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Introduction to Vakataka

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 4:00 AM
The Vakatakas succeeded the Satavahanas in the Deccan. They were powerful rulers and had matrimonial alliances with the Bharasivas and the Guptas. The Vakatakas are first mentioned in inscriptions of the second century A.D. from Amaravati. They thus appear to have migrated from the Krishna valley and established a kingdom that grew slowly in the later centuries. The Vakataka ruler Pravarasena appears to have been not only highly literary but also a patron of art and beauty in all its forms. Some of the caves at Ajanta have inscriptions of the Vakataka period and can be definitely dated and attributed to the time of these rulers.

While the early caves show the earlier features of architecture of the Satavahana period, with typical pillars, facade decoration with railing and chaitya window pattern, etc., and with the uddesika stupa, devoid of any human representation of Buddha, when such anthropomorphic representation was considered disrespectful to the Master, the later caves have the more elaborate pillars and capitals of the Gupta-Vakataka period, the more developed chaitya window type and sculptural embellishment, with the uddesika stupa in the chailya, clearly showing the Master in human form on the sides.

The sculptures at Ajanta, especially in the later caves, show the high watermark of perfection during the age of the Vakatakas. There can be no better examples than these for a study of Vakataka art in the Deccan, coeval with Gupta art in the north. The paintings completely cover the walls, pillars and ceilings at Ajanta. They constitute a great gallery of Buddhist art illustrating scenes from the life of the Master, his previous lives comprising the jatakas and avadanas and floral and animal motifs. These last are cleverly woven into diverse designs of great originality.

From an inscription in Cave 16, it is learnt that it was dedicated to the monks by Varahadeva, the minister of the Vakataka king Harishena, in the latter half of the fifth century A.D. In Cave 26 there is another inscription which records the gift of the temple of Sugata by the monk Biddhabhadra, a friend of Bhaviraja, the minister of the king of Asmaka. Its date, paleographically, seems to be the same. A contemporary fragmentary inscription records the gift of the hall by Upendra in Cave 20. These inscriptions are all in the box-headed letters of the Vakatakas and help us to understand their date. The art here is thus of the Vakatakas, just as the earlier phase illustrates Satavahana art.

Choli Art
The mode of painting at Ajanta is the tempera and the materials used are very simple. The five colours usually described in all the silpa texts are found here red ochre, yellow ochre, lamp black, lapis lazuli and white. The first coating on the surface of the rock was of clay mixed with rice husk and gum. A coat of lime was applied over this, carefully smoothed and polished. On this ground the paintings were created. The outline drawing was in dark brown or black and subsequently colours were added. Effects of light and shade were achieved by the process of streaks and dots illustrating the methods of pat ravartana, stippling and hatching mentioned in the silpa texts. The lines composing the figures painted at Ajanta are sure, sinuous, rich in form and depth and recall the lines in praise of the effective line drawing in the Viddhasalabhanfika, api, laghu hkhiteyam drisyate purnamurtih, where by a few lines sketched, the maximum effect of form is produced. The masters at Ajanta have thus demonstrated the superiority of line drawing as given in the Vishudharrnottara, rekham prasamsantyacharyah, the masters praise effective line drawing as the highest in art.

The painter at Ajanta has studied life around him and natural scenes of great beauty with intense sympathy and appreciation. Plant and animal life has interested him considerably. He has lovingly treated such themes of flora and fauna as he has chosen to depict. The elephants under the banyan tree in Cave 10, the geese in the Hamsa Jataka from Cave 17, the dear in the Miga Jataka, also from the same cave, may be cited as a few examples of the tender approach of the painter to the themes of animals and birds. He has been equally at home in ably representing the dazzling magnificence of the royal court, the simplicity of rural life and the hermit's tranquil life amidst sylvan surroundings. The Vessantara Jataka illustrates the prince as the very picture of magnificence, as also the simplicity of the hermit and the poor Brahmin as an inexorable beggar. 

