Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals

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The Ajanta caves are a World Heritage UNESCO  site, as the caves form the most extensive surviving collection of wall paintings and rock-cut sculptures of ancient Indian art. As per UNESCO, since 1983, these caves have been the masterpieces of Buddhist religious art that influenced the Indian art that followed”. There are 30 caves, of which 27 are partially collapsed; Cave numbered 15A was discovered late, and 28 & 29 are unfinished and higher up the cliff face. These are also inaccessible now. Most historians confirmed that the caves were built in 2 phases, from the 2nd century BCE to 500 CE to 700 years. Thats Interesting!

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Rear view of Caves

 Hence, I started early from my hotel to discover this beautiful Cave. The murals in Ajanta cave are ‘nothing less than the birth of Indian art’- these lines were mentioned by a famous Scottish historian, writer and critic, William Dalrymple. Ajanta is a series of caves in the Sahyadri range of the Western Ghats of Maharastra. It is 76m high, a horseshoe-shaped ridge overlooking the Waghora River. Although the first-phase hewing of the caves is unknown, palaeographic evidence suggests that it occurred somewhere between the 2nd & 1st century BCE with patronage from Satvahana Dynasty.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Cave 26

It is an hour’s drive from the central city to Ajanta caves; upon reaching the visitor centre, we need to board government buses to reach the caves as private vehicles are not allowed, which is another 10-minute ride. Since it was a long weekend, the place was crowded & there was also a shortage of guides; I had to wait 30 minutes. After we got our guide, he gave us an overview of the caves hewed shortly after the collapse of the great Mauryan empire.

Govt Buses

 We will see contemporary Buddhist stupas and gateways at Sanchi and Bharhut Caves 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 15A. These caves were built in the first phase and belong to the Hinayana phase of Buddhism. The rest of the caves were carved in the second phase, between the 5th and 6th century CE, under the patronage of the Vakataka dynasty and belong to the Mahayana phase of Buddhism.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Ajanta Caves

I stood at the podium, where the guide explained the history of the first phase of Ajanta cave construction. According to Puranic evidence, the Satvahana dynasty originated from the Andhra tribe. They are believed to be the first Deccan dynasty to build an empire in southern India.

Map of the Cave

The founder’s name is believed to be Simuka; however, Gautamiputra Satkarni was the greatest ruler, and the Satvahana power was revived during his reign. However, the information about the connection between Satvahana rulers and Ajanta needs to be improved.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Cave 10

During the reign of Satkarni, Pulumavi or somebody else who ruled in the century, the first phase of hewing of Ajanta started. A Sanskrit inscription in Brahmi script dated 2nd – 1st century BCE was found in cave number 10. Moreover, the site was dormant for a considerable period of c. 500 years until the mid-5th century, after its construction during the Satavahana period. However, the existing caves were in use during the period, and Buddhist pilgrims used to visit.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Cave 26

The complete Cave comprises a Chaitya, a hall with a rectangular plan, and a high arched ceiling. The hall has a rectangular vacant space in the middle and two narrow side aisles separated by pillars. It also has a Stupa at the end. A Vihara is a hall with a square plan and flat ceiling. The hall has aisles on all the sides. At the rear wall’s centre is a shrine room (Garva-Griha) containing a giant Buddha statue. There are smaller rooms along the side and back walls. The viharas of the earlier period, however, do not have shrines.

Cave 1: 

It comprises the famous Painting of two Bodhisattvas, Padmapani and Vajrapani. The Cave has 20 pillars, all of them painted. Above the pillars are reliefs depicting Jataka tales-  the chronicles related to different incarnations (Avatars) of Buddha, form one of the critical subjects of the paintings.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals

On the left of the main shrine is the Painting of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The ceiling has beautiful designs and motifs. The semi-abstract paintings represent a bounty of beliefs, morals, emotions and intellectual settings.

