Sunday, 3 May 2015

Indian garb as pictured at the Ajanta Caves, Cave 1

a) The Ajanta Caves in the 19th century. Photograph by Francis Firth & Co. V&A E.1116-2008

Indian garb as pictured at the Ajanta Caves, Cave 1.

Indian garb, first half of the 6th century

Motivation: Indian garb has appealed to me for many years as I just love the grace of the folded and tucked fabric. I started wearing it as practical garb at Pennsic as the cotton lengths wash and dry easily, and are very suitable for the humidity. The more often I wore Indian garb, the more often I encountered questions/ ignorance and the greater the need to properly document my outfits. I have decided to document Indian garb from the Ajanta caves for two reasons: 1) a majority of SCA folk are aware of two forms of Indian art, the semi-naked Chola bronzes from the south-east which actually aren't intended to be viewed without meters of fabric draped over them and the Islamic, late period Mughul Empire's miniatures, neither of exemplify fit the garb I wear, and 2) the Ajanta caves are reasonably well imaged permitting sufficient arm-chair research.

The Ajanta Caves were 're-discovered' by a group of British soldiers in 1819 in a ravine 320km north of Bombay. The 32 caves date from the 2nd to the 7th century and feature beautiful Buddhist paintings and sculptures. Though the caves have deteriorated since discovery, a number of artists have attempted to capture the features of the cave and these paintings are available in many museums. In 1845, Robert Gill started copying the Ajanta murals, shipping the paintings and notes back to England. In 1872, after a fire had burnt many of Gill's originals, John Griffith was contracted to execute another study. Many of John Griffith's works can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Given the huge amount of material available in the Ajanta Caves, I have chosen to focus on the  Mahajanaka Jataka.

"Mahajanaka, the son of King Aritthajanaka had been banished from the Kindom of Mithila by his uncle Polakanaka. Mahajanaka set out to become a merchant and thus raise the funds to reconquer the kingdom. After many adventures including a shipwreck, he returns. King Polajanaka meanwhile has died leaving behind his only heir, his daughter Sivali. Polajanaka had instructed Sivali to ensure she married a man who could know the head end of a square bed, find the 16 treasurers of the kingdom and string a bow which required the strength of 1000 men. Mahajanaka, so the tale goes, fulfills all of these tasks and thus marries his cousin Sivali. Unfortunately the appeal of royal life begins to wane, and though Sivali attempts to distract her husband, he decides to become an ascetic. Though she tries to persuade him otherwise, he eventually rides into the Himalayas to spend the rest of his life meditating on the Truth."  (The Ajanta Caves, Benoy Behl, 2005).

The tale of Sivali and Mahajanaka are one of the stories told in scenes on the left hand wall of Cave 1 (1) which was painted in the first half of the 6th century.  My main focus is on the following scenes; dancing troupe (2, 3 & 4), sermon (5), announcement (6) and departure (7). Together these scenes contain 48 individuals evenly split along the sexes. The religious, royalty, maids and entertainers are shown in a variety of poses permitting a broad analysis of garment and adornment types.

Note: To date, no extant fabric has been found in India due to both the humidity and the tradition of burning the dead. 12th century block printed fabric scraps in browns, greens and blues have been found in Fustat, Egypt and Indonesia and are thought to originate from Gujarat, India (western coast).


Upper - Women

Upper garments depicted in these murals are quite varied. Occasionally women are pictured wearing nothing on their top half. This may be because the original pigment is now indistinguishable from the skin tone used. Other women are surrounded by a translucent drape and the contrast between the pigments makes this difficult to pick out. In other cases, the women (both royal and not) are topless. Given I live in Victoria and don't consider myself an exhibitionist, I tend to focus on the women who are wearing upper garments.

c) Focal dancer from dancing troupe scened) Drummer from dancing troupe scene. e) Lady from announcement scene 

f) Lady from sermon scene g) Person from departure scene h) Flautist from dancing troupe scene

