Ajanta Cave Temples
Ajanta Cave Temples, carved in the granite mountains of Vindhya in the northwest of the Deccan Plateau, is one of the greatest wonders of India. The temples and monasteries, elaborately carved with simple tools, are themselves excellent works of art; the sensuous paintings and exquisite sculptures make them masterpieces.
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Video: Ajanta Cave Temples
Indian/foreigner 10/250 rupees; video 25 rupees; 09.00-17.30 Tues-Sun; Licensed guides will give you a tour for 600 rupees
Jealously guarding an entire treasury of priceless artistic artifacts from the last millennium, the Ajanta Buddhist Caves are 105 km from Aurangabad. They could easily be called the Louvre of ancient India. This place is much older than Ellora and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The cave temples of Ajanta were created in the II century B.C., during the dynasties of local rulers. The caves remained untouched for thousands of years, until in 1819 they were accidentally discovered by British soldiers hunting tigers. The caves at Ajanta are better preserved than those at Ellora, where they were constantly used as dwellings.
The first caves took the form of oblong rooms with monolithic stupas at the end. The rooms were called chait’i and served as cells for Buddhist monks of the Hinayana (“little chariot”) school. By the 4th century AD, however, they were replaced by monks of the Mahayana (“big chariot”) school. These monks were more inclined to luxury, and, having settled in caves, they carved temples (viharas) in rocks, lavishly decorating them. The monks both lived and prayed in these vast halls, painting the walls with images of Buddha and scenes from related myths, whereas their predecessors had a penchant for abstract symbols.
These are some of the earliest religious structures in the country. Ironically, the heyday of Ellora brought the decline of Ajanta, and historians believe that the site was abandoned because attention shifted to the new Ellora caves. After they were abandoned by humans, the caves were taken over by wildlife. They were forgotten until 1819, when British hunters under the direction of John Smith accidentally stumbled upon them.
Of these 29 Buddhist caves of Ajanta, five are temples and the rest are monk cells. They are hollowed out in a horseshoe-shaped cliff 75 meters above the gorge through which a small river runs.
Originally each temple had its own staircase descending to the water. The caves are numbered from 1 to 29, from west to east. Looking at just nine of them will give you an idea of the temple complex as a whole. Start in the middle, with the oldest cave, then go east and then return to the later caves, accessible from the west entrance.
The cave temples of Ajanta are worth visiting first and foremost to see the restored “frescoes” – paintings in tempera that adorn many of the caves’ interiors. Although several other examples of ancient craftsmanship are not inferior to these paintings in artistic value and beauty of execution, these paintings are certainly valued as cultural heritage. It is believed that the natural pigments of the paints were mixed with animal and vegetable adhesives to stick them to a dry surface. Many caves have small holes in the floor, similar to craters, which served as palettes during painting.
Despite their age, the drawings in most caves are well preserved. Many believe that they have survived because the caves have been relatively isolated from human influence for several centuries. But, be that as it may, it cannot be said that the drawings have not rotted away one bit. The signs at the entrance to the complex contain a whole set of prohibitions and permissions designed to reduce human influence on vulnerable areas. Please adhere to them.
The thirty caves of Ajanta are nestled on the steep rock of a horseshoe-shaped gorge, with the Waghora River flowing below. All the caves are numbered consecutively, except for caves 29 and 30. The numbering has nothing to do with the chronology of the caves; the oldest caves are in the middle, they are surrounded by newer ones on both sides.
Caves 3, 5, 8, 22, and 28 through 30 are either closed or not accessible. Other caves may sometimes be closed for restoration. For example, at the time of our visit, cave 10 was completely covered with scaffolding on the outside. During high season, visitors are allowed to stay in the caves for 15 minutes at a time. In many caves you have to take your shoes off (you can walk around in your socks) . Five of the caves are chaiti, the other 25 are vihars. Caves 8, 9, 10, 12, 13 and part of cave 15 are ancient Buddhist caves, all others date back to the 5th century (Mahayana period). In the earlier, stricter and simpler school of Buddhism, the Buddha was never depicted directly–his presence was indicated by a symbol, such as a footprint or the “wheels) of the law.
