Bagh – Mysterious World of Paintings


In the words of Marshall, “Yet it may well be doubted if the paintings even of Polygnotus or Zeuxis would have been more illuminating for the general history of Art, than the paintings of Ajanta and Bagh. For the school which these paintings represent was the source and fountain head from which half the art of Asia drew its inspiration, and no one can study their rhythmic composition, their indistinctive beauty of line, the majestic grace of their figures, and the boundless wealth of their decorative imagery without realizing what a far-reaching influence they exerted on the art, not of India alone and her colonies, but of every other country to which the religion of Buddha penetrated’”.

There is unanimity among scholars that the Buddhist paintings at Bagh are not inferior to those at Ajanta. As paintings at Ajanta are very well known therefore comparison between these two cannot be avoided. In this regard, Marshall writes that the process and color employed at both the sites seem to be the same, however, at Bagh, less care had been take over in preparation of the first rough coat (rinfazzo). Apart from this difference, paintings at both the places exhibits the same broad handling of their subjects, the same poetry of motion, the same wonderful diversity in the poses of their figures, the same feeling of the color and the strong yet subtle line-work.

As the caves were undergoing rapid decay, therefore the conservation of these paintings was a huge task. As the main culprit behind the decay is nature itself therefore the best way to preserve the paintings would be to make their replicas so that the theme and style can survive if originals can no more.

The archaeological department of Gwalior took up the work to reproduce these fast obliterating painting of Bagh. The services of the some of the best artists of those times were procured, which included Nanda Lal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar, Surendra Nath Kar of Calcutta; A B Bhonsle and B A Apte of Bombay;  M S Bhand and V B Jagtap of Gwalior.

Paintings in Cave No 2 – The fact is that the paintings in this cave are no more available to us. The damage from the smoke and soot from the offerings of the sage staying here had already done considerable damage.Traces might still be visible however not many scholars mention it.

Walter Spink writes about paintings in this cave and states that a number of attractive paintings are still preserved. He mentions, “here the scrolling flora forms closely to those of in the interior of Ajanta Cave 20. Below one can see trace of figure of a painted Bodhisattvaon either side of the door”. I did not notice these during my visit.

Paintings in Cave No 3 – Two separate paintings have survived in this cave and both depict a devotee paying homage to Buddha. The figure which is bending towards a colossal figure of Buddha is identified simply as a monk by various scholars, however Meena Talim identifies him with a lay-devotee, offering lotus flowers to Buddha, probably from Mahayana tradition. The other devotee is shown kneeling down and holding an incense burner in his right hand. He wears no ornaments, keeps a shaven head and his right shoulder is bare. All this led Meena Talim to identify him as Hinayana monk.

Paintings in Cave No 4 – This cave, popularly known as Rang Mahal, has the best preserved specimen of paintings. The best out this lot are found on the front wall of the cave, under a modern portico as the original one did not survive. Though many scholars write about these paintings however very few tried to identify these. On identification of these paintings, J Ph Vogel writes, “All we can say is that they do not appear to illustrate any subject taken from the Buddha legend but in all probability related to some Jataka or avadana”. We are fortunate that Meena Talim was successful in providing sufficient identification of these rapidly fading treasure.

In this article, I am adopting the sequence as taken by Meena Talim so that we avoid further confusion on mismatching numbers.

Scene 1
Scene 1

Scene 1 – This scene shows two ladies sitting in a pavilion. The lady on the right hand side is seated in grief with her right hand covering her face. The other lady seems to console the former and she rests her left hand on the right shoulder of the other lady. Traces of two pairs of birds are visible on the pavilion roof behind these ladies. Vogel mentions that these birds are apparently blue pigeons.

M C Dey mentions it to be a scene where a queen is grieving on some matter, surrounded by maidens in a palace chamber. Meena Talim identifies this scene from Malinivastu-avadanam. The story is about Malini, a daughter of the king of Varanasi, named Kruki. Malini used to served Buddhist monks with her own hands discarding Brahmin monks. This made Brahmins angry and in protest they sent a message to the king that the Brahmins will only come to his court when Malini is no more there or killed. The king bent to their demand and sent a messanger to bring Malini.

Malini’s mother came to the inner-chamber and lamented on the king’s decision. All maids in the chamber cried on the fate of the princess. Malini surrendered herself but got relief from the Brahmins to stay for a week and carry out her charity. Malini served well to all the Buddhist monks. After this period of a week, when Malini was leaving the city, a large crowd was following her to the gates. The Brahmins got scared looking at the huge crowd and they reverted their decision to send Malini away.