The scene in Cave 27 of prince Vessantara, with his consort, driving on the main road, depicting different merchants in pursuit of their trade, is a beautiful picture of economic life in ancient India. The landing in Ceylon is a splendid representation of royal glory in Cave 17. The interior of the palace giving a glimpse of the king and the queen in the harem or in the garden reveals that nothing was hidden from the gaze of the court painter. He could portray the charm of a close embrace, the arm entwining the neck in kanthaslesha or the sidelong glances of a loving damsel. The toilet of the princess is another example of a similar theme. Th imagination of the painter in portraying the celestials has probably no better examples to proclaim its eminence as the divine musicians floating in the air from Cave 17. 

Indian PaintingThe gay theme of dampati, or loving couples, has excellent examples at Ajanta. Of this a whole row is above the entrance doorway of Cave 17. The versatility of the Vakataka painter in creating diverse poses is here evident in the several seated dampatis. The artists could so elevate themselves mentally as to be able to depict magnificently such noble themes as Maraciharshana in Cave 1, Buddha's descent from heaven at Sankisa in Cave 17, and prince Siddhartha and Yasodhara in Cave 1, all magnificent representations of the Master in different attitudes. The long panels and borders from the ceilings of swans and birds, Vidyadhara couples, auspicious conches and lotuses as well as sinuous rhizomes and stalks, with lotuses in bud and bloom, and leaves covering large areas reveal the capacity of the artist to create diverse patterns of great artistic value.

The Vakataka traditions as seen at Ajanta are derived from the earlier Satavahana. This can be clearly seen in several echoes of the painted figures here from those of Amaravati. It is mainly the decorative element, chiefly composed of pearls and ribbons, so characteristic of the Gupta-Vakataka age that distinguishes them from the simpler but nobler art of the Satavahanas.

The Vakataka traditions continued in later sculpture. This can be seen in figures in identical poses found at Mahabalipuram inspired by those at Ajanta which them-selves in turn recall the earlier ones from Amaravati. The identical twist of the right leg put forward in exactly the same pose as at Ajanta and at Mahabalipuram cannot be a chance coincidence. The beautiful paintings in colour at Ajanta help us to conjecture and fully comprehend the glory of earlier Amaravati sculpture and the culture it represents. At Amaravati, the lack of colour precludes the comprehension of the rich jewellery, colourful gems, gay and glamorous drapery, rich furniture, imposing architecture and pageantry in the absence of colour.

Vasanta Ragini
There are excellent illustrations in these paintings at Ajanta of the six limbs of painting, shadanga, composed of rupabheda, variety of form, pramana, proper proportion, bhava, depiction of emotion, lavanya yojana, infusion of grace, sadrisya, likeness and varnikabhanga, mixing of colours to produce an effect of modelling. The diversity of form at Ajanta is indeed incredible. The painters here mastered the vast complex of human, animal and plant form in addition to giving free scope to their imagination and were creating designs galore. The master at Ajanta has control over not only the proportions of individual figures but also has the ability to group them and he has designed excellent compositions. Emotion is at its best in the narration of scenes from the legends; the grace in some of the figures bespeaks lavanyayojana. While figures are repeated as the Vessantara Jataka, the element of portraiture is clearly made manifest and sadrisya is very obvious. The painter's colour technique easily helps us to pay him a tribute for his capacity in varnikabhanga.

As a narrator of the legends, the painter as well as the sculptor at Ajanta has deviated from the normal course as in other monuments occasionally, but always the effect has been greater.

Irandati is shown on a swing in the Vibhurapandita lataka at Ajanta. This enhances the charm of the Naga princess, the desire to marry whom made the Yaksha Punnaka play the game of dice, win, and bring the wise Vidhurapandita to the palace of the Naga queen. It is thus here more beautiful than even at Bharhut or Amaravati or Borobudur.

The version of the Chhaddanta Jataka at Ajanta heightens the pathos by the noble act of the elephant who not only offered his tusks to the wicked hunter but also helped him even in pulling them out. But this is from the early Satavahana series in Cave 10 and probably the Vakataka painter followed this earlier tradition deviating from the normal representation for producing greater effect.

