Around 450 kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, one of the busiest cities of the world, there lies the jewel in the crown of ancient India. ‘Ajanta’ is a classic example of Indian art, Architecture, Culture and Religion integrated into a set of magnificent cave temples.
Ajanta consists of a total of 29 Buddhist monasteries and sanctuaries belonging to the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions dating from 2nd century BC to 6th century AD. This wondrous architectural masterpiece had been lying abandoned and hidden away for thousands of years, until it was re-discovered by a group of British soldiers in 1819.
104 Km away from the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, the river Waghora descends down in a series of seven steps, forms a pool called Saptakund and flows further down through a narrow sinuous gorge adjoining a horse-shoe shaped rock. The caves had been carved on the sheer vertical face of this rock with incredible precision & artistic skills. From the shape of the rock and its geological properties, it is evident that the site was formed by an ancient volcanic eruption in Deccan plateau.
It was on 28th of April 1819, a group of soldiers from 28th Cavalry of Madras regiment led by officer John Smith were on a hunting mission. While chasing a tiger, they lost their way and stumbled upon Cave No.10, purely by accident. The sight of the face of a cave intrigued Smith and with the help of local villagers he cleared up the creepers and bushes that surrounded it. Since the stairways had collapsed long ago, it was not easy for them to venture inside. By hanging on ropes, they entered inside the caves and and used grass torches to illuminate the interiors. Smith & his accomplices were stunned to see the elaborate architecture, Buddhist stupas and Wall paintings inside the caves. The news of this discovery flashed around the world and soon it became a hit among world travellers. It appears to be a real life Indiana Johns story, but our hero John Smith had vandalized the caves by scratching his name on the priceless mural paintings. King Nizam of Hyderabad, the ruler of the region tried to promote tourism in the area, but the local tribes were not in favour of outsiders encroaching into their sacred land. So, a trip to Ajanta was considered an adventure during the Victorian days.
Due to the abundance of visitors, most of the paintings have deteriorated beyond repair and significant damage had been done to the architecture as well. Several attempts have been made in the past to preserve this wonderful architecture but the unscientific methods adopted in the past were not very successful. Major Robert Gill, a British Indian Army officer was appointed in 1846 to paint replicas of Ajanta mural paintings. He spent nearly 20 years inside those creepy, hot caves to copy the paintings which he transported to a museum in Britain. Though most of his paintings got destroyed in a fire accident in London, he continued to copy the wall paintings for another 10 years until his death in 1875.
To make things worse, certain conservationists coated the murals with shellac (kind of varnish) in a later stage which has become very hard to remove. Climate, Humidity, Ultra-violet radiation, Noise levels, Carbon Dioxide from the exhalation of humans, all such factors affect the conservation of wall paintings. Archaeological Survey of India and USESCO have imposed very strict norms to the visitors in order to preserve this magnificent place for future generations. Number of visitors at a time has been restricted, camera flashes and tripods are banned as well. The caves are permanently lit up by tiny LED lamps and the visitors have to make use of this light to capture photos.
Caves 9, 10,12,13 and 15 have the influence of Hinayana Buddhism practised during Satavahana dynasty. This is evident from the distinct architecture with Chaitya-grihas (Buddhist stupa) placed at one end of the prayer hall.
It is believed that Buddha was against worshipping his own image and not many Buddha idols could be found in the temples built during the early periods. After the death of Buddha, the Mahayana Buddhists from Vakataka period deviated from this tradition and started worshipping Buddha idols.
The second phase of construction during the time of Harisena of Vakataka dynasty, consisted of Viharas (Monasteries with sanctum in the rear). However, after the rule of Harisena, the entire area was abandoned and forgotten for more than 1300 years.
It is believed that the Buddhist monks who lived in these caves were forbidden to travel outside during the monsoon season and they spent their time carving & painting scenes from Jataka tales (stories from Buddha’s life) and other religious books. The exquisite works also depict numerous kings, queens, palaces, daily life, lovemaking, ornaments etc. There are two such famous paintings found on either side of the massive Buddha statue in Cave-1. These are of two Bodhisattvas named Padmapani and Vajrapani (also known as Avalokitesvara). These Bodhisattvas are well known in Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries as well. Avalokitesvara is also being worshipped as ‘Guan Yin’ in China and Japan.