The scene in this painting shows Malini’s inner chamber where the news of her banishment was broken to her. The lady on the left hand side, wearing all kinds of ornaments, represents Malini. While the lady on the right hand, who is overwhelmed by hearing this news is a messanger who brought the news to Malini.

Scene 2
Scene 2

Scene 2 – Dr. Impey mentions that the scene has four seated figures of very dark copper color. They are seated cross-legged, in pairs, on a blue and white cushion, facing each other. They are engaged in some serious discussion as evident from their expressions and positions of hands. The man, second from left, seems to be of some superior rank as he wears an elaborate head-dress and various jewels. He may represent some deity or a king. The person behind him also wears a crown. The remaining two persons are simple in their appearances. There is also a fifth figure in this group, he is a dwarf figure, blue in color, and wears a curious white trefoil shaped on top of his head.

Meena Talim identifies this scene with that of Vidhurapandita Jataka. As per the story, there were four Brahmins in the city of Varanasi who had renounced the world and they wandered in the country of Anga. One day, they all went to different places for siesta. One went to the world of Gods, one to the world of nagas, one to the world of Suparna (eagle) and one to the park of the king Kuru. They were all impressed by these respective places and desire to be born at those places to enjoy the glamour.

Likewise, they performed meritorious deeds and their desire was fulfilled in the next birth. One was born as Shakra in the world of the gods, one as the king of Nagas, one as the king of Suparna and one as prince Kaurvyakumara, the son of the king Dhananjaya. After the death of king Dhananjaya, Kaurvyakumara started ruling the kingdom of his father. He has a very wise minister with him, named Vidhurapandita. Bound to their fate, all the four people met in a park. Seeing each other, they came to know their previous birth and friendship. Knowing their desires and fulfilment, an argument arose to find who is most virtuous amongst all.

As they did not reach to any conclusion, king Kaurvyakumara summoned his minister, Vidhurapandita. The minister first explained the goodness of each one, stating that the king of naga, being having the natural instinct of snakes to get angry is following the vow of forbearance. The king of Suparna, being having the natural instinct of being greedy is now taking minimum food. Shakra, the king of gods, being delightful in enjoying pleasures of passion, now discards these. And king Kaurvyakumara, the richest among all the rulers, now lives a life like a pauper. Therefore all of them are virtuous. You all are like a wheel of a four-wheel chariot, none superior than the other.

The painting shows five persons representing the five characters in the above story. The person who is wearing no crown is Vidhurapandita, the Bodhisattva of the Jataka. His right hand is raised upwards and left hand is in his lap. He is in attitude of explaining the virtues. To his left is king Kaurvyakumara who wears a crown smaller than the other two persons opposite to him. Opposite to them are two people belonging to different worlds. One wearing a long elaborate and square crown would be Shakra, the king of the gods. Besides him is sitting the king of nagas. The small dwarf figure should be identified with the king of Suparna, as the birds are thought to small species therefore his small figure.

Scene 3
Scene 3

Scene 3 – This scene shows a group of men and women, placed one above other. The upper part of the painting shows six men. Dr. Impey only mentions five as it appears that he missed the leader of the group. They all are shown emerging from clouds in a way that their body portion below waist is hidden behind clouds, except for the man leading the group whose partial lower body is visible out of clouds.  The leader only wears a dhoti while others wear a white or green upper garment which cover their left shoulder leaving the right one bare. The first figure from the left seems to carry a basket or tray, filled with white and blue flowers, in one of his hands.

The five men following a leader are in all same attire and appearance. They have tonsured heads and their attire look like Buddhist monks. The sixth figure is shown without cloths up to his waist. His two hands are forming varada-mudra. He seems to be the leader or the main person to whom others are either following or showing their devotion.

Meena Talim identifies this scene with a story in Santike-nidana (Nidankatha). Monk Kaludayi requested Buddha to visit Kapilavastu and the latter accepted. When Buddha reached Kapilavastu, the elder Shakyas were in dilemma whether to pay homage to prince Siddhartha as the latter was younger to the them. Buddha knowing this doubt in their heads, performed a miracle by rising himself above in the sky and sprinkling foot dust on their heads.

As the divine music would have been played during this miracle, therefore in the painting we have a group is of five female musicians placed below the upper group of men. The lady in center holds a lute or vina. All of them are shown wearing close fitting bodice, the central one wears a green dotted over white, while the one standing at right wears a blue.

Scene 4
Scene 4

Scene 4 – This scene shows two groups of women musicians. The first group has seven women standing around an eighth figure. This central figure wears a peculiar dress and therefore is identified with a person of foreign origin, most probably a Persian. He wears a long-sleeve tunic, greenish with white dots and striped trousers. Out of the seven women musicians around him, one holds a drum, three are holding little sticks, two each, and the rest three are holding cymbals. The one with drum is shown without clothes down waist. In front of the group is a bench or couch, blue stripped with white cushions of cylindrical form.

