Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ajanta Caves Tour, Ajanta and Ellora Caves Tour, Places to visit in Maharashtra, Ajanta a Buddhist Tourist Places to Visit

The Ajanta and Ellora Caves are the ancient repository and Indian architectural heritage pride of Maharashtra, India. Both these sites are world famous and are cut in rocks. These caves are marvelous example of the highest degree of skills and artistry that Indian craftsmen had achieved several hundred years ago with primitive tools. Ajanta dates back 100 B.C. while Ellora is younger by some 600 years.

The village of Ajanta is in the Sahyadri hills, about 99 kms from Aurangabad city in state of Maharashtra of India.  About 3.5 km away from village, in the hill, lays the mammoth horseshoe-formed rock with 29 caves, overlooking the gorge. Each cave forming a room in the hill and the some cave with inner rooms also. These all caves are carved in the solid hard rock by hand using hammer and chisel primitive tools, faith and inspiration of Buddhism. These caves remind the dedication, faith, commitment, unity and above all the selflessness of living humans of that period. The river Wagura, a mountain stream flows along the bottom of the ravine. This river falls from a height of 200 ft, thus making a series of waterfalls. The sound of the waterfalls can be heard in the caves also. 

Aurangabad City was founded in 1610, on the site of a village, Khirki by Malik Ambar and has always been a prominent region on the Deccan plateau. Having been inhabited since the Stone Age, it has a long artistic and cultural history - to which several dynasties have made major contributions over the years. Maurya rule marked the arrival of Buddhism in Maharashtra.

Ajanta and Ellora caves were shrouded in ignominy for over a millennium, till John Smith, a British Army Officer stumbled upon them while on a hunting expedition in 1819. Today Ajanta and Ellora caves have been honored the world heritage site status to be preserved as an artistic legacy for generations to witness. 

Ajanta caves have panels depicting tales from the Jatakas, a rich collection of stories dealing with several reincarnations of the Budhhaand as well as frescos which are reminiscent of the sigiriya  paintings in Sri Lanka, were built as secluded retreats of the Buddhist monks. These monks taught and performed rituals and prayers in the Chaityas (chapels) and lived in Viharas .Many of the caves have the most exquisite detailed carvings on the walls, pillars and entrances as well as magnificent wall paintings.  The carvings and the paintings in the caves depict the life stories of Lord Buddha. Along with this, several types of human and animal figures are also carved out of the rocks. These caves houses some of the most well preserved wall paintings including that of two great Boddhisattvas, Padmapani and Avalokiteshvara. These caves have some of the most divine sculptures and images of Budhha preaching. One can have a first hand info on the overall development of Buddhism, observing these caves.

In their range of time and treatments they provide a panorama of life in ancient India and are a source of all kinds of information hair styles, ornaments, textiles, musical instruments, details of architecture, customs etc. It was from this collection of classical Indian art that a particular style was formed that traveled with Buddhism to many parts of the world. Similar paintings can be seen in Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, Bamiyan in Afghanistan, temples and shrines in Tibet, Nepal, China and Japan.

Royal patronage made Ajanta possible. Professional artists carried out much of the work and each contributed his own individual skill and devotion to this monumental work.

Visitors often ask how the artist who painted the detailed frescoes and chiseled out the intricate carvings, managed to work in the dark interiors of the caves. It has been noticed that the caves are illuminated by natural light for part of the day and it is presumed that metal mirrors or sheets of white cloth were used to reflect sunlight into the inner recesses.

Since 1983, the Ajanta caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Caves are about 59 kilometers from Jalgaon Railway station (on Delhi - Mumbai, Rail line of the Central railways, India); and 104 kilometers from Aurangabad (From Ellora Caves 100 Kilometers).

The Ajanta Caves

The caves are numbered from east to west, 1 through 29. Today, a terraced path connects the cave, but in ancient times each was independently accessed from the riverfront. A viewing platform across the river affords an excellent view of the entire Ajanta site. The natural beauty of the area makes it clear why the monks chose the site for their spiritual pursuits. The carvings of caves in order are estimated as below:

Phase I: 2 nd century BC to 1 st century BC

Caves 9 & 10: Chaitya Halls or shrines

Caves 12 & 13: Viharas or monasteries

Phase II: 5 th century AD to 6 th century AD

Caves 19,26 & 29: Chaitya Halls or shrines

Caves 1-7, 11, 14-18, 20-25, 27 & 28: Viharas or monasteries

Unfinished Caves: 3, 5, 8, 23-25, 28 & 2


The first monastery was built on the eastern end of the horse –shoe shaped scarp.  The cave has one of the most elaborate carvings on its façade with relief sculptures on the entablature and ridge and is the most popular of the monastery caves at Ajanta. Every inch of the cave was originally painted, though much has worn away over the centuries.  The cave has a porch with simple cells on both ends. The absence of pillared vestibules on the ends suggests that the porch was not excavated in the latest phase of Ajanta when pillared vestibules had become a necessity and norm. There are three doorways, a central doorway and two side doorways. Two square windows were carved between the doorways to brighten the interiors.

Each wall of the hall inside is nearly 40 feet long and 20 feet high. Twelve pillars make a square colonnade inside supporting the ceiling, and creating spacious aisles along the walls. There is a shrine carved on the rear wall to house an impressive seated image of the Buddha, his hands being in the dharmachakrapravartana mudra. There are four cells on each of the left, rear, and the right walls. The walls are covered with paintings in a fair state of preservation. The scenes depicted are mostly didactic, devotional, and ornamental. The themes are from the Jataka stories (the stories of the Buddha's former existences as Bodhisattava), the life of the Gautama Buddha, and those of his veneration.


Adjacent to Cave 1, is known for the painting that have been preserved on its walls, ceilings, and pillars, It looks similar to Cave 1 and is in better state of preservation. This monastery consists of cells, sanctum, and two pillard sub-shrines. Painting appear on almost every surface of the cave except for the floor.  While the seated Buddha in dharmacakrapravartana mudra is enshrined in the sanctum, the side sub-shrines contain two Yaksha figures (popularly known as Sankhanidhi and Padmanidhi) to the east and Hariti & her consort Pancika to the right. The façade of this Mahayana monastery cave shows the kings of Naga and their entourage. Inside, a glorious mandala dominates the ceiling, held by demons and decorated with birds, flowers, fruits and abstract designs. The ceiling gives the effect of a cloth canopy, right down to the sag in the middle.

The painted narratives of the Jatak tales are depicted only on the walls, which demanded the special attention of the devotee. They are didactic in nature, meant to inform the community about the Buddha's teachings and life through successive births. Their placement on the walls required the devotee to walk through the aisles and 'read' the narratives depicted in various episodes. The narrative episodes are depicted one after another although not in a linear order.


This is an incomplete monastery and only the preliminary excavation of pillared verandah exist.


This squarish monastery consists of a hall, sanctum sanctorum, pillared verandah and is datable to first half of sixth century A.D. This is the largest monastery at Ajanta measuring.


This monastery is an unfinished one. However, the T-shaped richly carved door frame, and female figures on makaras are important ones.


This was the first important cave of the Mahayana Phase. This is a double storied monastery (16.85 X 18.07 m) consisting of hall, sanctum sanctorum and a pillared hall in the lower storey and a hall with cells, subsidiary cells and sanctum sanctorum in the upper storey. Buddha in preaching attitude is housed in both the shrines. The depiction of Miracle of Sravasti and Temptation of Mara are the important paintings. Sculptural depiction of Buddha in various attitudes and postures can also be noticed here. The painting of Bhikshu in this cave in the middle, done about 5th century, is almost like a relief. There is the rhythmic vitality in the line and boldness of drawing. The painting is almost like a sculpture. The folds of the garment, the rounded belly, and the calm on the face suggest a devote worshipper.