Scene of Gokul
The Hatnsa Jataka is probably more vivid at Ajanta in painting than even at Amaravati in sculpture.

But the detailed and touching story of the Sarna Jataka is probably nowhere better presented than here in the paintings at Ajanta. There is an elaboration here of the Vessantara Jataka which makes it probably the best narrative of this story excelling even that at Goli or at Sanchi.

The story of Mahakapi Jataka or Sarabhamiga Jataka is different from the stories usually chosen and depicted in other monuments. The Matiposaka Jataka is again elaborated here and is different from the simple single scene at Goli.

The Mahisha Jataka, represented at Borobudur, is a rare one in India and is found here. The Valahassa Jataka which is represented on a Kushana rail pillar is better elaborated at Ajanta following the Divyavadana story.

The Sibi Jataka at Ajanta presents a different version from the one of Kshemendra in the Avandana kalpalata, the source of which has inspired the scenes at Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and other places.

Even in the scenes from Buddha's life, the master at Ajanta has excelled. The story of Nalagiri is probably more effectively presented at Ajanta than even at Amaravati Goli. The same is the case with the presentation of Rahula to Buddha which is a greater masterpiece at Ajanta than the one at Amaravati though probably the medallion in the British Museum can stand comparison with any depiction of this scene from any Buddhist monument in the world.

The Surprised Maiden
The descent of Buddha from heaven and the elaborate Maradharshana scene are unrivalled and probably form the greatest attraction in the scenes from Buddha's life from the Ajanta caves.

Cave 1 contains great masterpieces illustrating scenes from Buddha's life. A large panel shows prince Siddhartha and Yasodhara, another Bodhisattva Vajrapani, Maradharshana, the miracle of Sravasti and the story of Nanda.

The Master, seated under the Bodhi tree in the Maradharshana episode, is shown determined to be the enlightened one, unaffected by the temptation of Mara and his beautiful daughters, and unruffled though attacked and frightened by the mighty hosts of his opponents.

In the miracle of Sravasti, Buddha is shown simultaneously in innumerable forms before a large gathering headed by king Prasenajit. This was to confuse the heretics.

The story of Nanda gives how, converted, unwillingly, by Buddha, Nanda still longed for his tear-eyed beautiful wife, Sundari, who pined for him in her palace. The painting here gives a side picture of Sundari in grief. The jatakas in this cave include Sibi jataka, Samkhapala fataka, Mahajanaka Jataka and Champeyya fataka.

The first narrates how the Boddhisattva offered his own flesh to a hawk to protect a pigeon that it was after. The Samkhapala Jataka is the story of a Naga prince who patiently allowed himself to be worried by a troop of wicked men and rescued by a merciful passerby, gratefully took the latter and entertained him in his magnificent underground abode. The painting depicts both the happy situation of the Naga king and his gratitude to his benefactor.

The Mahajanaka fat aka depicts the story of Mahajanaka who married the princess Sivali and, in spite of her at-tempts to retain him in worldly pleasures, made up his mind to be an ascetic, resulting in Sivali following her husband's path.

Peepal Leaf Painting
The Champeyya Jataka is the story of the Bodhisattva, born as a Naga prince, Champeyya, who allowed himself to be caught by a snake-charmer and was rescued by his queen Sumana, by requesting the king of Banaras to inter-cede on her behalf.

Cave 2 contains a large-size painting of Bodhisattva, the dream of Maya and its interpretation, the descent from heaven, the birth and the seven steps. The jatakas depicted here are Hatnsa Jataka, Vidhurapandita jataka, Runt Jataka and Puma Avadana. There are fragments of painted inscriptions mentioning the donation of a thousand painted Buddhas as also some verses from the Kshanti jataka from the jatakantala.

The Hamsa jataka relates the story of the queen, Khema, who dreamt of a golden goose preaching the law. She prevailed on her husband the king to get the golden goose and his companion to be caught by a fowler and brought to her to give her a discourse on the law. The painting shows the golden goose enthroned and admonishing the queen. Earlier the capture of the bird by the fowler is shown. The lotus-lake, the abode of the golden goose, is picturesquely portrayed.

