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Lions Roar : May 2019
symbols, such as the wheel, footprints, and stupas. Two of the Hinayana caves are chaityas, prayer halls, while the other four are viharas—monas- teries for monks to live in. Though the walls and ceilings of all six Hinayana Caves were once com- pletely painted, only bits and pieces of the murals are still intact. For four hundred years, there was no further excavation at Ajanta, and during that lull the pre- vailing view of Buddhism shifted. So, when there was another burst of creative activity in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, the new caves, called the Mahayana Caves—were remarkably different from the earlier ones. Specifically, in the two chaityas and various viharas of the Mahayana Caves, the Buddha is shown in human form, making various mudras, or ritual gestures. The Buddha statues, many of them larger than life, are carved directly into the rock face, and I take a few minutes to stand in front of them and follow my breath. Then I turn my attention to the Maha- yana murals. They’re in much better condition than those in the earlier caves, so I can appreciate how exquisitely evocative and elaborate they are. The way the figures cast their eyes and curl their lips is so highly expressive and individual that whole stor- ies unfold. The imagery includes mythical beasts, princely processions, and ascetics in monasteries. Nothing, it seems, is left out, not even the detail of ants on a tree. According to Richard Cohen, associate professor emeritus of South Asian religious literatures at the University of California, San Diego, the opulent artistic beauty of the caves was in keeping with the views of early Indian Buddhists. A scripture of the Mulasarvastivada, a Buddhist sect associated with Ajanta, “talks about the importance of creat- ing beauty in this world and of having a beautiful monastery,” says Cohen. Inscribed into the rock at Ajanta, there’s a verse by a monk claiming that it’s better to be in nir vana and free of this world, but if you are going to be in this world, you might as well be in a place of beauty. Ajanta, Cohen says, reminds us that “beauty is a Buddhist value.” The caves were “discovered” by a British hunting party in 1819. They were pursuing a tiger when, it seemed to them, the animal vanished, as if by magic, through solid rock. Scaling the rock face, the party was amazed to find that vines were hiding a sophis- ticated portico. They lit a torch of burning grass and PHOTOS—TOP:BYFREAKYYASH—DETAILOF,CCBY-SA3.0;LEFT:BYEPHOTOCORP/ALAMYSTOCKPHOTO;RIGHT:BYDEY.SANDIP—OWNWORK,CCBY-SA3.0 LION’S ROAR | MAY 2019 44