We flew from Mumbai into Aurangabad, a city in Maharashtra, which is the closest airport to visit the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. We used the Vivanta by Taj Hotel in Aurangabad as our base for our 2-day exploration of the area. It is about a 2-hour drive from Aurangabad to Ajanta Caves and we arrived before 9am when we were almost the only ones there.
The Ajanta Caves are made up of about 30 rock-cut Buddhist caves dating from the 2nd century BC. The wall paintings and sculptures here are some of the finest surviving ancient Indian art, most depicting the lives and rebirths of Buddha. The caves were used as monasteries during the monsoon seasons, as well as a resting site for pilgrims and traders. The site was entirely covered by the surrounding jungle until discovered by a colonial British hunting party in 1819. Ajanta Caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Most archaeologists believe that the Ajanta Caves were built during two distinct periods, the first in 2nd century BC and the second between 400-650 AD. The first period caves belong to the Theravada tradition of Buddhism while the second period caves belong to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. These caves were believed to be commissioned by wealthy patrons to gain merit in the afterlife. The caves were made by cutting a narrow tunnel at the top and then going downwards and outwards with artisans carving the intricate pillars and idols while others excavated the caves. There are two main types of caves here: monasteries and worship halls. Monasteries are square and have square dormitory cells attached to the main hall. They also have a shrine at the rear of the cave with a Buddha statue and deities surrounding him. Worship halls, in contrast, are rectangular with a high arched ceiling and resemble the architecture of Christian churches.
Cave 1 is one of the most decorated monasteries at Ajanta, filled with wall murals, carvings, and ceiling paintings.
Restoration work in progress inside one of the 14 small cells along the sides of Cave 1 where monks used to live.
Cave 1 contains some of the best preserved wall paintings, namely the Avalokitesvara bodhisattva painting. Avalokitesvara is also known as Guanyin in China.
The rear of Cave 1 with the Buddha Shrine
All the pillars and walls used to be painted. Above the pillars are reliefs depicting stories from the life of Buddha.
Here you can see how the structure is cut from the side of the cliff
Cave 2 is similar to Cave 1 but the paintings on its walls and ceilings are better preserved.
Paintings cover almost every surface of Cave 2.
Mandala design on the ceiling of Cave 2.
Cave 4 is the largest monastery planned but never finished at Ajanta. Its ceiling shows the geological feature of lava flow called ropy.
Cave 9 is a oldest chaityagriha or worship hall here at Ajanta.
The pillars, walls, and ceiling used to be decorated with paintings of Buddha and floral decorations.
Stone elephants guard the entrance to Cave 16
Sumo wrestler looking figures supporting the ceiling of Cave 16.
Cave 17 contains some very well preserved paintings of the Vakataka Age.
Cave 19 is a worship hall with a splendidly decorated facade.
The umbrella-like crown above the stupa almost touches the vaulted ceiling of Cave 19.
The entrance to Cave 19
Cave 24 is incomplete but gives us an idea of the excavation process.
Pillars in the process of being intricately carved.
Cave 26 is a chaitya or worship hall.
Buddha in the state of nirvana at Cave 26
We spent a good 5 hours at the caves and I constantly have to wrap my mind around the fact that all the structures, pillars, cells, sculptures, etc are built by excavating rock from the caves. We had a wonderful guide who explained the building process as well as the Buddhist stories painted and carved on the walls. The Ajanta Caves together with the Ellora Caves, which I will cover in the next post, should be included in everyone’s bucket list and should no doubt be one of the wonders of the world.
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