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  • Writer's pictureShila Desai

Ajanta Cave Art: for Humans or Demigods?

Lack of visibility inside the 2nd BCE rock-cut structures poses questions about the artwork’s intended audience

Naga Raja, Cave 16. Image: Prashant Gopalan

Who were Ajanta's images intended for? Over the years, every aspect of the Ajanta Caves--from door hinges to Garland hooks--has undergone careful scrutiny by scholars eager to uncover the historical circumstances surrounding the creation and use of these spectacular caves carved into a cliff above a bend in the Waghora River on India's Deccan Plateau.

Ajanta Caves, 2nd BCE-5th CE

Many questions surround the topic of audience at the Buddhist caves at Ajanta. Who had access to the site? Who was permitted to see the lavish interior decorations? There are no clear answers. The lack of visibility inside the dark rock-cut structures only increases the number of questions about the art-work’s intended audience. It is possible that some of the art and sculptures was not intended for human eyes.

Murals of Ajanta Caves, 2 BCE-5 CE. Original image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

Much of Ajanta's artwork may have been intended to maintain and appease the local Naga deity. The Nagaraja - or Snake King - possibly represents a mythical figure from Buddhist mythology, or the headman of the local snake-worshiping tribe that lived in the same region as the ancient Buddhists of Ajanta at the same time. The veneration of nagas, like the one resident at Ajanta, has a very long history in South Asia. These serpentine figures were local demigods associated with fertility, water, and rainfall, who could be angered into unleashing periods of flood or drought. In the case of Ajanta, the local Naga King was more than likely associated initially with the Waghora River that cascades dramatically to the foot of the canyon just above the Caves and makes a sharp bend along the valley floor.

Nagas, Ajanta 2nd BCE-5th CE

In tracing the preponderance of Nagas (and similar beings) in the architectural space of Ajanta constructed over seven centuries, there is a marked shift towards depiction of nāgas in subsidiary positions. Details in the tableaux of Jataka Tales might vary, but generally the spirits and deities end up expressing their admiration for Buddhist teachings. Were these depictions a tool of conversion? If so, how would the potential convert see them in the gloom of the caves?

Present day worshipper. Image: Jonathan Calvey

Ultimately, textual evidence provided by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Xuanzang and Faxian supports the idea that visual imagery may have been used as a technique to avert bad influences and calm intemperate local gods. This use of the built environment as a means of beseeching a divine figure embodied in a sculptural form may hold important links to the development of South Asian bhakti practices.

Source: 󰁲󰁯󰁢󰁥󰁲󰁴Adapted from Robert DeCaroli's "The Abode of a Naga King": 󰁤󰁥󰁣Questions of Art, Audience, and Local Deities at the Ajanta Caves, ARS Orientalis, Vol 40, 2011.

Join us for Robert's lecture on Ajanta Caves on Thursday 16 Sept, 2021

Our Essence of India tour visits Ajanta, Ellora, and other less-frequented sites. Write us for more info.


Thanks for taking a look! I am Shila Desai, owner of E.Y.H.O. Tours. I personally handcraft itineraries, infusing them with curated activities, accommodations, and sightseeing. Together with my in-country teams, we deliver exceptional holidays every time. I invite you to leave me a comment or write

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