Ajanta Caves (75° 40' E; 20°30'N) are famous for their murals which are the finest surviving examples of Indian art, particularly painting. The 30 rock-cut caves at Ajanta have been excavated in a panoramic horse-shoe shaped bend of rock scarp nearly 76 meter in height overlooking a narrow stream known as Waghora.
Among the finest examples of early Buddhist architecture, cave-paintings and sculptures, these caves comprise Chaitya halls or shrines, and Viharas or monasteries. Some of the magnificent paintings, for which Ajanta is world-famous, can be seen in Caves 1,2,9,10,16 and 17. They depict episodes from the life of the Buddha, and scenes from the Jataka tales which relate to the Buddha's previous incarnations as a Bodhisattva. The sculptures, on the facade of some of the caves and in the shrines contain superb images of the Buddha. More remarkable among these is the one depicting the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana - his ultimate release from the cycle of rebirth, in Cave 26, evoking a sense of awe and reverence.
Reclining image of Lord Buddha in Cave 26
The location of this valley provided a calm and serene environment for the Buddhist monks who retreated at these secluded places during the rainy season. Each cave was connected to the stream by a flight of steps, which are now almost obliterated, albeit traces of some could be noticed at some places. In all 30 caves were hewn out of the living rock in different periods according to the necessity.
Out of these, five (cave no. 9,10,19,26 and 29) are Chaityagrihas and the rest are viharas. They belong to two distinct phases of Buddhism - the earlier Hinayana phase from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD; and the later Mahayana phase from the 5th century AD to the 6th century AD. Out of the 30 caves 6 caves belong to the earliest phase of Buddhism i.e. Hinayana. Caves 9 & 10 which are Chaityagrihas and 8, 12, 13 & 15A which are Viharas belong to this phase. These caves are datable to the pre-Christian era, the earliest among them being Cave 10 dating from the second century B.C where the object of worship is a Stupa. These caves are imitation of contemporary wooden constructions even to the extent of fixing of wooden rafters and beams to the ceiling even thought they are non-functional.
Ajanta Paintings in second cave
These early caves were painted but nothing substantial has survived. Caves No. 9 and 10 clearly show some vestiges of painting. The headgear, ornaments of the images in these painting resemble the bas-relief sculpture of Sanchi and Bharhut.
The addition of new caves could be noticed again during the period of Vakatakas, the contemporaries of the imperial Guptas. These were caused to be excavated by the royal family and also the feudatories owing allegiance to the Vakatakas. Varahaoeva, the minister of Vakataka king Harishena (475-500 A.D) dedicated Cave 16 to the Buddhist Sangha while Cave 17 was the gift of a prince (who subjugated Asmaka ) a feudatory of the same king. A flurry of activity at Ajanta was between mid 5th century A. D. to mid 6th century A.D. Hieun Tsang, the famous Chinese traveler who visited India during the first half, of 7th century A. D. has left a vivid and graphic description of the flourishing Buddhist establishments here even though he did not visit the caves.
Intricate carving in Cave number 21
A solitary Rashtrakuta inscription in cave no. 26 indicates its use during 8th -9th centuries A.D. The second phase departs from-the earlier one with the introduction of new pattern in layout as well as the centrality Buddha image, both in sculpture as well as in paintings.
All of these caves which were once painted, but now the best examples of these exemplary paintings of Vakatali period could be noticed only in cave 1,2,16 and 17. The variation in style and execution in these paintings also are noticed, mainly due to different authors who followed contemporary style.
The main theme of the paintings is the depiction of various Jataka stories-different incidents associated with the life of Buddha, and the contemporary events and social life. The ceiling decoration invariably consists of decorative patterns, geometrical as well as floral painted representations; Sculptural panels also adorn the beauty of the caves.
Lord Buddha image in Cave number 8
Ajanta paintings are the best examples of Tempera technique, executed after elaborated preparation of rock surface. After chiseling rock surface, different layers of clay mixed with ferruginous earth, sand, fibrous material of organic origin was applied very carefully. Then the surface was finally finished with a thin coat of lime wash.
Over this surface, outlines are drawn boldly, then the spaces are filled with requisite colors in different shades and tones to achieve the three dimensional effect of rounded and plastic volumes. The colors and shades utilized also vary from red and yellow ochre, terra verte, to lime, kaolin, gypsum, lamp black and lapis lazuli. The chief binding material used here was glue.
The group of caves is inscribed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Monument in the year 1983.
