Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 28, 1999
Benoy K. Behl The Ajanta Caves: Artistic Wonder of Ancient Buddhist India New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. 256 pp.; 186 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0810919834)

When I first opened this book, the spine broke, a premonition of things to come. But let me start with the book’s strengths, for certainly there are some.

Benoy Behl is a photographer who enjoys the challenge of working in low-light conditions such as those of the rock-cut shrines that form the Buddhist monastery of Ajanta. His photographs bring out the extraordinary richness of Ajanta’s paintings and capture details that I have failed to see or to see in the lush fashion that his photographs capture. It is too bad, however, that the book’s many color plates represent details only; there are no overall views of the caves’ walls, so that one might see how the narrative works visually. Perhaps the caves’ interior columns would make impossible views of whole walls, but much larger sections certainly could have been photographed. In several cases, plates illustrating details lack the sharpness of the larger views. For example, a plate on page 121 lacks the crispness of both a larger view on page 120 and, of course, the beautifully executed original. One might wish, moreover, that the title of the book reflected a focus on Ajanta’s paintings to the exclusion of Ajanta’s important sculptures and the architecture itself.

I start with the photographs, because the book does not purport to be scholarly. Walter Spink’s work on Ajanta, representing a lifetime of study, is nowhere reflected in the pages, nor is Dieter Schlingloff’s more recent excellent work on Ajanta’s paintings. Rather, the text focuses on Behl’s aesthetic judgments with repeated comments praising the paintings’ incomparable quality. That’s true. They are magnificent even when seen for the tenth time. But our understanding of them is not substantially advanced by the text here.

For example, the caves’ chronology is presented without evidence. (p. 29) In addition to this, there are several assertions that need comment or correction. For example, Behl states that the artists, regardless of whether or not they were Buddhists, were bhikshus. (p. 13) If he really believes they were bhikshus, a term that applies exclusively to Buddhist monks, it is hard to understand why he wonders if they were Buddhists. In fact, we do not know if the artists were Buddhists, much less that they were monks. In the text and frequently in the plate captions, Behl repeats the common notion associating Hinayana Buddhism with the so-called aniconic phase of Buddhist art, that is, art prior to the first century, when anthropomorphic images were eschewed. He thus refers to the later phase, the one from which almost all of Ajanta’s surviving paintings come, as Mahayana. It is simply untrue that anthropomorphic images of the Buddha are a distinguishing feature of these two major divisions of Buddhism. If that were the case, we should not expect to see anthropomorphic images of the Buddha in Burma, Thailand, or any of the other Southeast Asian countries in which Hinayana Buddhism prevails.

Behl also frequently fails to distinguish between what is known and what is surmised. For example, he states that the painters were devout and worked in the shrines of other religions, not just for Ajanta’s Buddhist patrons. (p. 35) I suspect he is right, but he offers no evidence at all to support this; in fact, very little is known about ancient India’s artists. Many times Behl either implies or states explicitly that the artist “has followed closely the rules of” a particular text, the Vishnudharmottara in this case. (e.g. p. 169) That gives primacy to the text, making the painter dependent on written prescription rather than extensive training, immense skill, and a rich imagination. There is simply no evidence that such texts as these served as guides for artists. Finally, his colleague Sangitika Nigam, who has written a section on the jataka stories (i.e. stories of the Buddha’s previous lives) illustrated at Ajanta, is off by as much as a couple of centuries when she assigns the date of Sanchi, Amaravati, and Bharhut to the middle of the third century B.C. (p. 59) Furthermore, it is not clear whether Nigam wrote only the two pages of text headed “Note on the Jataka Stories,” or whether the summaries of the jatakas that accompany the plates illustrating jatakas are hers as well.

One wishes in the end that Abrams had teamed such a first-class photographer as Behl with some of the leading scholars who have devoted insightful attention to Ajanta. The volume on Elephanta, another rock-cut site, put together by Carmel Berkson and published by Princeton University Press ultimately is a great deal more useful for its combination of work by a photographer/artist and the scholars with whom she collaborated.

Frederick M. Asher
Professor Emeritus, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota