Indian cave art boasts a lavish legacy that goes back thousands of years. And the flag-bearers of that legacy are the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra. About 102 km northeast of the historic city of Aurangabad, the Indhyadri range of the Western Ghats houses the Ajanta Caves in a steep gorge next to the Waghur River. At the Ajanta Caves, there is a collection of 30 Buddhist caves that were built between the 2nd century BCE and the 6th century CE! The caves are laced with remarkable murals and sculptures that bear testament to the incredible brilliance of ancient Indian craftsmanship. No wonder that the Ajanta Caves have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The history of the Ajanta Caves
The construction of the Ajanta Caves was possible due to the patronage of mainly two dynasties, the Satavahanas and the Vakatakas. The 30 caves that one sees today were not built together. Some were built during the early Satavahana period and some during the later Vakataka period, and that is quite apparent in the styles of construction of the respective caves.
The caves that first came into existence were those numbered 9, 10, 12, 13, and 15A. This group of caves is believed to have been built between 200 BCE and 100 CE. These caves exhibit signs of the massive impact of the Hinayana sect of Buddhism that was prevalent during the Satavahana period. The Hinayana sect did not worship Buddha in the way worship was performed in Hinduism. So, the caves from this earlier period were stupa-based (stupa - a dome-shaped building built as a Buddhist shrine) and devoid of Buddha’s paintings or sculptures. While caves 9 and 10 are stupas with worship halls, the caves 12, 13, and 15A are viharas (monasteries).
The majority of the caves, 1-8, 11, and 14-29, were built during the Vakataka period under the patronage of Emperor Harishena between 400 CE and 500 CE. By then, the Mahayana sect of Buddhism that worshipped Buddha as a God had come into vogue. Thus, the caves from this period have the life and tales of Buddha sculpted and painted on the walls for the purpose of worship. And the stunning sculptures and paintings were created with the sort of minimal resources that would probably fill even the artists of today with equal amounts of shock and awe! All the caves from the Vakataka period are viharas except for caves 19, 26, and 29, which are chaitya grihas (prayer halls).
The art and architecture of the Ajanta caves
Each cave at the Ajanta Caves is an archaeological gemstone that showcases Indian art at its finest. While the caves and the sculptures in them were built using only the bare minimum hammers and chisels, the murals were created using completely natural elements such as vegetable dyes, lime juice, cow dung, rice husk, egg yolk etc. A look at the extraordinary work is enough to realize the dizzying heights that Buddhist religious art had attained in ancient India. I, as an Indian, am certainly proud.
To fully understand the scope of the art and architecture at the Ajanta Caves, I suggest hiring a guide before entering these particular caves. Guides are readily available outside each of these caves and will explain in great detail the significance of each design element. Alternatively, buy a guidebook from the office of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at the entrance of the cave complex, and it will be equally helpful. While the entire complex is alluring, allow me to highlight a few special caves and all that is inside them.
Cave 1 is naturally the first cave you will explore and it is a treasure trove of vibrant murals! The sprawling cave has a grand facade, pillared antechambers, and ornate carvings and relief sculptures adorning its every surface. Look out for the huge statues of the two Bodhisattvas (a person on his way to becoming a Buddhist and attaining enlightenment), Vajrapani and Padmapani, standing tall at the entrance of the shrine. All the paintings in this cave illustrate the stories behind the rebirths of Buddha, as depicted in the Jataka Tales (an indigenous body of Buddhist literature from 4th century BC, describing the previous births of Buddha), and will leave you spellbound with their intricacy. Take special note of the beautiful painting of Bodhisattva Padmapani.
Cave 2 & cave 6
The main highlight in Cave 2 is the ceiling, which is embellished with abstract designs of flora and fauna along with a telling illustration of women’s notable role in the then-society. You will find several carvings dedicated to Hariti, the Buddhist Goddess of fertility. This cave also houses some phenomenal frescoes that depict the education system in the 5th century AD. The doorway paintings are a characteristic feature of the Ajanta Caves, and Cave 6 is its best instance. Although the construction of Cave 6 was never completed, and the two-story cave deserves your attention for the myriad paintings detailing various events in the life of Buddha.
Cave 16 & Cave 17
The caves 16 and 17 were commissioned by Varahadeva, the prime minister of Vakataka Emperor Harishena. Cave 16 is a cornucopia of paintings that will enthrall you. Along with illustrations of events from the Jataka Tales, there are captivating frescoes narrating various mythological events. Cave 17 stands out for having possibly the most avant-garde style of vihara architecture at the Ajanta Caves. This cave is also cardinal in the context of history due to the 30 significant murals that recount the happenings of the first-millennium society.
How and when to visit the Ajanta Caves
The Ajanta Caves are easily accessible from Aurangabad, which is a four-hour drive away. It is best to rent a car that will drop you off and again pick you up from the cave site. From there, buses will take you all the way up to the caves via winding roads along with the Indhyadri range. The view of the Waghur River, surrounded by jungles, during the bus ride is a bonus. The Ajanta Caves remain open from 9 AM to 5:30 PM on all days of the week except Monday.
Don’t visit the Ajanta Caves during the summer months from April to June as they become extremely hot. While a lot of people think that the time from October to March is ideal for visiting the caves due to the comfortably moderate weather, I will suggest you visit the place during the monsoons. The Ajanta Caves unleash their true beauty during this time. The region gets heavy rainfall from July to September, and the mountains come alive in all their greenery. It is only during the monsoon season that you will encounter several beautiful waterfalls along your way around the cave complex.
Spend a magical day at the Ajanta Caves
If you are interested in history and heritage, there is no better place than the Ajanta Caves for you. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy text, Lord Krishna said, “What your mind can think is possible and can be done by human”. The Ajanta Caves prove that through their existence. The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra are home to the finest of what Indian cave art has to offer. A trip here will be an experience of a lifetime!
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