The Vidhurapandita jataka is the story of the Naga, queen, who desired to listen to the learned discourse of Vidhurapandita, the wise minister of the king Indraprastha. According to the story, the beautiful Naga princess Irandati was promised in marriage to whomsoever brought the heart of Vidhurapandita. The Yaksha Punnaka won Vidhurapandita as a stake, by defeating his royal master in a game of dice, brought him to the Naga queen, and thus won the hand of the Naga princess. The story is elaborately shown here presenting the beautiful princess Irandati on a swing, the game of dice, Vidhurapandita's discourse in the Naga palace and the happy union of Punnaka and Irandati.

Radha and Krishna
The Runt Jataka is the story from the Divyavadana of the conversion of Puma by Buddha and the miraculous rescue of his brother, Bhavila.

The Kshanti Jataka is the story of a prince who was patience incarnate and put up with all the persecution he was subjected to by the King of Banaras.

Cave 16 is one of the most beautiful viharas of Ajanta. The inscription in this cave mentions it as dedicated by Varahadeva, the minister of the Vakataka king, Harishena, towards the end of the fifth century A.D. The picture given of this dwelling in this inscription that it was adorned with windows, doors, beautiful picture-galleries (vithis), carvings of celestial nymphs, ornamental pillars and stairs and a shrine chaityamandira, and a large reservoir and shrine of the lord of the Nagas is all borne out quite correctly.

The paintings here represent the story of Nanda, the miracle of Sravasti, Sujata's offering, the incident of Trapusha and Bhallika, the incident of the ploughing festival, the visit of Asita, the prince at school and the dream of Maya.

The story of Nanda relates to his conversion. When he returned to Kapilavastu, Buddha visited Nanda's mansion. He was then helping his beautiful wife Sundari at her toilet. Nanda rose to greet the Master, but Buddha gave him his begging bowl and bade him to follow him to the monastery. Here he was converted against his will. However, to make Nanda steadfast in his vows as a monk, Buddha showed him the most lovely nymphs in heaven, where he conducted him. These he promised him if he was true to monkhood. Nanda soon became a devoted monk, and realising the truth of religious life, no more thought of the heavenly damsels. The scenes here depict Nanda's conversion and his journey to heaven with Buddha to see the celestial nymphs. This is comparable to the sculptural presentation of the same theme at Nagarjunakonda. Among the jatakas painted in this cave are the Hasti Jataka, Mahaummagga Jataka and Sutasoma fat aka.

Radha and Krishna
The Hasti Jataka from the Jatakamala is the story of a noble elephant who killed himself by falling from a great height to feed a number of hungry travellers. The Mahaummagga Jataka is a very lengthy one from which an episode is chosen here for depiction. It is the riddle of the 'son'. Mahosada acted as a judge to settle a dispute between an ogress and the real mother of the child as both claimed the little one as their own. Mahosada asked them both to pull the child. He discovered the real mother in the one who readily gave in when she could not bear to see the child experiencing such severe pain on that account. Other riddles like that of the 'chariot' and of the 'cotton thread' from the same story are narrated further on.

The Sutasoma Jataka, also from the Jatakamala, narrates how a lioness was infatuated with a charming prince Sudasa who came hunting to the forest. She licked the feet of the sleeping prince and conceived a child. When born, this freak became a cannibal prince, but was finally converted into prince Sutasoma. The painting shows the lioness licking the feet of the somnolent prince.

As given in an inscription incised on the wall of the verandah, Cave 17 was excavated by a feudatory of the Vakataka king, Harishena. It has an elaborately carved doorway, with a fine floral design. The carvings of Ganga and Yamuna on the door-jambs are most pleasing.

Noteworthy among the paintings here are the seven earlier Buddhas, Vipasyi, Sikhi, Visvabhu, Krakuchchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa and Sakyamuni as well as Maitreya, the Buddha. to come, the subjugation of Nalagiri, the descent at Sankisa, the miracle of Sravasti and the meeting of Rahula.