Cave 1 Mahayana Vihara, was one of the last to be found during the excavations and is more beautifully decorated than the others. Here you will find a version of Bodhisattva Padmapani, the most famous and iconic work of art in Ajanta. The veranda at the front of the cave leads to a large assembly hall containing many of the sculptures and wall paintings, famous for their luxurious perspective and impressive detailing of clothing, household items, and facial expressions. All the colors in the painting except the bright blue (which comes from lapis lazuli mined in Central Asia) came from local minerals. Note the ceiling, which shows four deer with one head on all of them.
Cave 2 is also a Mahayana vihara with decorated columns and capitals and several drawings. The ceiling has geometric and floral ornaments. The frescoes show scenes from Jataka stories including a dream of Buddha’s mother: an elephant with six tusks which signaled the enlightenment of her son.
Cave 4 is the largest vihara in Ajanta, with 28 columns supporting the ceiling. Although the cave was never completed, there are many impressive sculptures, including people fleeing from the “eight great evils” under the protection of Avalokiteshvara.
Cave 6 is the only two-story vihara in Ajanta, but the lower floor has partially collapsed. Inside there is a statue of a seated Buddha, and the door to the temple is decorated with an intricate pattern. Upstairs the hall is surrounded by cells with drawings on the doorways.
Cave 7 has an unusual design with a porch in front of a veranda that leads to four cells and a beautifully decorated temple with sculptures.
Cave 9 is one of the oldest chaitias in Ajanta. Although it dates from the early Buddhist period, the two figures near the entrance were probably installed later, during the Mahayana period. Columns stand on either side of the cave and around the three-meter-high dagoba. The vaulted roof retains traces of wooden beams.
Cave 10 is considered the oldest (200 BC) . It was the first cave discovered by the British hunters. It is similar in design to cave 9; it is the largest cave. The facade has been greatly weakened and many of the drawings have suffered, in some places from inscriptions left behind after the discovery of the caves. On one of the columns is carved Smith’s name, which he left for posterity.
Cave 16 is the vihara with the best drawings in Ajanta. The cave served as the entrance to the entire complex. The most famous drawing, “the dying princess,” depicts Sundari, the wife of Buddha’s half-brother, Nanda. According to legend, Sundari died when she learned that her husband had renounced his earthly life (and therefore hers) to become a monk. Carved figures support the ceiling whose architectural details mimic wood. There is a sculpture of a teacher of Buddha on a throne with a lion, who teaches the noble Eightfold Path.
Cave 17, with gnomes surrounding the columns, contains the best preserved and most varied drawings in Ajanta. Other famous images include a princess applying makeup, a prince trying to seduce his lover by drinking wine; a Buddha coming home after enlightenment to apologize to his wife and his astonished son. The detailed picture tells the story of Prince Simhala’s expedition to Sri Lanka: he and 500 companions are shipwrecked near an island inhabited by cannibals who turn into beautiful girls in order to catch and eat their victims. Simhala escapes on a flying horse, and afterwards returns to conquer the island.
Cave 19 is a stunning chaitia with very detailed carvings on the facade; the main feature of the cave is a horseshoe-shaped window. Two beautiful statues of Buddha are on either side of the entrance. Inside is a triple dagoba, with an image of the Buddha in front of it. Outside the cave is a stunning image of the Naga king, facing west. He has seven snakes wrapped around his neck. His wife, who has only one cobra around her neck, sits nearby.
Cave 24, if completed, would be the largest vihara in Ajanta. But you can see how these caves were built: huge galleries were carved into the rock and then the rock between them was caved in.
Cave 26, a huge, ruined chaitia, is now perfectly lit. It has several sculptures that are not to be missed. On the left wall is a huge sculpture of a “deflected backward Buddha” who is preparing to go to nirvana. Other images include the temptation of the Buddha by an evil Mayan deity.
Cave 27 is actually a vihara, which is connected to cave 26, the chaitiya.