This monastery consists of a sanctum sanctorum, an oblong open hall with two small porticos supported by heavy octagonal pillars and eight cells. Buddha in preaching attitude is housed inside the sanctum. Other sculptural panels include Miracle of Sravasti, seated Buddha under the protection of Nagamuchalinda, etc.


This is an unfinished monastery


This apsidal chaityagriha is datable to second century B.C. and belongs to the Hinayana phase of Buddhism. This is a Chaitya gathering hall. The chaityagriha consists of an entrance door, two side windows, central hall, nave flanked by side aisles (pradikshana) on either side separated by a row of 23 pillars and a stupa, the object of worship.  There are two early paintings, which survive. Frieze Of Animals And Herdsmen Naga Worshippers Giant Horseshoe Window.

There is a Giant Horse-Shoe Window on the façade. The carving of this window suggests that it copied a wooden structure of the same time. The pillars and the slanting eight-sided columns are also copied from wooden structures of earlier times.


The cave 10 is of the about the same time as the cave 9. It has a similar shape. The large chaitya gathering hall is 28.5m X 12.3m wide and 11m high. It has a stupa shrine at the ambulating passage around the symbolic stupa.

The cave consists of a large central hall, nave flanked by two aisles (pradikshana) separated by a row of 39 octagonal pillars and a rock stupa at the apsidal end, the object of worship. The cave consists of two period of paintings, the earlier dated to 2nd century B.C and the later 4th – 6th century A.D. Two Jataka stories of this period have been identified, namely, the Sama (Shama) Jataka and the Chhaddanta Jataka. The later period paintings contain Buddha figures in various poses mainly over the pillars.


This monastery datable to beginning of fifth century A.D. consists of a hall with six cells and a long bench, a pillared verandah with four cells, a sanctum sanctorum. The Buddha in shrine of cave is one of the earliest images at Ajanta. Buddha in preaching attitude is housed in the sanctum against an unfinished stupa. The important fact about this Buddha is that it is attached to a Stupa. This means a compromise between stupa worship and image worship. Few paintings that available here depicts Bodhisattvas, figures of Buddha, etc.

This cave is interesting, because it shows the transition from the earlier Hinayana to the later Mahayana Buddhist phase of worship. The round stupa has the images of the Buddha to its bare girth.


This Hinayana monastery consists of a hall. The front wall is completely collapsed sided by twelve cells arranged on three sides.


This is a small monastery and belongs to the first phase. It consists of an astylar hall with seven cells on three sides. The cells are provided with rock-cut beds.


This unfinished monastery was excavated above Cave 13 at a higher level. It was originally planned on a large scale. The depiction of sala bhanjikas on the top corners of doorway is beautifully depicted.


The monastery consists of an astylar hall with eight cells, an antechamber, sanctum sanctorum and a pillared verandah. The sculptural depictions include Buddha in various postures, seated Buddha on simhasana inside the sanctum sanctorum. The traces of paintings indicate that it was originally painted.


Smallest of all the excavations at Ajanta this cave consists of a small central astylar hall with one cell on three sides. The front wall had an inscription in shell characters (which is now lost). The hall is relieved with chaitya window pattern rising from vedica pattern.


According to an inscription found here, the excavation of this cave was caused by Varahadeva, the minister of Vakataka king Harishena (circa A.D. 475-500). The cave (19.5 X 22.25 X 4.6 m) which is a monastery consists of a central hall surrounded by 14 cells on three sides, vestibule and a sanctum for Buddha image. The important painted themes depicted are the conversion of Nanda; Miracle of Sravasti; Maya’s dream; and certain incidents from the life of Buddha. The Jataka stories depicted are Hasti, Maha-ummagga, Maha-sutasoma. Painted inscriptions can also be noted inside the caves.

Here two Goddesses stand on neatly carved pilasters The Buddha figure in the shrine is of about the same time as the Buddha in the shrine of the cave 6 (lower) and cave 11 as the Buddha in cave 16 seated with his heavy feet down the base, it is more than life size and fairly uncommon. Lions and other active animals support the throne. Bodhisattvas stand behind him. This cave gives a good view of the ravine. From the large verandha we enter a hall.


