The rock cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora near Aurangabad, are testimony of the fascinating ancient art history of India. Declared as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983, the cave monuments in Ajanta are a celebration of Buddhism where as nearby Ellora projects religious harmony.They stand tall after several centuries of exposure to the vagaries of nature and attract tourists from across the world. Each time I travel through the leaves of history, it is a humbling experience to discover the depth of art, talent and perfection that existed from times immemorial. I feel blessed to be born in this country.
Located about 100 kms away from Aurangabad City, Ajanta Caves are carved out of a horseshoe rock. The 30 exotic rock cut caves were built in phases between 2nd century BC to 6th century AD and contain sculptures and paintings revolving around Jataka tales and contemporary life. The prevalent rocks in this region are layered making it easy to carve. Coupled with the peace and calm around, it is an ideal location for Buddhist monks to pray and meditate. The initial caves were carved around 2nd century BC under the Satavahana Dynasty but most of the work was done around 5th century AD by King Harisena of the Vakataka Dyansty. Thereafter they sank into oblivion and were rediscovered in 1819 by a group of British soldiers who were hunting near the ravine of the Waghur Dam.
With a few hours in hand I decided to focus on the caves that I had popularly read about which depicted special scenes from the life of Lord Buddha. The essence of Ajanta is captured in a few of the caves which are worth spending time in. Of the 30 caves about 5 are prayer halls or Chaitya Grihas (9,10,19, 26, 29) and the rest are monasteries. The best paintings are in Cave Numbers 1,2,16,17 and 19 and the best sculptures are in cave numbers 4,17,19 and 26. While it is believed that most of the paintings were done by Buddhist monks, the contemporary life and imagery appears to be the creation of highly trained artistes. They seem to have mastered the art of painting in the dark using mirrors to reflect sunshine in the interiors. Clay, cowdung and rice husk was mixed together and applied to the chipped rock surface to form the base which was coated with lime plaster while wash. After drawing the outline on it, colours were filled in using big brushed made from animal’s tail. Natural colours derived from stones and vegetables were used.
The pedestrian pathway running parallel to the caves offers breathtaking views of the caves and the ravine below. The world famous Padmapani and Vajrapani Buddha paintings and the Buddha image in a Dhammachakkapavattana mudra can be seen in Cave No 1. The ceiling paintings in Cave 2 depicting the dream of Queen Maya, the miracle of Sravasti and the Avalokiteshvara are lifelike. The ceiling of Cave 4 contains the unique geological feature of a lava flow and not to be missed is the carved Bodhisattva. Cave 16 appears to be a monastery consisting of central hall, cells and paintings depicting important events from the life of the Buddha.
The Jataka paintings, Brahmi inscriptions and the giant “Wheel of Life” is a treat for the eyes in Cave 17. Cave 19 has a stupa carved with a standing image of Buddha which appears to be the Gandhakuti. The life size yaksha images on either side of the splendidly carved façade and the paintings of the Buddha on the wall make it one of the most majestic caves. Cave 26 comprises exquisite and sculpted figures specially the one showing the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha and the attack of Mara during his enlightenment. The rock cut stupa and the extensively carved façade is noteworthy.
Nearest City: Aurangabad, which is well connected to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi through road, rail and air
Best Time to Travel: Avoid the summer months when it gets too hot!! Ideally plan and 2-3 day trip for Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad spending time to check out the UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as the local food and culture in Aurangabad which is famous for Paithani Silks, Mashroo Weaves and Bidari work.