The luggage room next to the toilets near the main ticket office is a safe place to deposit your gear for one item for four hours) in case you come to Ajanta on your way from Aurangabad to Jalgaon or vice versa. The caves are at the end of a steep short climb that begins near the ticket office; older people can order four porters to take them up in an armchair (400 rupees) .
For reasons difficult to explain, at the time of writing, the authorities are planning to build a new complex near the T-junction. Rumor has it that they are going to replicate the main caves under modern, climate-controlled domes!
The road to and from the Ajanta Caves
Buses from Aurangabad or Jalgaon stop at the T-junction (where the highway intersects with the road to the caves), 4 km from the caves. From here, after paying a token 7 rupees, hurry to the departure point of the eco-friendly buses, which can be recognized by the green color (with / without cond. 12/7 rupees). They will take you all the way to the caves. The buses return regularly to the T-junction (every half hour, the last bus at 6:15 pm) .
All MSRTC buses that go through Fardapur stop at the T-junction. After closing the caves, you can take a bus to Aurangabad or Jalgaon near MTDC Holiday Resort in Fardapur, one km from the main road to Jalgaon. There are cabs in Fardapur; for 900 rupees you will be taken to Jalgaon.
Ajanta, India – Secrets of the Cave Monasteries
The Ajanta caves are one of the most mysterious and interesting sights in India. Found by chance in the 19th century, they still haven’t revealed all their secrets to the world. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come here every year, who talk about the incredibly strong energy of this place.
Ajanta is an ancient Buddhist monastery complex located in the state of Maharashtra. The uniqueness of this place is that the religious buildings (and there are 29 of them) are carved right in the rock. The first caves appeared here in the 1st century BC, and the last – in the 17th century.
The ancient complex is located in a very picturesque, but inaccessible place. The distance to the nearest town Kuldabad is 36 km.
Near Ajanta caves one more underground monastery complex is situated Ellora.
The first mention of the monastery complex dates back to the 1st century BC. At that time, monks lived here and built new temples. But this only lasted till the 10th-11th centuries, this time Muslims came to the territory of modern India and Indian Buddhism ceased to be popular among locals (even today less than 2% of the population practice it). The unique cave temple was abandoned and forgotten for long 800 years.
The second breath this sight has found only in the middle of the 19th century – the ordinary English soldiers, hunting for the tiger, accidentally discovered this amazing structure. Inside the caves they discovered an amazing picture: frescoes on the walls and columns, stone stupas and statues of Buddha.
From that moment regular pilgrimages of scientists and tourists to Ajanta began. The most serious study is considered to be the expedition of James Ferguson, who described all the frescoes and explained to the world the cultural value of the place.
After that, artists visited the village more than once to redraw some of the frescoes. Their efforts ended in failure – all the paintings were burned during the exhibitions. The locals believe that this is the revenge of the gods for interfering in their world.
Most of the mysteries associated with the caves are still unsolved. For example, scientists can’t understand how the underground structures were illuminated. Many believe that the monks used mirrors to catch the sun, but this has not yet been confirmed.
The paint the monks used to paint the walls also raises questions – it glows in the dark, and even after 800 years has not faded. Modern scientists have not been able to determine its exact composition.
The structure of the complex
Ajanta complex in India consists of 29 caves, each of which has something to see.
These are some of the newest (12th-13th century) and well-preserved caves in Ajanta. Their almost perfect condition is explained by the fact that only monks had access here, and ordinary people had the right to enter only the neighboring buildings.
The uniqueness of this part of the temple lies in the surprisingly clear rock paintings. For example, on one of the walls was found the image of children in school, and on the neighboring walls – the silhouettes of women. There are also vivid frescoes on a religious theme and tall carved columns that give the temple a solemn appearance. The most famous images are:
- King Asquith’s fresco;
- King Sibi Jataka;
It is the largest (970 sq. m.) and the least deep cave in Ajanta. It consists of a sanctuary, a verandah and a main hall. In the center of the room sits the stone Buddha and on the sides – the heavenly nymphs.
Interestingly, the cave used to be deeper, but after an earthquake in the 6th century, Indian craftsmen were forced to raise the ceiling to hide a large crack in the rock.
