Final Nirvavana. Among the most renowned masterpieces is this rock-carving in the caves  of Ajanta (India), c. 6th centuray AD.
The Buddha's death was not like the death of unenlightened beings, for whom it is only one more stage in the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Having, after innumerable existences in divine, human and animal form, attained Enlightenment, he was released from that cycle. What happens to an enlightened person after death is a question the Buddha refused to answer. None of the categories of human thought apply to the Tathagata, the `Perfect One', and therefore this question makes no sense.
The recorded sayings of early monks and nuns unmistakably show that Nirvana is experienced as a state of ineffable calm, a joyous tranquillity. The Buddha said: There is a sphere which is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air, which is not the sphere of the infinity of space, nor the sphere of the infinity of consciousness, the sphere of nothingness, the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, which is neither this world nor the other world, neither sun nor moon. I deny that it is coming or going, enduring, death or birth. It is only the end of suffering.' (Udana 8o) It is one of the wonders of Buddhist art that painters and sculptors have succeededin conveying this ineffable state through the image of the Buddha meditating on his deathbed.
Ref: The World of Buddhism, Bechert & Gombrich, Thames & Hudson, 1984, p 23.
Image archive of the J.E. Berger Foundation : Photographic Collection: Ajanta
Cave excavation occurred in two distinct phases.
- Early Phase caves
- Ajanta’s oldest caves date from the 2nd-1st centuries BCE under the Satavahana dynasty:
Caves 9 and 10 are chaitya halls; Caves 8, 12, 13 and 15A are viharas. All of these caves are
associated with the Theravada school of Buddhism.
- The location for these early excavations offered monks close proximity to an ancient trade
route that connected the Satavahana capital in Pratishtana (modern Paithan, just south of
Aurangabad), with trade ports on India’s western coast and cities in India’s north; Ellora was
also located on this same route.
- Late Phase caves
- Excavations did not resume until five centuries later under the Vakataka dynasty’s King
Harisena, likely from 460-478; with Harisena’s death, and the subsequent collapse of the
Vakataka dynasty’s control of the region, construction at the site abruptly stopped at the end
of the 5th century. These caves are associated with the Mahayana school of Buddhism.
- All of the remaining caves date from this period: chaityas (Caves 19 and 26) and viharas
(Caves 1-7, 11, 14-18, 20-25 and 27-29) are both in evidence.
- Cave 1: A Late Phase vihara, Cave 1 has the most dynamic, best-preserved paintings in
- Cave 2: A Late Phase vihara, it has good reliefs (in the secondary shrines) and high quality
- Cave 4: A Late Phase vihara, the largest in Ajanta, Cave 4 has impressive reliefs.
- Cave 9: Excavated in the Early Phase, Cave 9 is the simplest chaitya in Ajanta. Along with
Cave 10: it sets in motion quintessential Buddhist forms that would go on to influence all
future architecture — Buddhist, Hindu and Jain alike — in India.
- Cave 10: An Early Phase chaitya, likely the first excavated cave in Ajanta, Cave 10 offers a
trademark Theravada stupa, detailed reliefs and deteriorated Early Phase paintings.
- Cave 16: A Late Phase vihara, Cave 16 has its original entrance stairway (unique in Ajanta)
and a few high quality paintings.
- Cave 17: A Late Phase vihara, Cave 17 has a great collection of paintings; those that remain
on the exterior pillared gallery are particularly interesting, as they can be inspected in the full
- Cave 19: A Late Phase chaitya, Cave 19 has a highly decorated facade, in contrast to the
plain facades of Early Phase chaityas; this is consistent with the move from Theravada to
Mahayana Buddhism. Inside, there is a fully intact stupa (the only one remaining with its
triple umbrella chattra).
- Cave 26: A Late Phase chaitya, Cave 26 is the most stunningly decorated chaitya at Ajanta;
with an ornate facade and detailed all-over reliefs on the interior, it represents the culmination
of the chaitya style begun nearly 700 years before.