What’s so special about that one? 

I glance over at my brother. We are at Ajanta caves, looking at the exquisite paintings created between 2nd century BCE through 650 AD by king Harisena. ”It’s blue,”
I reply with a pang of recognition. It’s special because the Marathwada region didn’t have blue in 400 AD….Mesopotamia did.

Ajanta Cave 1 ceiling foreign dignitary

From Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh to Uttarakhand India has a collection of delightful art dating from prehistoric ages-Whether it be the paleolithic paintings in Bhimbetka which depict the daily life of the early civilization to the  painstakingly detailed rock cut paintings of gods and goddesses from Badami caves in Mahabalipuram. 

Even though these paintings are decorated with predictable motifs, the story in between the lines is much more fascinating.

For  most paintings after the 2nd century BCE  the mindset of the curators was to  glorify their rulers’ affluent life or  praise  their chosen deity . These are characteristics of the need to leave their legacy behind. Similar in the need to leave behind a legacy, prehistoric paintings generally had motifs and designs depicting ordinary daily life and gratitude to nature. For example ,the Jogimara caves in Cchhattisgarh are  decorated with drawings of animals, birds and humans which date back to around 300 BC. The cave also features an inscription written in Brahmi, regarded as the first written message of love to be documented on earth.


As we move a little closer to the 5th century , we start to see quite literally  the evolution of religion in these paintings. Tracing the rise of  Monasteries in specific  regions like the Armamalai caves in Tamil Nadu indicating how  Jainism was a flourishing faith in the 8th century.We also note the shift of influence to buddhism in west india-especially deccan during rule of Satavahana. Here, 200 buddhist caves were carved in Junnar including Lenyadri caves which according to the hindu myth is the birthplace of Lord Ganesha. Although these caves were first established as a Buddhist monastery in the 1st – 3rd centuries AD one of the Buddhist residences afterwards became a prominent Hindu god Ganesh shrine.

Armamalai cave                                https://www.indiaart.com/Apsara-Ajanta-series-/itemdetails/2771/

The most striking observation of the art in these cave paintings is the cohabitation of religions,like in Ellora where The Hindu caves, built around 600 – 875 AD, contain paintings based on Apsaras, trees, nature, and deities whereas the Buddhist caves, built around 550 – 750 AD, contain paintings based on the Lord Buddha. The Jain caves were built around 800 – 1000 AD. This cohabitation is a sign of tolerance but more importantly is a sign of cosmopolitan-ness of the Indian subcontinent. This was only achieved through free trade and with it-the free exchange of ideas. The blue color we talked about at the start of the article were  mural figures believed to be Sassanian merchants (from the Empire of Iranians/Neo persian empire ), painted wearing vibrant blue socks and negotiating a transaction. Lapis lazuli was specifically used to identify foreigners within the murals and used to paint their clothing. Similarly the motifs of delicate flowers indicate the influence of Japanese traditions These are one of many small pieces of evidence that help in  forming a clearer picture of a time before many trade routes like Venice and silk had withered away. 

It is here , when  we see the collective identities grow through centuries . It is here when we witness how art evolved from looking up at  the supernatural to aspiring for actualization with each other . It is here- that I find the truest and the most sublime expression of Bharat. All else – just fails to impress!

Manya Pandey
FY. BSc. 22-25

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