One of Ajanta’s unfinished caves. It began to be built in the 3rd century, but was soon abandoned. There are no frescoes or sculptures, but there is a double frame, decorated with intricate carvings.
It is a two-story monastery, on the walls and ceilings of which you can find numerous images of Buddha. One of the main sanctuaries of the whole complex where the faithful came to pray.
According to historians, it is the oldest cave, which, however, perfectly preserved. It is located at a greater depth than the neighboring caves. Here tourists can see the statue “Late Thought” and several rock paintings. Interestingly, historians believe that this part of the temple used to be completely painted red.
Caves 9 and 10 are small prayer rooms, on the walls of which unique paintings have been preserved: frescoes with Buddha, images of nymphs. The main decoration of the premises are high columns and carved arches.
These are two small monasteries built around the 5th or 6th century. Inside the premises is a long stone pew, and on the walls can be seen frescoes depicting the Buddha and monks. A small part of the temple is damaged, so it is not very popular with tourists.
It is three small monasteries, which due to natural factors were not completed. Historians say that previously there were definitely paintings here, but now you can see only the bare walls.
These are the two most studied caves of Ajanta. Historians have spent more than one year here, and they say that these are the central, and therefore the main parts of the complex. There are indeed a great many paintings and frescoes in these rooms: the miracle of Shravasti, the dream of Maya, the story of Trapusha and Bhallika, the feast of plowing. On the right wall you can see images of scenes from the life of the Buddha.
This is a very small, but very beautiful cave with columns and an arch. Its function is not yet fully understood.
The main attraction of the hall is the figure of Naga, who protects the Buddha. Earlier, according to scholars, mandalas and images of Yaksha could also be seen here. The entrance to this part of the temple is richly decorated with floral patterns and carved figures of the gods.
These are small caves, built among the last. Monks lived and worked in this part of the complex, periodically the rooms served as sanctuaries. Some rooms had attics and cells.
The dungeons were decorated as follows:
- images of flowers on the walls:
- frescoes with Buddha;
- inscriptions in Sanskrit;
- carved ornaments on the walls and ceiling.
Cave number 26 is the place for Buddha worship and long prayers. The sculptures in this part of the complex are the most elaborate and refined. For example, the Mahaparinirvana (the reclining Buddha) can be seen here, and at its foot there are silhouettes of the daughters of Mara. In the center of the apse is a stupa carved in the rock. On the walls of the temple is a mass of inscriptions in Sanskrit.
Caves 27, 28, and 29 together were a small but frequently visited monastery. There are not many decorations here, so tourists do not often look into this part of the Ajanta complex.
How to get there
There are regular buses to Ajanta village from Aurangabad (distance – 90 km). The travel time is a little less than 3 hours. The cost of the ticket is 30 rupees.
You can get to Aurangabad itself from any big city in India by train or bus.
A cab ride through India will be much more comfortable and faster. The main thing is that the cab driver knows exactly the way. The cost from Aurangabad is 600-800 rupees.
Location: Ajanta Caves Road, Ajanta 431001, India.
Opening hours: 08.00 – 19.00, Monday off.
Cost to visit: 250 rupees for foreigners, 10 for locals. A single ticket to Ajanta and Ellora in India can also be purchased for 350 rupees.
Prices on the page are for October 2019.
- Various parts of the Ajanta complex have taps from which tap water flows.
- The underground temples with the most beautiful frescoes have rather low lighting, so tourists are advised to take a flashlight with them to see all the details.
- Plan your trip in warm but not hot weather – the place is very interesting, but with the scorching sun you are unlikely to be able to get around everything. Also you shouldn’t come here in the evening, because the stones get very hot during the day.
- Before entering the cave temples of Ajanta you should take off shoes.
- In the temples it is forbidden to take pictures with a flash.
- Since the road to Ajanta is quite long, tourists are advised to either go with a travel agent or to hire a guide in India (many know several languages).
Ajanta Caves is one of the most energetically powerful places in India.
Ajanta Caves – the eighth wonder of the world:
Author: Maria Protasenya
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