Plight of Stairs at Ajanta Caves
A Bridge over river Waghora near Ajanta Caves
Pathway connecting all the caves
Layout of Ajanta Caves
Ajanta Caves Top View
Under the hood: Comprehensive Information about important caves of Ajanta
Painting in First Cave Ajanta
CAVE NO. 1
This is one of the finest monasteries (35.7 X 27.6 m) of its kind and no other monastery at Ajanta has been so handsomely ornamented. The Mahayana monastery consists of an open courtyard, verandah, a hypostylar hall, sanctum with an antechamber and cells. The sanctum houses Lord Buddha In preaching posture with Bodhisattvas on either side and five disciples and a wheel flanked by deers at the base of the pedestal suggests symbolically Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath.
The door frame and pillars were beautifully carved. Every inch of this cave was originally painted; even the pillars and the sculptures being no exceptions. The ceiling painted with geometrical, floral and faunal depictions, creates an impression of a decorative shamiyana held above. The walls painted mostly with the Jataka tales and scenes related to Lord Buddha's life. The cave contains some of the masterpieces of the world of painting namely Padmapani and Vajrapani.
Lord Buddha Statue in Cave 2nd Ajanta
CAVE NO. 2
The Mahayana monastery (35,7* 21.6 m) is one of the best caves of Ajanta. On the basis of paleography it belongs to 6th-7th Century A.D. It consists of a verandah, a hypostylar hall, an antechamber, sanctum with two sub shrines, chapels and a group of cells. Lord Buddha is enshrined in the sanctum flanked by celestial nymphs and Bodhisattvas. The Western sub-shrine of the sanctum houses the figures of Shankhanidhi-Padmanidhi (God of Prosperity), while the Eastern sub-shrine of the sanctum contains the figures Of Haiiti-Panchika (symbol of Motherhood). The massive pillars and door frames are elaborately carved with designs and decorated with paintings. Extensively painted, it is famous for its ceiling painting in the hall, antechamber, verandah and chapels. The paintings contain some of the finest contrasting colors, which still retain their brightness and luster. The wall of the sanctum and antechamber are painted with countless figures of Lord Buddha, while those of the halls are painted with illustrations of the former births of Lord Buddha known as Jatakas.
Image of Lord Buddha in 4th Cave Ajanta
CAVE NO. 4
This is the largest monastery planned on a grandiose scale but was never finished. An inscription on the pedestal of the Buddha's image, mentions that it was a gift of a person named Mathura and Paleographically belongs to 6th Century A.D. It consists of a verandah, a hypostylar hall, sanctum with an antechamber and a series of unfinished cells. The sanctum houses a colossal image of Lord Buddha in preaching pose flanked by Bodhisattavas, and celestial nymphs hovering above. The walls of the sanctum and antechamber are decorated with gigantic figures of Lord Buddha in boon giving pose. The jambs and the frames of the windows are also delicately carved with designs and sometimes with tiny figures of Buddha. The rear wall of the Verandah contains the panel of Litany of Avalokiteshvara. It was a common belief that Avalokiteshvara would bring immediate relief to a person struggling in difficult times. The ceiling of the hall preserves a unique geological feature of Lava flow called ropy. The cave was once painted and traces of which can be noticed.
Globular Stupa in Cave number nine at Ajanta
This is the oldest chaityagriha belonging to Hinayana sect of Buddhism datable to 1st century B. C, It is rectangular on plan, but the layout is apsidal. The chaitya (18.24 X 18.04 m) with its well-balanced facade is divided into a nave, an apse and aisles by a colonnade of twenty-three pillars. The vaulted ceiling of the nave and apse were originally braced with superfluous wooden beams and rafters. At the Centre of the apse stands a plain globular Stupa on a high cylindrical base. The facade wall is decorated with a beautiful chaitya-window end figure of Lord Buddha. Inside the chaitya are seen two layers of paintings the earlier dating back to the second half of 1st century B.C., and the latter to 5th - 6th century A. D. The pillars and ceilings are decorated with paintings of Buddha and floral decorations while the walls are decorated with figures of Lord Buddha, groups of votaries, procession of devotees towards the stupa etc.
Stupa in Cave tenth at Ajanta
CAVE NO: 10
This is earliest chaityagriha (30.5 X 12.2 m) at Ajanta, belonging to Hinayana Sect of Buddhism. On the basis of inscriptions the cave was excavated by the gifts made by Vasisthiputra Katahadi, Kanahaka of Bahada, monk Dharmadeva while the paintings were by various devotees. The predominantly wooden architecture and the paleographical evidence date this cave to circa 2nd century B. C. The chaitya is apsidal on plan consisting a nave flanked by two aisles by a colonnade of thirty-nine pillars. The Stupa placed at the apsidal end, is the biggest at Ajanta and is plain and hemispherical in shape. The importance of this cave lies in its preserving the early specimens of Indian paintings. The paintings belong to two different periods; the earlier dated to 2nd century B. C. and the latter to 4th century A. D. The plain octagonal pillars, ceilings and walls are painted with Buddhist themes, designs, and Jatakas, but nothing substantial has survived.
