(Last Updated on : 23/06/2012)
Ajanta Cave 17, as indicated by an inscription incised on the left wall outside the verandah, is a magnificent monastery that owes its origin to the piety of a feudatory of the Vakataka King Harishena. Below the inscription and overlooking a cistern, mentioned in the inscription but now closed, are figures of Lord Buddha
in relief. Similar on plan to the contemporaneous Ajanta Cave 16
, the shrine has, however, no side-aisles but has an antechamber.
Except the two central columns in the front and back rows, the pillars of the hall are simple octagons with bracket-capitals. The former are elaborately carved, the two middle ones of the back rows having the greatest ornamentation. The base of the latter is supported by eight figures of lions, seated back-to-back, but with four heads. The doorway of the shrine is elaborately carved in several compartments with floral designs, figures of Lord Buddha, female doorkeepers, scroll-work, twisted-rope design, pilasters and lotus-petal. Particularly pleasing are the females standing on makara
s in the corner projections. The decoration of the pillars and pilasters of the antechamber is also very ornate. The back-slab of the image of Lord Buddha, seated in teaching attitude, is detached from the back wall of the shrine. Lord Buddha, as usual, is flanked by the figures of Padmapanal and Vajrapani holding chamaras. Two additional figures, one of them holding a bowl, stand on the floor near the corners of the pedestal, which is relieved with the dharma-chakra between two deer. The pillars of the verandah have moulded bases and bracket-capitals. A stairway immediately outside the verandah leads down towards the defile.
The topmost panel on the doorway depicts the figures of seven Manushi-Buddhas together with Maitreya
, the Future Buddha, seated under their respective Bodhi tree
s. Below them is a representation of eight amorous couples.
The panel to the left of the doorway on the back wall of the verandah is much damaged, but on the left of the fairly well-preserved upper part can be seen the king of the gods flying amidst clouds with his troupe of celestial nymphs (apsaras
) and musicians. The weightless soaring movements and litheness of the figures are very effectively drawn. The figure of the flute
-player with her back turned specially exhibits the skill and imagination of the artist in drawing his subject in different poses. A little to the right on a rocky ledge is a pair of kinnaras.
The next scene on the left shows a princely couple seated at ease within a pillared porch, the prince offering his consort a cup of wine. The pose of the lady is particularly charming. Next, the same couple proceeds towards a city-gate in a sad and pensive mood. Beyond the gate is a prince engaged in distributing alms. The large assemblage of beggars, mendicants and ascetics offers a study of different characters in various attitudes. These scenes are reminiscent of the Vessantara Jataka (no. 547) where Vessantara, before proceeding on banishment, disclosed the news of his exile to his wife and performed his gift of "seven hundreds".
The subject on the left wall of the verandah is unique in conception. The gigantic but damaged wheel, upheld by a pair of green hands, may be appropriately termed the "Wheel of Life", as its compartments delineate Life in its various roles. Below it is the fragmentary figure, in green, of Manibhadra whose name is also recorded. The wall at right angles to this wall represents the Buddhist litany to Avalokitesvara against the Eight Great Perils. The damaged figure of Avalokitesvara holds a vessel in the left hand.
The figures of apsaras in the panel to the right of the door eloquently bespeak the consummate skill of the painter even in their damaged condition; most attractive is the figure of the apsaras
with a turban-like head-gear. The panel further right depicts the subjugation of Nalagiri by Buddha, one of the Eight Great Miracles of the life of Buddha. Devadatta, the jealous cousin of Buddha, in league with King Ajatasatru of Magadha
, plotted a number of murderous attacks on Buddha. Once he let loose against Buddha an infuriated elephant
called Nalagiri on the streets of Rajagriha
. But the elephant, on reaching Buddha, prostrated, and Buddha stroked his head with great compassion. In the panel can be seen the king's palace, where Devadatta
is conspiring with Ajatasatru, a street of Rajagriha with its shops, the maddened elephant causing great havoc and alarm among the citizens and his ultimate submission at the feet of Buddha.
The right wall of the verandah depicts Buddha preaching to the congregation. The ceiling of the verandah is painted with various designs in compartments. The central panel of the ceiling of the verandah has a group of six figures, their hands arranged in such a way that though each figure has one hand only it gives the appearance of having two hands. The walls of the hall of the monastery are all embellished with various Jatakas. Starting from the front wall to the left of the main entrance is seen the Chhaddanta Jataka, a version of which we have already met with in an early painting of Ajanta Cave 10
. Though much of this panel has peeled off and the incidents are not painted in a chronological order, the main themes of the story can easily be followed.
In the top left corner is the bedroom of the queen, who, on the pretext of illness, is plotting over the death of Chhaddanta. In the lowest panel the royal elephant
, along with the herd, is disporting in a lotus-lake. On the right, a hunter couple watches the elephant from a rock infested with monkeys. On the extreme top the hunter Sonuttara aims his arrow at the elephant.
Lower down Sonuttara is paying obeisance to the benevolent elephant and is next proceeding towards the capital. To the left of this comes the denouement, when the queen, lying on a bed supported by the king, dies at the sight of the tusks.
The next scene, the Mahakapi Jataka I (no. 407), is painted over the window and the space between the window and small door. The indistinct panel beyond the side-door represents the Hastt jaiaka, which also occurs in Ajanta Cave 16
. The hungry wayfarers are seen busy over the carcass of the benevolent elephant who was none else than Bodhisattva.
