would have seen compositions with the aid of an oil lamp and therefore would only have seen small areas at a time. It is likely that a monk would have guided them around and interpreted the images for them.Lorna Hards | Jan 2004