The jatakas represented here are the Chhaddanta jataka, Mahakapi Jataka I, Hasti jataka, Hamsa Jataka, Vessantara jataka, Mahakapi jataka II, Sutasoma jataka, Sarabhamiga Jataka, Machchha Jataka, Matiposaka Jataka, Sama jataka, Mahisha Jataka and the story of Simhala from Divyavadana with details from Valahassa jataka, Sibi jataka, Ruru jataka, and Nigrodamiga jataka.

Rajasthani Paintings
The Mahakapi jataka I narrates the story of the Bodhisattva, who was born as the leader of a troop of monkeys. Once, while tasting sweet mangoes on the banks of the river, the monkeys were suddenly attacked by the archers of Brahmadatta of Banaras. To save the animals, the Bodhisattva hurriedly stretched out a bamboo to form a bridge to help them cross over. Finding it, however, slightly short, he stretched his own body to complete the bridge. The king was touched by the noble spirit of the animal, honoured him greatly and listened to his discourse on dharina. The river, the orchard of trees laden with mangoes, the strange bridge and the sermon of the monkey are all painted.

The Vessantara jataka has for its theme the life of the noble prince who never stinted gifting anything begged of him. In fact, he gave away even the precious elephant, responsible for the prosperity of his realm, which caused him banishment from his own kingdom along with his wife and children. Finally, he gave away all that he had, including his chariot and horses and even his children and wife. The panels here show the banishment, Vessantara leaving the city in his chariot, his wife in the forest, his gift of his children to wicked Brahman Jujaka, the restoration of the children to their grandfather and the happy return of the prince and the princess.

The Mahakapi Jataka II recounts the tale of the monkey who rescued an ungrateful man from a deep pit. In spite of the latter's attempt to kill him, the monkey with a most magnanimous spirit, showed him the way out of the forest. The scenes depict the animal helping the man out of the pit and the ingratitude of the latter.

The Sarabhamiga Jataka gives the story of the king of Banaras helped out of a pit by a stag.

The Machchha Jataka narrates the legend of the Bodhisattva, who saved his kin from death by drought by making a solemn asseveration to bring down rain.

The Matiposhaka Jataka gives the story of the filial affection of the elephant who took care of his blind mother. Captured by the king of Banaras, he refused to touch food till the king, out of compassion, got him to return to his blind parent. The scenes painted depict the refusal of the elephant to touch food, his release and happy reunion with his mother.

The Mahisha Jataka is the story of the Bodhisattva, who patiently put up with the antics of a monkey.


The Simhala Avadana narrates the story of Simhala, who accompanied by several merchants, was shipwrecked on a strange island of demonesses, who in the guise of beautiful nymphs, lured those unfortunately stranded there and gobbled them up. The Bodhisattva, born as a horse, offered to rescue the shipwrecked merchants, but those who stayed behind were destroyed by the ogresses. One of the latter followed Simhala in the guise of a beautiful woman, with a child in her arms, and claimed his as her husband before the king, who, struck by her beauty, made her his queen despite the advice of his ministers. This resulted in the gradual annihilation of the palace folk that were devoured by the demonesses. Simhala drove them out, set out with an army to reach their island, defeated them and became the ruler there.

The Sibi Jataka gives the story of a king who gladly gave away his eyes to a blind Brahman at his request, little knowing that it was Sakra himself in disguise. The panel has a short inscription Sibiraja painted in Vakataka letters.

The Ruru Jataka gives the story of the capture of the deer to preach the law to the king.

The Nigrodhamiga Jataka is the story of the Bodhisattva born as a compassionate deer, who offered himself to be killed in place of a pregnant doe to feed the king of Banaras. The ruler was so touched by this act of kindness that he adored the animal and listened to his sermon on karuna.

Cave 19 has panels representing Buddha with his begging-bowl before his son Rahula and Yasodhara.


Writer- C. Sivaramamurti
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