The second group us partitioned from the previous one with the help of a green colored wall with a white coping. The second group of musicians consists of six women standing around a seventh man of foreign origin as the previous scene. This central male figure wears a long black tunic and striped trousers and sports long black locks. Out of the six women musicians, one is holding a drum, two with cymbals and the rest three are holding sticks, a pair each.

How best we can identify this scene as this does not come from any Jataka or other texts? It’s not mandatory that a painting needs to draw its inspiration from Buddhist texts of that period as the artist can draw his inspiration from everyday life scenes. This painting probably belongs to this last category. Almost all scholars have agreed on the foreign male character in the scene as being a Persian. Dr. R Parimoo tells that this dance sequence represent the “hallisaka” dance as evident from the manner and posture of the male figure.

Beneath the partition of these two group are found remnants of the solitary inscription, except the copper-plate grants, found at Bagh. The only surviving letter is ‘ka’ written in Gupta characters. This inscription is the only strong evidence for dating the caves.

Scene 5 – This scene depicts a cavalcade of horsemen. Vogel writes that there are at least seventeen horsemen while Dr. Impey mentioned thirteen. These horsemen are moving forward in left direction. They are arranged in multiple rows, one above the other. The main person in the group is in the center, clad in a blue dotted yellowish robe. There is a parasol over his head. Dr. Impey tells that he is mounted on a white horse and has a white umbrella above him. About the rendering of these horses, Vogel writes that the artists had rendered these horses with great feeling for the noble character of these animals which is unparalleled in India and elsewhere.

Meena Talim draws a parallel from Mahavagga and Mahavastu Avadana identifying this panel with the Licchavi procession. The story goes that once the Licchavis of Viashali suffered from a severe disease which was not cured by best of the teachers. Therefore, Tomara, the leader of the Licchavis, went to Rajagriha to request Buddha to come to Vaishali and relieve them from that disease. Buddha accepted on a condition that Tomara needs to take permission from king Bimbisara then only Buddha can move. Tomara took the permission from the king on a condition that Vaishali must welcome Buddha such a victor is returning to the city.

The entire city of Vaishali was decorated to welcome Buddha. The procession of colorful horses, chariots, and vehicles with a great retinue went out of city to greet Buddha at the banks of Ganga. This procession consists of group of horses and riders in different colors. There were groups of horses in color blue, bright red, red, white, green and mixed colors. We also find horses in different colors in this painting. Though not all colors are there, but it has horses in blue, bright red, yellow, green and white.

Scene 6 – The theme here seems to be a procession where elephants take major role. Dr. Impey tells there are six elephants and three horses while by the time Vogel visited the site, only one horse was traceable. The elephant leading the procession was almost gone except its head slightly visible. The person sitting on top of it is of large size, wearing white cap and blue striped dhoti. His right hand is raised and holds a long stalk of blue flower. Dr. Impey mentions the flower to be an open lotus. A person behind him holds a parasol and a chowri. Behind him are two elephants and two baby elephants. Each of these two adult elephants carry four persons, one mahout and three females.


Meena Talim identifies the scene with the story of Mahajanaka Jataka. The story goes that one king Mahajanaka expressed his desire to visit the parks of his capital. He mounted on an elephant along with his retinue and arrived at the park. He hsw two mango trees there, one with laden with fruit and one barren. He plucked on fruit and tasted, it was very sweet and divine. He expressed his desire that he will eat more on his return. His princes and followers also plucked fruits and ate, who did not find fruits devastated the tree. On his return, the king found that the tree which was laden with fruits was all in ruins but the barren one was intact. He asked his minister to explain. The latter explain that the people in search of fruit snatched away the foliage while the barren one was intact as a barren tree does not perish.

Mahajanaka pondered over the situation and understood the hidden meaning, that a tree laden with fruits is like running a kingdom and one barren is like renunciation. Possession is a danger but not otherwise. Therefore I shall become like a barren tree sacrificing all my wealth and renounce the world. The superior person on the leading elephant represent king Mahajanaka.

Scene 7

Scene 7 – The next scene is almost obliterated therefore I quote Dr. Impey who wrote about it in some details. He tells that this scene is separated from the previous one with a gateway. It has four elephants and three horsemen. The scene suggests that the procession of the previous scene has reached to its destination. Below a mango tree is shown a wheel or dharma-chakra. Further under a shade of a plantain three is a figure of Buddha shown seated cross-legged. A disciple of his shown seated beside him.

Next Chapter – Dating

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