Last updated on October 13, 2020
This series of rock-cut caves on the Satmala range has been attracting travelers over the years. The spellbinding colourful mural paintings on the cave wall stand as the epitome of India’s glorious past. The Ajanta caves (20°32’N and 75°45’E) are situated at a distance of 6.5 km from the village of Faradpur in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, on Maharashtra State Highway No. 8. Faradpur lies 55km from Jalgaon, which is also the nearest railhead on Central Railway, 420 kilometres from Mumbai and 1120 kilometres from Delhi. The nearest airport is at Aurangabad, 103 kilometres away. Ajanta Caves are open to tourists of every age group on all days except Monday, in lieu of a nominal entry fee. And there are some amazing local guides available who will take you on a time travel through the corridors of ancient art.
The origin (and evolution) of Human beings on Earth is perhaps one of the biggest wonders of nature. And Ajanta is an exemplar of it. At an age of no technology, in the absence of proper equipment and limited cultural exchange, a bunch of extra-ordinarily talented artists had adorned these caves. If we carefully study the murals and sculptures lying inside the caves they will reveal the amount of perseverance and dedication which have carved out their perfection. The cave paintings tell us a lot about the evolution of art in India, bits and pieces of Buddhism, ancient Indian civilization, the then folklores, and the cultural heritage of Central Asia.
There are about thirty caves, some of them unfinished and negligible. Among them, caves- 1, 2, 9, 10, 16, 17, 19 and 26 are worth mentioning. A British officer John Smith had accidentally discovered these caves during his Tiger hunt, when a local shepherd guided him towards the entrance of the cave. According to the local culture, Smith had spotted the forested caves on the 246ft high sinuous Waghora gorge from an opposite cliff (now popularized as the Cave viewpoint). He had speculated the presence of a hidden tiger inside the cave, when his guide showed him the cave entrance. He then sought the help of the villagers to come to the site with axes, spears, torches, and drums, and to cut down the tangled jungle growth that made entering the cave difficult. Later the caves were recognised by UNESCO as the world heritage site.
The caves are aligned in a crescent manner on a steep scarp and date back to the 2nd century BCE. For the execution of the paintings, the ground was first prepared by laying a rough layer of ferruginous earth, mixed with rock-grit or sand, vegetable-fibres, paddy-husk, grass and other fibrous materials of organic origin. The second coat of mud and ferruginous earth, mixed with fine fibrous vegetable material, was then applied. On this surface, the outlines were first drawn boldly. The spaces were then filled in with the requisite colours in different shades and tones to achieve the effect of rounded and plastic volumes. The colour-scale is extremely simple and limited, there being only red and yellow ochre, terra verte, lime, kaolin, gypsum, lamp-black and lapis lazuli. The binding medium has been identified a glue. Each of the caves is a masterpiece that brings out each phase of Central Asian history into the limelight.
Cave 1: This cave is one of the finest examples of Vihara architecture which evolved towards the end of the 5th century and mainly illustrates Jataka tales.
Cave 2: This cave is smaller in dimension than cave 1. The main attraction of the cave is its painted verandah ceiling. The hall of the cave is significant for dramatizing the birth of Buddha (near the 3rd cell door). It also popularises the characters like Naga king and Yakshas. The walls reflect the quotes from Kshanti Jataka and Jataka Mala.
Cave 3: The work in this cave had stopped after scooping out of a rough entrance of the hall.
Cave 4: This is the largest yet unfinished Vihara at Ajanta. It has the sculpture of Bodhisattva with his devotees praying to him. The hall of the cave has twenty-eight pillars, arranged in a square pattern.
Cave 5: There are Shal Bhanjikays on both sides of the richly carved doorway.
Cave 6: This is a two-storeyed Vihara. Its hall has twelve pillars and was lighted by four windows (two of which are now blocked).
Cave 7: The plan and pillars of this monastery are different from that of other monasteries. Instead of the presence of a hall, it has two small porticos.
Cave 8: The most interesting fact about this cave is that there is a provision of electricity in this cave. An effective device of finishing off the arris at the point of transition between the square and octagon is observed, which is a characteristic feature of the second and first centuries.
Cave 9: Here a Chaitya Hall is assigned to the 1st century B.C and there are many themes and motifs from everyday life.
Cave 10: This is the oldest of all Chaityas and possibly the earliest of all the Ajanta excavations.
Cave 11: There are only a few paintings left in this cave. A painted version of the quadripartite deer of Cave 1 is noteworthy.
Cave 12: The cave contains Hinayan Vihar and on the three sides of the cave are living places for Buddhist saints (also beds made of stones). The entrance of the monastery has almost disappeared. The hall opens into twelve cells on three sides.
Cave 13: Its front has perished and the Vihara is now used by Indian Archaeological Department as their store.
Cave 14: This is an incomplete cave.
Cave 15: The pillars of the balcony of this monastery have perished.
Cave 15A: This is a small monastery in between Cave 14 and 15. It consists of a central astylar hall flanked by a cell on each of its three sides.
Cave 16: The River can be best viewed from here. The architectural as the well scenic beauty of this cave temple makes it one of the most striking in the series. The nativity story started in Cave 2 continues here.
Cave 17: Its design is very similar to that of cave 16. A mural on the portico’s right wall illustrates the subjugation of a charging elephant, one of the eight miracles attributed to Buddha. Prince Simhala’s conquest of Ceylon is beautifully depicted on its right wall. The flying Apsara figurine of this cave is noteworthy.
Cave 18: It is a rectangular cave. It is one of the smallest caves and a water tank is kept over here.
Cave 19: The Chaitya hall belongs to the Mahayana period. The great arched window adds to its grandeur. This cave is one of the best examples of Buddhist architecture and has many large Buddha figures.
Cave 20: This small monastery presents a new feature in its antechamber advancing into the hall. The verandah pillars have capital sculptures with attractive female studies.
Cave 21: This Vihara is shown as the Audience hall. The pillars of this cave have perished and some cells are unfinished.
Cave 22: This small monastery has different figures of Buddha.
Cave 23: The plan of this cave is similar to that of Cave 21.
Cave 24: This is the second largest cave but sadly it is incomplete.
Cave 25: This is a small unfinished monastery excavated at a higher level.
Cave 26: It is similar to Cave 19 but the Chaitya hall is larger. It has the largest and smallest Buddha figures in the world.
Cave 27: It has a shrine of Buddha in teaching attitude.
Cave 28 and Cave 29: They are inaccessible now.
The detailed artworks and precise sculpturing techniques at Ajanta caves continue to hypnotise spectators for ages. Sadly, the natural colours used in the paintings are fading with time. These caves are flooded with tourists from all parts of the world and are now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. The caves are affected by tourist inflation and local villagers’ interventions, who either engrave their signatures on cave walls or scratch out the painting and sculptures. Isn’t it strange how man is the creator of art and destroyer of it, at the same time?
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Author: Sanchari Sengupta from Kolkata, is a teacher by profession. She loves to explore all nooks and corners of life and enjoy reading, traveling and capturing moments.
Cover Credits: Rahul Sarkar