The porch doorway of cave is similar to that of cave 16 with which it is contemporary. But the seated couples on both the doorjambs and lintels improve on this cave. A Brahmi inscription found here records the excavation of this cave by a feudatory prince under Vakataka king Harishena. This monastery consists of a spacious hall surrounded by 17 cells on three sides, a vestibule and a sanctum containing the image of Buddha. The T-shape shrine doorway has goddesses, supported by pilasters. This doorway is highly decorative. The plan of this cave is simple and severe. The pillars in both the porch and interior are arranged in a strict order. All the pillars were painted. The pillars near the shrine have intricate carvings. The cave houses some of the well preserved paintings, a huge and gigantic wheel representing the ‘Wheel of Life’.

The Buddha in the shrine is seated in the Yogasana. His hands are held in the Dharmachakra mudra, or teaching gesture. There are bodhisattva attendants holding flywhisks. The dwarfs bring garlands. Devotees appear with offerings. The circumambulatory passage around the image shows it is a relatively early cave. The pilasters at the right hand of the porch of this cave are fairly simple. This cave was in transition from Hinayana to Mahayana. So some survivals of symptoms of floral and geometric paintings can be seen on pilasters.


This consists of a rectangular excavation  leading into another cell. The hall has two pillars with moulded bases and octagonal shafts.


This chaityagriha gathering hall with many paintings and sculptures is datable to fifth century A.D. and could be the gandhakuti. The stupa is carved with a standing image of Buddha 7.

This cave is known for it sculptural grandeur of the façade and particularly the two life size Yaksha images on either sides of the chaitya vatayana (arch). The hall has painted depictions of Buddha in various postures. 


A pillar less monastery consists of hall cells, sanctum sanctorum and a pillared verandah datable between A. D. 450 and 525. Buddha in preaching attitude is housed in the sanctum. The sculpture of seven Buddhas accompanied by attendants is another important sculptural panel in this cave.


This monastery  consists of a hall with twelve pillars and twelve cells on three sides, sanctum sanctorum, pillared verandah (pillar’s restored now). Out of 12 cells four are with pillared porches. The sanctum house seated Buddha in preaching attitude. Trace of paintings are noticed which consist of a panel depicting Buddha preaching a congregation.


This monastery consists of an astylar hall four unfinished cells, sanctum sanctorum and a narrow verandah. Buddha seated in pralamba-padasana is carved on the back wall of the shrine. The sculptural depiction of Buddha in different forms, painted figures of Manushi-Buddhas with Maitreya can be noticed here.


This is an unfinished monastery .


This is an incomplete monastery


This monastery consists of an astylar hall, pillared verandah and an enclosed courtyard and excavated at a higher level. Two cells are noted on the left end of the verandah and the hall has no cells. The hall is devoid of shrine.


This chaityagriha is quite similar to Cave 19, but of a larger dimension  and more elaborately and exquisitely provided with sculpted figures. The chaityagriha consists of a hall, side aisles (pradikshana) and a rock-cut stupa front by an image of Buddha. The highlight is a large carved statue of the reclining Buddha, representing his moment of death. Below him, his followers mourn his passing; above, celestial beings rejoice. The cave also contains a stupa with an image of the Buddha in a pavilion.


This cave could have been part of Cave 26 and it consists of two storeys, the upper one partially collapsed. The monastery consists of a hall with four cells, antechamber and sanctum sanctorum. Buddha in teaching attitude is housed inside the sanctum.


This is an unfinished monastery of which only the pillared verandah was excavated.


This is an unfinished chaityagriha  in its first stage of excavation and located at the highest level, located between Caves 20 and 21. 

It is worth walking away from the caves in order to look back on to the horseshoe gorge. The ingenuous water cistern system can be seen which must have provided water for the monks and their visitors. Ajanta was on the ancient trade route leading to the coast so there must have been considerable activity and many visitors. Nobody really knows what life was like in those times and visitors can interpret the past as they wish, which is perhaps yet another secret charm of Ajanta.