The Ajanta Caves (2nd century B.C. till 650 A.D.) reflect the peak of ancient Indian art and architecture. The caves were cut in rocky cliffs above a horseshoe shaped valley to provide prayer halls and place of residence for Buddhist monks. Craft workers cut out the rock and sculpted it whilst others made beautiful murals depicting places, royalty, culture and tales of everyday life of ancient India.
As Buddhism gradually declined, the Ajanta caves were abandoned and eventually forgotten. It was as late as in the 19th century that a party of British officers discovered the Ajanta caves. Their isolation contributed to the fine state of preservation of the remarkable paintings.
What to see
Vivid Paintings : The paintings or frescoes in the caves enthral the spectator with their rich beauty, expressiveness, radiant colour schemes, balanced compositions and fine shading which highlight the delicate artistry and idealised physical features. The colour scale is extremely simple, there being only red, blue, yellow ochre and lamp-black. The themes of the paintings are generally religious and centre on the Buddha and various Buddhist divinities. Depicting the whole cycle of human life from birth to death, these paintings hold a mirror to the contemporary life of the monastery, the village, the town, the court and the palace. The caves most well known for their wall paintings are Caves 1, 2, 16, 17, and 19. Two of the best-known murals Bodhisattva Padmapani with a lotus and Bodhisattva Vajrapani holding a thunderbolt are found in Cave 1. Cave 2 is remarkable for its painted ceiling with large medallions, delicate bands of lotus flowers, scrollwork and abstract patterns. Cave 16 is one of the finest monasteries with the most beautiful painting of the ‘Dying Princess’. The greatest number of wall paintings are preserved in Cave 17, which also depicts the unusual ‘Wheel of Life’ composition displaying all of creation.
Halls of Worship: Two basic types of Buddhist monastic architecture are observed here. In the chaitya hall (shrine) of the Hinayana phase, the focus of the interior is the monolithic stupa, or a plain hemisphere raised on a platform. The viharas (monasteries) of this period have a simple hall with residential cells cut into the walls on three sides. The chaitya halls of the Mahayana phase are different. Their interior columns have decorated capitals and brackets. The viharas of this period comprise a square hall with a Buddha shrine.
Vibrant Sculptures: Most of the ornate sculptures are from the Mahayana period. These carvings are remarkable for their classic qualities and display a graceful elegance and serenity. In the shrines are huge figures of the Buddha in the meditation and teaching pose. Their benign expression and grace of form evoke a sense of awe and reverence. The most striking sculptures are found in Caves 1, 4, 17, 19 and particularly 26. Cave 26 contains a colossal carved figure of the reclining Buddha, depicting his ultimate salvation from the cycle of rebirth – the Mahaparinirvana.
Ajanta View Point: This is the place from where John Smith first glimpsed the Ajanta Caves. Today it offers a vantage point for a panoramic view of the horseshoe-shaped gorge in which the caves are located. ( Cave Timings: The Ajanta Caves are open from 9 am to 5.30 pm. The caves are closed on Mondays and national holidays).
Air: Aurangabad is the gateway to the region, and is generally where you would arrive or depart from. The nearest airport is Aurangabad airport around 10 kms east of the town, and is directly air-linked to Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur and Udaipur.
Rail: Aurangabad is well connected to Mumbai and other cities. There are two trains that depart daily from Mumbai. The Tapovan Express leaves Mumbai early morning arriving in Aurangabad by late afternoon, while the Devgiri Express is an overnight train.
Road: Ajanta is connected by motorable roads with Aurangabad, Jalgaon, Fardapur.