Cave 2:

The ceilings and walls have paintings depicting Jataka tales. The fables of ‘Jataka’ were written in Pali and intended to impart self-sacrifice, morality, honesty and other values to people.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Fables painting on the ceiling

One of the walls shows a large painting of ‘Thousand Buddhas.’ Jataka Tales are an essential part of Buddhist literature. It is around 500 in number. There are beautiful sculptures of two Yaksha figures (Sankhanidhi and Padmanidhi), Hariti and Panchika.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Yaksha Figurines

 Cave 4:

The walls of the antechambers are decorated with paintings of 6 giant standing Buddhas, two of which are unfinished.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Incomplete Cave

Cave 6:

This Cave depicts the Miracle of Sravasti and Temptation of Mara, which are the crucial paintings in the lower storey of the double-storied. We paused here, where my guide duelled back in history again. After the fragmentation of Satvahana, the eastern side of the region passed on to the Iksvakus, followed by Pallavas. However, the emergence of new local powers was experienced in the western Deccan- the Cutus, the Abhiras, the Kurus, etc. In the mid-3rd to early 4th century, the Vakataka dynasty- a Brahmin dynasty emerged as a formidable power. Though very little is known about the founder of this dynasty, the expansion began in the reign of his son, Pravarasena I. 

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
The Miracle of Sravasti

It is believed most work in Ajanta took place during Harisena over the very brief period from c. 460 to 480 CE. Vakatakas were patrons of arts, architecture and literature, plus there was an apparent influence of the Guptas. By now, you can relate the second-phase masterpieces of Ajanta to the zenith of Classical India or India’s golden age. After Harisena’s death, the construction of the incomplete Ajanta Caves was abandoned. Though the Cave was still operational and lost contact with the outside world, it was known to the locals. In the 16th century, 24 (twenty-four) rock-cut caves with remarkable idols were rediscovered.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Tempura Paintings

John Smith, a British officer Ajanta, while hunting tigers in the surrounding forest. He accidentally discovered the caves on April 28, 1819. Cave No. 10 was located when he called local villagers to cut down the jungle. Since he was excited that he found the caves, he should be condemned for his following action. He vandalised the Painting of a bodhisattva in Cave 10 by scratching his name and the date so he could seek credit. Quite Foolish!

Cave 10: 

We finally entered the Cave, which consisted of paintings from two periods. The early period (2nd century BCE) paintings are Jataka tales. The later period (4th – 6th century CE) paintings contain Buddha figures in various poses, mainly over the pillars.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals

Cave 16:

Further, we move to the Portrait of the Dying Princess in Cave 16. It talks about Buddha’s half-brother, Nanda’s wife, Sundari, who is said to have expired at the news that her husband was renouncing the material life to become a monk. This Cave also has multiple sculptures, including Elephants on the outside walls and Yaksha Figures, including Bharvahaka Yakshas, on the ceiling.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Mural with Story Line

The Painting also depicts the story of Sujata offering a bowl of kheer to Siddhartha (It was his first food after Siddhartha became the Buddha). There are some Jataka stories in this Cave, among which is the story of Bodhisattva as an elephant called Hasti Jataka.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Story of Sujata

Another painting is Maha-Ummang Jataka, where Bodhisattva settled a dispute between the two mothers’ claims for the same child. Other paintings depict some events of Buddha’s life, and the Miracle of Sravasti is another painting of this Cave.

Cave 17:

A few notable paintings of the Vakataka age include Vessantara Jataka, a gigantic wheel representing the Wheel of Life. The Flying Apsara, the story of the subjugation of Nalagiri, and the paintings depicting the Coming of Sinhala and the Consecration of King Sinhala are painted in this Cave.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Wheel of Life

Walking around each Cave & looking at the paintings, I realised traditional murals and  Fresco techniques were prominent in each Cave. This technique includes a 3-layer plaster, a first layer of earth, sand, vegetable fibres and other organic fibrous materials, a second layer of mud mixed with pulverised rock powder or sand and fine vegetable fibre and finally, a third coat of lime wash. Then, the Paintings were carried out on this surface, applying various pigments of mineral origin: Terra Verda or glauconite (green), lapis lazuli (blue), kaolin, lime, etc. Black colour, however, was obtained from kohl. 