The next panel on the left wall is divided vertically into two scenes, the upper depicting a court-scene and the lower a king holding a sword within a pavilion, has not been identified. The subject matter of the next panel, which continues on the adjoining face of the pilaster, is the Hamsa Jataka. The figure of the fowler emerging with two geese from the lotus-lake is seen on the pilaster. The flight of the panic-stricken geese is worth noticing. The second episode is laid in the court of the king of Varanasi
, who, with his queen and attendants, is listening to the discourse of Bodhisattva. The two geese are seen seated on thrones.
The Vessantara Jataka (no. 547) covers the entire left wall between the two pilasters. On the lower half of the wall between the back pilaster and the cell-door is the representation of the Mahakapi Jataka II (no. 516), where Bodhisattva, born as a monkey, hauled a husbandman out of a deep abyss into which the latter had fallen while roaming in a forest in search of his strayed oxen. The ungrateful man made an attempt on the life of his saviour, while asleep, by flinging a stone at him. Notwithstanding this ungrateful act Bodhisattva showed him the way out. The story commences at the bottom right corner, where the husbandman is seen perched upon a tree. Next, he is on the back of the monkey who is lifting him up from the pit. Above this is the malevolent person on the point of throwing a stone on the sleeping monkey, who evidently jumped aside in time, as his figure on the right shows.
Below the Sarabha-miga Jataka, between the two cell-doors, is the representation of the Mati-posaka Jataka (no. 455). The next Jataka, beyond the cell-door, is the Sama Jataka. At the bottom is shown the devoted Sama carrying his old blind parents in slings suspended from a bamboo-rod placed across his shoulder. Above, the king is carrying Sama, who is next shown as preaching to the king. The topmost panel depicts Sama with his pitcher in a lotus-lake.
Mahisa Jataka (no. 278) is painted on the right wall to the left of the cell-door. Bodhisattva, in his birth as a buffalo, used to rest under a tree and suffered a monkey who tortured him with impunity.
The right wall between the two pilasters depicts with great effect one of the largest compositions - the story of Sirhhala's conquest of Sri Lanka as narrated in the Divyavadana, supplemented by some details from the Valdhassa jataka.
The pilaster next to this episode contains the famous toilet-scene, a masterpiece of the painter' brush-work. The adjoining wall introduces the Sibi Jataka (no. 499), where king Sibi made a gift of his eyes to akra, disguised as a blind Brahmana. The work Sibiraja is written at three places below the royal figures. On the bottom panel to the left of the cell-door is seen the figure of Sibi, surrounded by courtiers and ladies, taking the solemn vow of giving his limbs to any supplicant. The figure of S'akra, who thought of testing the king, is discernible in the left top corner. The corresponding panel to the right of the cell-door represents Sibi undergoing acute pain at the extraction of his eyes to be given to the blind Brahman. The expression of the ladies witnessing his affliction is effectively drawn.
The subject of the next painting covering the front wall to the left of the window has been identified as the Ruru Jataka (no. 482), though the absence of the essential detail of the story, viz., Bodhisattva's saving the merchant's son from drowning himself, may indicate a different identification. Moreover, hunters are represented here as giving out information about the deer to the king, who has proclaimed a reward, as suggested by the figure of a drummer in the top scene. In the bottom scene the king is seen arriving with his retinue and hunters in the forest, the abode of the deer. The king is shown twice, first on horseback and next as standing astonished at the unusual sight of the hunter's hands being miraculously chopped off as soon as the latter attempted to capture the deer - an episode which again does not find place in the Jataka story. The middle scene depicts the return of the king along with the deer, carried with great honour on a chariot.
The next panel, much effaced, between the two windows, probably depict; the release of a deer from the hunter's snare, whose hands fall off from his arms in punishment for this evil deed. Like the preceding panel, this relates to some jataka
, which has not yet been traced.
The rest of the wall up to the door contains the Nigrodhamiga Jataka, along with their respective herds, were entrapped into the royal park of the king of Varanasi
, who was fond of deer-flesh. In order to avoid random killing, the members of the herd decided to send a victim each day to the slaughterhouse by casting lots. The lot having once fallen on a pregnant doe, Bodhisattva
who had been granted immunity by the king, offered himself as a substitute. The spirit of sacrifice moved the king so much that he granted immunity to all creatures. The lower part of the painting between the door and the window depicts the deer in the royal park. In the upper panel the Banyan
Deer is seen in the kitchen ready for slaughter. On the right side is the kneeling figure of the astonished cook, who reported the matter to the king, the latter seen again before a pillared apartment near the kitchen-hut, speaking to the deer. The deer is next seen on a throne, presumably delivering sermons to the royal couple seated on the ground. The last scene of the story is depicted above the window, where a stupa and a congregation of birds and animals, apparently expressing their gratitude to Bodhisattva, can be made out. The place where the deer were granted immunity came to be known as Migadaya (Mrigadava, modern Sarnath).
The walls of the antechamber are painted with incidents from Buddha's life. The back wall of the antechamber, to the left of the door, depicts Buddha's wife putting forward Rahula
, the latter begging his patrimony of Buddha who puts forward his begging-bowl. The scheme of the ceiling decoration of the nave is different from its counterpart elsewhere in that instead of being divided into small individual panels, the designs here are arranged in a unified pattern.