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Ajanta Caves | Rock-cut cave monuments

The Ajanta Caves are 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state of India. The first Buddhist cave monuments at Ajanta date from the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. During the Gupta period (5th and 6th centuries CE), many more richly decorated caves were added to the original group. The paintings and sculptures of Ajanta, considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art, have had a considerable artistic influence. The caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.

While searching some old photographs, I found photographs of our visit to Ajanta caves about six years ago. I was accompanying my mother to Shirdi. My dad said that when we were going via Aurangabad, then it’s better that we stayed there for a day and visit Ajanta caves or Ellora caves. Since, it was raining, the driver advised us against visiting Ellora caves. So we went for the Ajanta caves. The drive from Aurangabad to Ajanta takes around 3 hours.

The footbridge spanning the Waghora River
The footbridge spanning the Waghora River

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These are not natural caves. They are rock-cut caves. They are splendid examples of architecture cut by human hands into the cliff of a mountain. Some of the caves were intended as residences (viharas) for Buddhist monks. Some were for the congregation of the monks (stupas). Some were prayer halls (chaitya grihas).

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The Ajanta Caves are rock-cut cave monuments. The extreme antiquity of the caves is clear, though their exact dates remain elusive: from the paleographic evidence they can be securely dated to between the second century BCE and the first century CE. It is said that the caves were built in two phases, the first phase starting around the 2nd century BCE, while the second phase was built around 400–500 CE.

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The Ajanta Caves constitute ancient monasteries and worship-halls of different Buddhist traditions carved into a 250-feet wall of rock. The caves also present paintings depicting the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha, pictorial tales from Aryasura’s Jatakamala, and rock-cut sculptures of Buddhist deities. The paintings in the Ajanta caves predominantly narrate the Jataka tales. These are Buddhist legends describing the previous births of the Buddha. These fables embed ancient morals and cultural lores that are also found in the fables and legends of Hindu and Jain texts. The paintings are possibly the finest surviving picture galleries from the ancient world.

Ajanta-mural at cave 1

Ajanta-paintings inside cave no.1 bodhisatvapadmapani

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The caves are carved out of flood basalt rock of a cliff, part of the Deccan Traps formed by successive volcanic eruptions at the end of the Cretaceous geological period. The rock is layered horizontally, and somewhat variable in quality. The sculpture artists likely worked at both excavating the rocks and making the intricate carvings of pillars, roof and idols; further, the sculpture and painting work inside a cave were an integrated parallel tasks. 

The majority of the caves are vihara halls with symmetrical square plans. To each vihara hall are attached smaller square dormitory cells cut into the walls. A vast majority of the caves were carved in the second period, wherein a shrine or sanctuary is appended at the rear of the cave, centred on a large statue of the Buddha, along with exuberantly detailed reliefs and deities near him as well as on the pillars and walls, all carved out of the natural rock. 

The caves include paintings and rock-cut sculptures described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art, particularly expressive paintings that present emotion through gesture, pose and form.

The Ajanta Caves were built in a period when both the Buddha and the Hindu gods were simultaneously revered in Indian culture. According to Spink and other scholars, not only the Ajanta Caves but other nearby cave temples were sponsored and built by Hindus. 

The large carved statue of the reclining Buddha, representing his moment of death.
The large carved statue of the reclining Buddha, representing his moment of death.

The role of Hindu artisans is confirmed by archaeological excavations across the river from the Ajanta caves. The caves must have employed a large workforce of artisans who likely lived for extended period of time nearby, across from the river near the site. Excavations have uncovered extensive brick structures for workers and visiting elite sponsors, along with Shaiva and Shakta Hindu deities.

Ajanta Cave complex is the marvellous architectural wonder that depicts the rich legacy of India. The visit to these caves made me wonder how did the artists paint so well, with such precise use of colour, in the dark recesses of these rock-carved prayer halls and monasteries? 

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