The great Chinese traveller ‘Hieun Tsang’ of 7th century AD had documented that these monasteries were full of life during his visit.
The wall artists at Ajanta followed a method similar to Fresco technique of Europe. The rocks were chipped and levelled, a layer of plaster made of clay, cow dung, and rice husks was applied and then it was coated with lime juice in order to make the surface smooth before applying the paint. Perhaps they used a ‘wet on dry’ technique unlike the usual ‘wet on wet’ method. The 6 different shades they used came from natural pigments like red and yellow ocher, shell white, lead white, kaolin, blue lapis lazuli, green malachite powder etc.
Jade crystals, Amethyst stones and several other semi-precious stones could be found embedded in the volcanic rocks around Ajanta caves. Local handicraft shops sell souvenirs and ornaments made of such stones.
The nearest city is Aurangabad from where the distance of 104 Km to Ajanta could be covered in 2 to 3 hours by car. Please note that every Monday is a holiday for Ajanta caves. We got up early & started well before sunrise with an intention to reach the caves much before it gets crowded and as well to return back before it becomes too hot. There was a decent restaurant a few kilometres before the caves where we had our breakfast and headed towards the parking lot. Due to the environmental restrictions, visitors are allowed to travel by the shuttle buses arranged by the tourism department only. The bus ride takes nearly 15 minutes to reach the foothills of the cave site. After obtaining the entry passes, we climbed the steps and walked through the narrow path that led to the caves. The caves are numbered sequentially from 1 to 28. However, they do not follow a chronological order.
We walked down the steps from Cave-16, crossed the metallic bridge and climbed up the hill towards the view-point from where I could film the spectacular view of the ravine with the caves facing us. At the left hand side of the gorge, river Waghora falls down in 7 steps and lands into the pool called Saptakund.
Though several caves lie engulfed in pitch darkness without much to fancy about them, some of them are really elegant and admirable. I got interested in the following caves and spent some time studying and photographing them for my blog.
Cave-1 is the most popular Royal Vihara with exquisite works of art covering the walls, pillars & ceiling. This cave contains the famous murals of Bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani described earlier in this blog. The cave consists of a porch which is still intact. A massive Buddha statue & splendid murals on the walls & ceiling enhance the beauty of this cave.
Cave-2 is also a Vihara with excellent carvings and murals, better preserved than Cave-1. It consists of an enormous Buddha statue combined with highly ornamental pillars and wall/ceiling murals that make this an amazing work of art.
Cave-4 is the largest Buddhist Vihara at Ajanta caves. Consists of a number of prayer halls.
Cave-6 is another Vihara which has some art-work destroyed by soot and smoke from incense sticks and oil lamps.
Cave-8 is a Hinayana vihara dating back to 2nd to 1st century BC. Tempera paintings found in these caves were re-painted some time later.
Cave-9 is a Hinayana sanctuary dating back to 2nd to 1st century BC. Tempera paintings found in these caves were re-painted some time later. Buddhist stupa is typical to such architecture.
Cave-10 is the oldest among Ajanta caves, dating back to 2nd century BC. This Sanctuary belonging to the Hinayana period consists of some beautiful murals on the pillars and walls which were re-painted in a later stage. Consists of a large Stupa which is still being worshipped by the devotees.
Cave-26 contains an enormous Reclining Buddha statue that represents the final moments of his life. The carvings in the lower portion depict his mourning followers while the upper portion show the rejoicing celestial beings in heaven. A Buddhist stupa adorns the centre of the hall that has been decorated with incredibly fine carvings depicting stories from Buddha’s life.
It was the summer season and the atmosphere was getting warmer. We returned back to Aurangabad before noon with an intention to cover Ellora caves, another rock-cut masterpiece. Read about Ellora here >>
How to Reach Ajanta:
By Air :
- Nearest Airport : Aurangabad
By Rail :
- Nearest Railway Station: Aurangabad
By Road :
- Mumbai – Aurangabad – Ajanta – 392 Km
- Aurangabad – Ajanta – 104 Km
Points to be noted :
- Monday Holiday
- Open from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm
- Entry fee :
: Rupees 10 for Indian National
: Rupees 250 foreign tourist
: Rupees 25 per camera
: Free entry for children below 15 years