Explore The Caves of Ancient Buddhist Societies

Uncover the sculptures and paintings hidden within these hollows

As places of refuge, hermitage, and burial, caves have played important roles in societies around the world. Buddhists in Asia turned to these high, often remote burrows to make places of worship.

These caves are full of exquisite sculpture and fine painting. Centuries ago, craftsmen cut into the rock and transformed the dark walls into their canvas making beautiful rooms for meditation, worship, and the assembly of a spiritual community. There are an astonishing range of Buddhist cave complexes in India, China, Myanmar, and elsewhere. Many of these can be visited by tourist, often however with adverse effects

Scenery Outside Mogao Grotto in Dunhuang, Han Rak-yeon, 1898 - 1945 (From the collection of Korea Database Agency)

Preserved for over 1,000 years by the arid desert air, the Mogao Grottoes in China boast some of the best examples of Buddhist painting in the world. They were only rediscovered in 1900, when an abbot called Wang Yuanlu stumbled upon the caves and began clearing away the sand from the entrances. He founds troves of manuscripts within and many exquisite paintings and murals.

Amitayus, the Buddha of Eternal Life, 840 (From the collection of China Contemporary Art Document)

The paintings in the Mogao caves cover an area of nearly 500,000 square feet. They were composed over a period of around 1,000 years, starting around the 4th century AD. They mostly depict scenes from the life of the Buddha and other Buddhist themes, but many paintings explore non-Buddhist mythological traditions. In sum, they form an immense artistic archive that spans a millennium.

Eight Men Ferrying a Statue of the Buddha (from Mogao Cave 323, Dunhaung, Gansu province), 7th Century (From the collection of Harvard Art Museums)

But the caves have become a victim of their own popularity. Local officials have struggled to contain the influx of tourists who want to visit the Mogoa Grottoes. Human bodies change the humidity and temperature inside the caves, and they also bring in potentially harmful microorganisms. To protect the paintings, the authorities are now closely regulating the number of daily visitors.

Top Asia India Ellora and Ajanta Caves Hill Stations (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection) 

In India, the most famous Buddhist cave complex can be found in the western state of Maharashtra at Ajanta. The first caves at Ajanta were excavated over 2,000 years ago along a cliff face by the Waghora River.

Ajanta: Caves 1 to 19 (From the collection of Archaeological Survey of India)

In bursts over a period of 800 years, these caves were expanded with the patronage of local kings. Craftsmen dug into the cliff face to make monastery chambers and worship halls. All the elaborate pillars, statues, and reliefs were cut from the rock.

Top Asia India Ellora and Ajanta Caves Hill Stations (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Scholars believe they were in use for centuries, but the decline of Buddhism in India may have led to their abandonment. Rediscovered in the 19th century, they became an important archaeological site in understanding the Buddhist artistic history of India.

Ajanta Cave 26: Seated Buddha with worshippers (From the collection of Archaelogical Survey of India)

For centuries, the caves were protected by their remoteness. But improvements in infrastructure have allowed waves of tourists to descend on Ajanta and the nearby cave complex of Ellora every year. The increased footfall has threatened the integrity of the caves.

Ajanta: Cave 1, left wall – third overlapping view (From the collection of Archaeological Survey of India)

Much like in the Mogao Grottoes, human bodies change the humidity and temperature within the caves, affecting the ancient plaster beneath the intricate paintings and murals. The seepage from monsoon rains has eroded some of the sculpture and structures of the caves.

Ajanta Cave 16: Celestial couple on the ceiling (From the collection of Archaeological Survey of India)

Lights set up to illuminate the caves for visitors have also caused damage to the paintings and statues. Local officials have moved to more closely regulate the flow of tourist traffic into Ajanta, so as best to preserve the art that had survived for millennia.

Learn more about the Ajanta caves here and to see the craftsmanship for yourself, take a vitrual tour of the Ellora caves in Street View here.

Words by Kanishk Tharoor
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