Statue of Lord Buddha in Cave number 15
CAVE NO. 16
This is the largest and certainly the finest and most interesting monastery (19.5 X 22.25 X 4.6 m) at Ajanta, famous for portraying the various episodes of Buddha's life. An inscription found on the wad of verandah, records the gift of this cave by Varahadeva a minister of Vakataka King Harisena (475-500 A.D.)
It consists of a Verandah, hypostylar hall, sanctum, chapels and cells. The sanctum has a circumambulatory and houses Lord Buddha on Lion throne, in preaching posture. Lord Buddha is flanked by Bodhisettvas as fly whisk-bearers and celestial nymphs carrying garland. The pillars are tall, devoid of any carvings, but once contained beautiful paintings. The previous births of Buddha known as Jatakas are artistically and ingeniously drawn on the walls. The callings are filled with floral, faunal and geometrical designs and the whole ceiling creates an impression of fluttering shamiyana. It has masterpieces of paintings like death of princess, Asita's prediction, conversion of Nanda, Maya's dream, Miracle of Sravasti and Sujata offering kheer. Some of the paintings here are also inscribed.
Paintings in Cave 17 Ajanta
CAVE NO: 17
This is one of the finest and magnificent Mahayana monasteries, known for its display of the greatest number of Jatakas. A Brahmi inscription, on the wall of the courtyard records the excavation of this cave by a feudatory prince under Vakataka King Harisena (475 - 500 A.D.) The monastery is also called the zodiac cave from a circular piece of gigantic wheel, also painted on verandah's wall. It consists a verandah, hypostylar hall, sanctum with an antechamber, chapels and cells. The sanctum houses a huge image of Lord Buddha, flanked by Bodhisattvas and flying figures hovering above them.
The cave consists some of the well-preserved paintings of the Vakataka Age. Twenty octagonal pillars mostly painted devoid of any carving, support the hall. The door frame is lavishly carved and painted. The lintel of the main door portrays seven Mortal Buddhas along with the future Buddha 'Maitreya'.
Stupa carved with lord Buddha image in Cave 19
CAVE NO: 19
The small chaityagriha is considered as one of the most perfect specimens of the Buddhist art in India. The exquisitely decorated facade and beautiful interior, form a grand combination of richness of detail and grace propotion. The inscription in Cave 17 records that a feudatory prince under Vakataka King Harisena was a munificent donor of this cave, datable to 5th Century A.D. It consists of a small but elegant portico, verandah a hall and chapels. The apsidal hall is divided into a nave, an apse, and aisles by a colonnade of 17 pillars. The votive stupa with an elaborate and elongated drum and a globular dome stands against the apse. The pillars and the stupa are intricately carved with the figures of Lord Buddha and other decorative motifs. The sidewalls are also adorned with countless figures of Buddha while the ceiling is filled with painted motifs in which animals, birds and human figures are cleverly interwoven. The chapel contains the panel of Nagaraja with his consort, known for its serenity and royal dignity.
Image of Lord Buddha in preaching posture Cave 21
CAVE NO: 21
This is a beautiful monastery excavated on a higher level, during the 6th century A. D. it consists of a pillared verandah, sanctum with an antechamber, and cells. Twelve massive pillars support the roof of the hall where flora, fauna, celestial figures and worshippers are carved in great detail. The door frames and window frames are also carved with beautiful designs sculptures. The sanctum houses a seated Buddha in preaching posture, flanked by Bodhisattvas as fly whisk bearers and celestial figures. Traces Of paintings depicting Buddha as preaching a congregation can be seen.
Cave 24 Ajanta Caves
CAVE NO. 24
This is an incomplete monastery but ranks the second largest excavation at Ajanta. The work was stopped before completion and on the basis of architecture and design it is assigned to 7th century A.D. The pillars are lavishly carved with vase and foliage, couples and medallions. The door frame and window frame are also intricately carved. Only the verandah with raised pillar porches on either side is finished. The unfinished hall gives us the idea of distribution of works. The cell in courtyard and verandah contain the images of Lord Buddha with Bodhisattvas holding Flywhisks and celestial figures hovering above.
Information courtesy: © Archeological Survey of India, Aurangabad Circle