Style 1 is the clearest and most unusual, a pinafore top worn by the dancer in the troupe scene (c). The body of the pinafore is plain yellow with purple and white spotted arms. The arms are tightly fitted and the top of the sleeve curves into the yellow body piece. The spots on the arms could either be produced with block printing or tie dye. The body is tightly fitted over and under the bust ending in an apron that drops to knee length. The back of the bodice wraps around the ribs and probably ties shut. There are three whispy white lengths that protrude from the back of the dancer which could be interpreted as veils however I believe these are the ties from the bodice.
Style 2 is also an unusual garment from the dancing troupe scene. The female drummer (d) wears a boob tube with vertical stripes. The stripes don't match the ihkat stripes of her lower garment suggesting this is formed from a separate piece of cloth. The orientation of the stripes indicate the garment isn't cut and fitted in the front. This style can also be seen on a lady in the announcement scene (e). The lady standing behind Mahajanaka's mother wears an ihkat lower garment and a striped upper garment as well as a nearly transparent wrap.
Style 3 is the most common upper garment in this set of murals. A lady depicted in the sermon scene exemplifies the style (f). She wears an upper body wrap of purple and white spotted fabric. Under this she wears a high neck, long sleeve green and white spotted fitted garment. I believe this extends all the way to mid shin and the ihkat fabric pictured near her is a cushion. This garment may be tight or loose as depicted in the departure scene (g).
Style 4 is a short sleeved top (h). Worn by one of the flautists in the dancing troupe, it is a plain light colour, with short sleeves and a rounded neckline. It is fitted to her body and terminates on the floating ribs. The sleeves are either absent or small cap sleeves.

 Upper - Men

Like the women, men are often pictured wearing nothing on their top half in both formal (court) and informal (departure) scenes. King Mahajanaka, while appearing topless in the departure scene, wears a plain coloured fabric wrap in both the announcement scene (i) and the sermon scene (j).
Also in the sermon scene, we also see two figures (monks?) to the upper right. One (k) sports a tight fitting, sleeved plain and pale garment with plain loose fabric looped from the right hip over the left shoulder and arm. The second monk (l) has pale striped fabric looped over his body in a similar fashion. The definition isn't clear enough to determine if he is wearing a tight fighting top as well or just has slightly paler skin tone on his visible arm.
The departure scene features a figure wearing potentially block printed fabric featuring a pattern of geese or ducks (m). Similar fabric produced in Gujarat in the 15th-16th centuries has been recovered from Indonesia (8). At first glance the garment seems to be fitted to the right arm, with similar fabric wrapping over the left however I believe it is the stripes in the fabric that provide this illusion. Instead, the garment is a long sleeved and tightly fitting and extends to beyond the navel. I believe this garment is similar to that of the mustache man in the sermon scene (n). The mustache man wears a knee length garment made out of either spotted fabric or scales tied at the waist with a short belt.

i) King in the announcement scene j) King in the sermon scene k) monk? from sermon scene
l) man from sermon scene m) person from departure scene n) mustache man from the sermon scene

Lower garments


o) A statue of Deedargani Yakshini wearing a dhoti. Sandstone. 1st century. Patna Museum (9)

Both men and women are pictured wearing a dhoti. A dhoti is a long cloth which can be folded, wrapped and tucked in a multitude of ways to create a draped or bifrocated lower garment (o). In the murals, this outfit is typically knee length for men (i) and ankle length (c) for women. For a majority of figures, the dhoti is made out of horizontally patterned ihkat fabric. Ihkat fabric is made from threads that a pre-dyed before being woven. This forms the iconic rhomboidal zigzag lines depicted. This process is time consuming and well made fabric would be expensive. It is possible the artists chose to illustrate the richness of the fabric rather than the drape. As this way of painting fails to show folds it is challenging to determine how the garment is draped on the body. There are a few examples which provide clues to the draping methods utilised.

Though not easily visible in the image provided, one of the flautists of the dancing troupe wears a block printed dhoti (h). Closer examination of this garment shows the drape is pulled diagonally in front of the body and tucked into the left hip (Behl 2005, pg 91). The drummer from this scene (d) has a horizontally striped knee braced against her drum however the pattern of the fabric meets her left hip at a right angle indicating it is tucked in at the side. Examination of the King in the departure scene, shows a thickening of the garment at his waist with a section showing a perpendicular pattern suggesting a loop of fabric has been tucked up on the right (p).

p) King in departure scene q) King Sibi mounts the scales (10, pg 74) r) Naga King Sankhapala and rescuer Alara (10, pg 83)

Examination of a contemporary figure from Cave 1 featured in scenes of the Sibi Jataka illustrate additional methods of folding a dhoti. As King Sibi climbs onto the scale, it is obvious the garment has been draped in such a manner that it is bifurcated with a twisted loop running from the navel and emerging from under the belt in a fan. Another image from Cave 1, from the Sankhapala Jataka, depicts the Naga King and his rescuer Alara. Alara wears an ihkat fabric dhoti which shows a pleat folded and twisted between his legs to create shorts.