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Fresco on ceiling

Though the lustres of the paintings are now faded, the bold brush strokes and swiftness of outlines represent a class of their own. The paintings are semi-abstract, meaning a bounty of beliefs, morals, emotions and intellectual settings. 

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Semi Abstract Paintings

 The Jataka tales were most prominent in each Cave; the chronicles related to different incarnations (Avatars) of Buddha form one of the critical subjects of the paintings. The ‘Jataka’ were intended to impart self-sacrifice, morality, honesty and other values to people. And the acceptance was wide even in the 2nd Century BCE. However, the depiction of Jataka changed as Buddhism evolved from the earlier Hinayana to the Mahayana faith. Thus, the murals of the first phase of Caves 9 and 10 depictions were symbolic. These are the Bodhi tree, Paduka (wooden footwear), Wheel, etc. In the later phase, murals embodied celestial beings, including Kinnara, Gandharva, etc.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Jataka Tale

However, over 2000 years old, paintings have deteriorated beyond repair. The reason is exposure to humidity, ultra-violet radiation, noise levels, water seepage through weathered rocks, and carbon dioxide from the exhalation of humans. Hence, strict regulations have been imposed by ASI & UNESCO.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Painting & Sculptures on Pillar

I walked to Cave 18, then to Cave 19, which has a beautiful Buddha sculpture offering a begging bowl to his son Rahula and another sculpture of Nagaraja and his wife. I noticed that the sculptures are much younger than the Paintings of Ajanta.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals

My guide explained that it was constructed during the second phase, approximately by the 4th century CE. In the initial sculpture, Buddha was not shown in human form but through symbols like the Wheel, the Bodhi Tree, the Feet of Buddha, etc. But in the Mahayana phase, Buddha and Bodhisattva were added as subjects like Buddha in preaching mode (Dharma chakra Pravartana mudra). 

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Cave 19

Our last Cave was 26, whose left wall has a sculpture of the Mahaparinirvana of Buddha—an intricate architecture to be adored. My guide confirmed ASI took over the caves in 1861, but since the Ajanta site was within the territory of the princely state of Hyderabad. So, in the early 1920s, the Nizam of Hyderabad transformed the site into a museum. Even a road was built to bring tourists to the site to earn fees during the British era. Early mismanagement accelerated the deterioration of the site. However, post-independence, ASI and the state government of Maharashtra have managed the site far better.

I took a final round of the Cave before saying goodbye.

After finishing all the Ajanta caves, we entered the MTDC restaurant just at the foot of the caves. My hunger pangs were at their peak; hence, I ordered a veg Maharashtrian thali.

Ajanta Caves: A masterpiece of Rock cut cave Murals
Maharashtrian Thali

The restaurant serves good food and is relatively inexpensive. I took the government bus & returned to the visitor centre, where I bought a few stones at the shopping plaza.

Shopping Plaza

Then I headed back towards Aurangabad. By 8.30 pm, we returned to our Hotel in Aurangabad.

How to Reach

By Air

The city has the nearest Aurangabad Airport, which is 10km from the city centre. A cab or Auto can be hired from the airport to reach Ajanta Caves.

By Rail 

The city railhead is well-connected with all major cities. These cities are Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Nagpur, Pune, Madurai, Bhopal and Gwalior. The railway station is 2-3km away from the bus stand. A cab or Auto can be hired to reach Ajanta Caves. 

By Road

The road connectivity of State and National Highways is excellent. State and private buses are available from Mumbai, Pune, Ahmednagar, Nashik, Nagpur and other nearby cities. These buses ply at regular intervals. One can also book a cab or self-drive to Aurangabad.


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