Ajanta Ellora Caves
back in1819, a party of British army officers on a tiger hunt in the forest
of western Deccan, suddenly spotted their prey, on the far side of a loop in
the Waghora river. High up on the horseshoe- shaped cliff, the hunting party
saw the tiger, silhouetted against the carved façade of a cave.
On investigating, the officers discovered a series of carved caves, each more
dramatic than the other. Hewn painstakingly as monsoon retreats or varshavasas
for Buddhist monks, the cave complex was continuously lived in from 200 BC to
about AD650. There are thirty caves, including some unfinished ones. Of the
Ajanta caves, five are chaityas or prayer halls and the rest are viharas or
Hinayana and Mahayana
The Ajanta caves resolve themselves into two phases, separated from each other
by a good four hundred years. These architectural phases coincide with the two
schools of Buddhist thought, the older Hinayana school where the Buddha was
represented only in symbols like the stupa, a set of footprints or a throne,
and the later Mahayana sect which did not shy away from giving the Lord a human
Among the more prominent Hinayana caves are those numbered 9, 10 (both chaityas),
8, 12, 13 and 15 (all viharas). The sculpted figures in these caves are dressed
and coiffed in a manner reminiscent of the stupas at Sanchi and Barhut, indicating
that they date back to the first or second century BC.
Mahayana monasteries include 1, 2, 16 and 17, while the chaityas are in caves
19 and 26. The caves, incidentally, are not numbered chronologically but in
terms of access from the entrance. A terrqaced path of modern construction connects
the caves, but in ancients times, each cave was accessed from the riverfront
by individual staircases.
The sculptures and paintings in the caves detail the Buddha's life as well as
the lives of the Buddha in his previous births, as related in the allegorical
Jataka tales. You will also find in the caves a sort of illuminated history
of the times - court scenes, street scenes, cameos of domestic life and even
animal and bird studies come alive on these unlit walls.
The caves including the unfinished ones are thirty in number, of which five
(9, 10, 19, 26 and 29) are chaitya-grihas and the rest are sangharamas or viharas
(monasteries). After centuries of oblivion, these caves were discovered in AD
They fall into two distinct phases with a break of nearly four centuries between
them. All the caves of the earlier phase date between 2nd century BC-AD.
The caves of the second phase were excavated during the supremacy of the Vakatakas
and Guptas. According to inscriptions, Varahadeva, the minister of the Vakataka
king, Harishena (c. 475-500 AD), dedicated Cave 16 to the Buddhist sangha while
Cave 17 was the gift of the prince, a feudatory.
An inscription records that- Buddha image in Cave 4 was the gift of some Abhayanandi
who hailed from Mathura.
A few paintings which survive on the walls of Caves 9 and 10 go back to the
2nd century BC-AD. The second group of the paintings started in about the fifth
century AD and continued for the next two centuries as, noticeable in later
The themes are intensely religious in tone and centre round Buddha, Bodhisattvas,
incidents from the life of Buddha and the Jatakas. The paintings are executed
on a ground of mud-plaster in the tempera technique.
About 107 kms. from the city of Aurangabad, the rock-cut caves of Ajanta nestle
in a panoramic gorge, in the form of a gigantic horseshoe. Among the finest
examples of some of the earliest Buddhist architecture, caves-paintings and
sculptures, these caves comprise Chaitya Halls, or shrines, dedicated to Lord
Buddha and Viharas, or monasteries, used by Buddhist monks for meditation and
the study of Buddhist teachings.
The paintings that adorn the walls and ceilings of the caves depict incidents
from the life of the Buddha and various Buddhist divinities. Among the more
interesting paintings are the Jataka tales, illustrating diverse stories relating
to the previous incarnations of the Buddha as Bodhisattva, a saintly being who
is destined to become the Buddha.
Ajanta has two kinds of Caves:
» Finished Caves
» Unfinished Caves