Foreigners in the paintings of Ajanta.
The Ajanta Buddhist Caves painting are a significant source of socio-economic information in ancient India, particularly in relation to the interactions of India with foreign cultures at the time most of the paintings were made, in the 5th century CE.
According to Indian historian Haroon Khan Sherwani: “The paintings at Ajanta clearly demonstrate the cosmopolitan character of Buddhism, which opened its way to men of all races, Greek, Persian, Saka, Pahlava, Kushan and Huna”.
Depictions of foreigners abound: according to Spink, “Ajanta’s paintings are filled with such foreign types.” They have sometimes been a source of misinterpretation as in the so-called “Persian Embassy Scene”. These foreigners may reflect the Sassanian merchants, visitors and the flourishing trade routes of the day.
The so-called “Persian Embassy Scene”
Cave 1, for example, shows a mural fresco with characters with foreigner faces or dresses, the so-called “Persian Embassy Scene”.This scene is located at the right of the entrance door upon entering the hall.
The Cave 1 has several frescos with characters with foreigner faces or dresses. Similar depictions are found in the paintings of Cave 17. Such murals, states Pia Brancaccio, suggest a prosperous and multicultural society in 5th-century India active in international trade.
These also suggest that this trade was economically important enough to the Deccan region that the artists chose to include it with precision.
Additional evidence of international trade includes the use of the blue lapis lazuli pigment to depict foreigners in the Ajanta paintings, which must have been imported from Afghanistan or Iran. It also suggests, states Branacaccio, that the Buddhist monastic world was closely connected with trading guilds and the court culture in this period.
A small number of scenes show foreigners drinking wine in Caves 1 and 2. Some show foreign Near East kings with wine and their retinue which presumably add to the “general regal emphasis” of the cave.
According to Brancaccio, the Ajanta paintings show a variety of colorful, delicate textiles and women making cotton. Textile probably was one of the major exports to foreign lands, along with gems. These were exported first through the Red Sea, and later through the Persian Gulf, thereby bringing a period of economic and cultural exchange between the Indians, the Sasanian Empire and the Persian merchants before Islam was founded in the Arabian peninsula.
While scholars generally agree that these murals confirm trade and cultural connections between India and Sassanian west, their specific significance and interpretation varies.
Brancaccio, for example, suggests that the ship and jars in them probably reflect foreign ships carrying wine imported to India. In contrast, Schlinghoff interprets the jars to be holding water, and ships shown as Indian ships used in international trade.
Similar depictions are found in the paintings of Cave 17, but this time in direct relation to the worship of the Buddha. In Cave 17, a painting of the Buddha descending from the Trayastrimsa Heaven shows he being attended by many foreigners. Many foreigners in this painting are thus shown as listeners to the Buddhist Dhamma.
The ethnic diversity is depicted in the painting in the clothes (kaftans, Sasanian helmets, round caps), haridos and skin colors. In the Visvantara Jataka of Cave 17, according to Brancaccio, the scene probably shows a servant from Central Asia holding a foreign metal ewer, while a dark-complexioned servant holds a cup to an amorous couple. In another painting in Cave 17, relating to the conversion of Nanda, a man possibly from northeast Africa appears as a servant.
These representations show, states Brancaccio, that the artists were familiar with people of Sogdia, Central Asia, Persia and possibly East Africa.
Another hypothesis is offered by Upadhya, who states that the artists who built Ajanta caves “very probably included foreigners”.