A full analysis of all garments featured in the selected scenes of the Mahajanaka Jataka are outlined in Table 1. The data indicates that males and females have similar levels of fitted upper garments and only the ascetic delivering the sermon wears a full drape. For females, tops typically featuring long fitted sleeves are twice as popular as short sleeves.

Sermon Departure Dancers Announcement Total
Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female
Dhoti horizontal 4 1 3 3 1 6 8 10
Dhoti angled

1 1 0 2
Dhoti unknown 2 1 1 1 3 2
Upper Wrap 2 1 2 1 5 5 6
Upper N/A 4 1 5 4 4 9 9
Fitted upper 5 1 4 1 6 2 9 10
Sleeves long 5 1 4 1 3 9 5
Sleeves short 2 1 0 3
Boob tube 1 1 0 2
Shoulder drape 2 1 1 3 1
Full drape 1 1 0
Table 1: Analysis of clothing styles in scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka, Ajanta, Cave 1.


I have categorised the fabrics worn by the figures in the 4 scenes examined and compared the trends between the sexes (table 1). While I have tried to list every item worn in the murals, severely damaged or indistinguishable items were excluded due to their ambiguity. Ihkat is by far the most common pattern worn, simply because a majority of the dhotis are of this fabric type. Plain colours are the next most common, however a number of the indistinguishable garments may fall into this category. Spots are a close third. Excluding the mustache man with the scaled spots (n), all other spotted fabric seems to be white on a darker color. They also typically  feature spots that have a void in the center, like a sequin might. Stripes and checks may also be simpler ihkat fabrics but have been individually categorized due to their uniqueness. There are two instances of block printing, on the flautists dhoti (h) and the garment with the ducks (m).

Sermon Departure Dancers Announcement Total
Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female
Figures in scene 12 2 11 1 0 10 1 11 24 24
Ihkat 6 2 3 1 4 9 7
Stripes 3 1 2 3 4 5
Plain 5 2 3 1 2 8 5
Spots 2 2 4 1 1 1 6 5
Checks 1 1 1 1
Hamsa (geese) 1 1 0
Block print 1 0 1
Table 2: Analysis of fabrics displayed in scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka, Ajanta, Cave 1.

The Outfit

After all the research and analysis, I decided to recreate elements from the flautists outfit. Though the short sleeve top she wears is unusual among the 24 women in these scenes, it is frequently depicted in art dating as far back as the 2nd century. I have chosen to combine her outfit with jewellery and hair elements from other women of a similar status from these murals.

s) Front of my new outfit t) Back of my new outfit

My top

I have constructed my top out of cream cotton with a white cotton lining as this is both a period fabric and it breathes well. The fabric was part of a blouse piece that came with a sari so the salvage terminated in lovely red and gold trim which I decided to keep. Unlike the square cut Coptic garb being produced in Egypt at this time, the sleeves depicted on the dancer are clearly inset into the body of the top. I decided to copy this style in my top to avoid overhanging fabric on the shoulders.
Seams are rarely depicted in Indian art and the Ajanta cave murals are no exception. I suspect that it is unlikely darts were used at this time however I needed to take some liberties. Though the side and center seams curve to provide shape to the top, I had to add in bust darts (u). I am an 8GG so my breasts overhang my ribcage and require the additional shaping and support provided by the darts.
The back of the garment (t) is closed with four ties. Originally I was going to use three as depicted on the dancers outfit (c) however I decided to make the back of the neckline higher to provide more support and sun protection. I've noticed the middle ties at the back of the top (t) tend to gape. This is because they're very challenging to tie closed by yourself! If I were to make another one of these I'd cut the fabric back inline with the back bottom darts (v). This would remove the darts and give me the flexibility to lose and gain weight.
I decided to machine sew this entire top for added durability. When I patterned this top I was wearing an older bra. My newer bra has a larger underwire and would poke out the armhole if I sewed the outershell and lining together to seal the armholes. Instead I made bias binding out of leftover scraps from the cream fabric and used them on both arm holes and the neckline for symmetry. This gained me 1.5cm of fabric in the underarm, sufficient to cover a bra should I chose to wear one.

