BBC News has a long, fascinating article by William Dalrymple about the Ajanta caves. “On the walls of a line of 31 caves dug into an amphitheatre of solid rock, lie the most ancient and beautiful paintings in Buddhist art, the oldest of which date from the 2nd Century BC.” The site lies in a mountainous area of what is now the state of Maharashtra, India. It was rediscovered by British hunters in 1819.
As Dalrymple points out, many of the murals and statues are surprisingly sensual.
Although the images were presumably intended for a monastic audience, the Buddha tends invariably to be shown not in his monastic milieu, after his Enlightenment, but in the courtly environment in which he grew up. Here among handsome princes and nobles, dark-skinned princesses languish love-lorn, while heavy-breasted dancing girls and courtesans are shown nude but for their jewels and girdles, draped temptingly amid palace gardens and court buildings.
Dalrymple poses the question, “Why, I wondered, would a monastery built for celibate Buddhist monks be decorated with images of beautiful, bare-breasted palace women?” Click through for his answers; it’s a great read with great pictures.
And it’s not just the women who are naked in the Ajanta caves.
Dalrymple also contrasts the rich earthiness and eroticism of classical Buddhist and Hindu culture with the much less free-spirited attitudes toward sex — “modesty” or “repression”, depending on your point of view — prevailing in India today.