u) top front with darts v) top back with ties and darts

The Bottom

The dhoti of this outfit is made from 2.5m of white cotton block printed in simple red geometric stripes (w). I purchased this from an American returning from India and intended to use it as a wrap. 2.5m is a little too long for a wrap but is a perfect length for this dhhoti! The fabric is tied on my left hip, wrapped in front of my body and returned to my left hip where it is tucked in securely. This results in minimal distortion of the horizontal pattern and resembles the tucking seen in the flautists dhoti.

w) white dhoti block printed with red


Table 3 shows my analysis of the jewellery shown in the mural scenes. This data suggests that a majority of women wear a short pearl necklace and a quarter wear multiple chains on top of this. Nearly all the women wear earrings. Some are ear stretches (e) while others are simple loops (d). The flautist wears a golden hoop from which depend three pearls (h). Men and women who have stretched their ears will also wear tight golden loops depending from their lobe (l). A majority of women will also wear one or two bracelets on each wrist, while half will also wear complicated upper arm jewellery (h). Rings are often worn on the index or pinkie finger or both.

Sermon Departure Dancers Announcement Total
Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female

Earrings 7 2 7 1 10 1 9 15 22
Short pearl necklace 6 1 2 6 1 7 9 14
Neck chain 1 1 3 1 2 1 4 5
Multiple chains 4 2 0 6
Plain anklet 0 0 0
Rings 3 2 5 1 4 6 9
Upper arm band 3 1 3 1 8 5 11
Bracelet 6 2 6 5 1 7 13 14
Crown 1 0 1 0 1 2 3 2
Coronet 6 2 3 1 1 1 9 5
Tiara 0 0 1 1 1 1 2
Flowers 1 1 2 1 4 3 6
Linked ornaments 3 0 2 5 5 5
None 1 0 3 1 4 1
Tikka 3 4 0 7
Table 3: Jewellery and hair ornamentation in scenes from Mahajanaka Jataka, Ajanta, Cave 1.

I accessorized this outfit with two bracelets per wrist and a short pearl necklace. As I don't and won't stretch my ears, I wear simple pearl french hooks. I am hoping to invest in earrings closer to the flautists soon but at this point cannot afford 24ct gold. In my hair I wear a tikka and additional ornaments (x). 9 women were depicted wearing rings however I own no gold rings so I have chosen not to wear any rings (even silver).
The women of the mural wear their hair in a variety of ways, buns, braids, ponytails and gathered at the nape of their neck. My hair is waist length when loose but does not have the volume to replicate most of these styles. I would assume that generally the women pictured have knee length hair. My hair has been trussed up in a bun and decorated with flowers.

 x) Hair and jewellery for the Mahajanaka Jataka outfit.


1 - Scenes from Ajanta cave 1 hosted by Columbia University. Accessed 10/2/2015

The dancing troupe scene
2 - A detail of the dancing troup of Cave 1 as part of a treatise on Ajanta. Accessed 24/4/15

3 - Detail from Ajanta painting by Robert Gill. Museum no. IS.53-1885. Accessed 24/4/15

4 - A broader view of the court scene featuring the dancing troupe hosted by the Columbia University, accessed 10/2/2015

The sermon scene
5 - A detailed image hosted by the Columbia University, accessed 10/2/2015

The announcement scene
6 - High definition image of the announcement, hosted on Wikimedia accessed 25/4/15

The departure scene
7- A detailed image hosted by the Columbia University, accessed 10/2/2015

8- Ceremonial cloth and sacred heirloom depicting hamsa geese. 15th - 16th century, Gujarat. Cotton, block printed resist and mordant dye. Art Gallery of South Australia. Item 20083A30

9 - A statue of Deedargani Yakshini wearing a dhoti. Sandstone. 1st century. Patna Museum. Accessed 24/4/2015

10 - Behl, B. (2005) The Ajanta Caves, Ancient Paintings of Buddhist India. Thames & Hudson Inc, New York.

Additional resources

An article on the restoration of 81 of Robert Gill's paintings by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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