The World Heritage – Ajanta Caves

The Ajanta Caves is located in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Find about its history, how to reach, best time to visit, and interesting facts. Nestled amongst the rocky hills of Aurangabad district of northern Maharashtra, Ajanta Caves is a heritage site speaking much about Buddhist culture and ancient India. UNESCO declared it as a World Heritage Site since 1983 and is monitored and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.

History

This spectacular site is estimated to date back to a period from 200 BC to 5th century CE. The entire structure is believed to be built in two phases, the first during 2nd century BCE or the Satavahana period and the second or the Vakataka period after a lapse of several centuries. The first phase is believed to be built during the Mauryan Empire and chiefly comprises of two different types of caves – with stupas and without stupas. The second phase started way later during Harishena’s rule and was marked by building of rest rooms. These caves were elaborately built and renovated during this second phase. Artists and sculptors worked in extreme conditions under poor light conditions. The caves are true example of immense talent, patience and perseverance.

Dating back to 1819, a British hunter by the name John Smith, while tiger hunting accidentally tumbled upon the entrance of one of the caves, currently numbered as 10. He was guided by a shepherd and led to the entrance of the cave. Mr. Smith took help of local villagers and cleared up the shrubs and vines blocking the cave entrance. He etched his name and date of discovery on the wall which is visible even today. Later with more excavation, other caves were discovered. A lot of renovation work was executed during the Nizam era in the 1920s and roads were built to the caves for travellers to visit the site with an entry fee.

Best time to visit 

Since the place has tropical climate, best time to visit the place is during the autumn-winter season or between September to March. A lot of exploring and walking is required and thus winters are the best fit. Summers can be too hot and unpleasant.

The caves not only take one on a magical journey through time into the past, but are also an extremely rewarding experience as a whole. Since light is dim and flashes are not allowed, it is best advisable to carry a good high resolution camera for capturing few pieces of ancient history. Many portions of the caves are damaged due to seepage of water and insects and heavy renovation work is under process by the government. Don’t miss a chance to witness this stunning piece of ancient India!

How to reach

Maharashtra is one of the busiest states of India and is connected to all major cities of India by road, rail and air.

By road: Aurangabad and Jalgaon are the two nearest spots from Ajanta Caves. It is approximately a two and a half hour drive from Aurangabad via Jalgaon road and is 96.7km away. Public buses, taxis and hired cars are available at affordable costs from the two cities to the venue. The drive is marked by two distinct terrains. The trip starts with flat fields and gradually ends with rocky hills.

By rail:

Nearest railway station is in Jalgoan located 77.1 km away from Ajanta and is roughly 2 hours drive. This station is well connected with the all the major cities of India. Another railway station is at Aurangabad. After availing the train, the rest of the journey is via road.

By air:

Aurangabad airport is the nearest airport located 15 kms away from the city. Again buses or taxis need to be hired to reach Ajanta.

Once in Ajanta, there is still a 4km stretch to the Ajanta Cave site. Several public transports are available at very cheap rates to the main ticket counter and is approximately a 10 minute drive. The Ajanta bus stop is lined with shops and eating joints which is a welcome break after the journey.

Interesting Facts

Let’s explore the 5 interesting facts of these exquisitely beautiful caves:

  1. Cave exteriors:

The panoramic view of the horse shoe shaped caves is itself a beautiful sight reflecting a piece of ancient era of Indian art and culture. This ancient architectural structure dating more than 2000 years back has several reasons for worldwide appreciation. The caves were carved out of the rocky river gorge and is lined in the shape of a U. An artificial pathway is built to reach the cave entrances and follows the u shape which in ancient times had t0o be reached individually by stairways emerging from the base of the river gorge. The dense vegetation and vast expansive sky teams up to form a picture perfect spot to be explored.

There are a total of 30 caves out of which two were excavated much later and is numbered as 9A and 15A. Rest caves are numbered according to its position from 1-28. All the caves were used by the people as either shelter, education or for worship. Thus majority of them are structured as monasteries. The caves are dark and dimly lit. It is wrong to call them caves as the entrance can be deceptive. The interiors of the caves are immensely spacious with several rooms housing several outstanding artwork and carvings lining up the space.

  1. Frescos:

Stunning wall paintings or frescos are found in several caves lining up the walls, pillars as well as the ceilings. Cave 1 houses the most important and famous mural named as Bodhisattva, Bodhisattva Padmapani and Bodhisattva Vajrapani. All paintings reflect the influence of Buddha and depict the different lives and stages of Buddha. The paintings portray Jataka and Buddha stories. Tempera technique using mud and plaster were used for the dry fresco paintings. Pure vegetable colors were used in the process. One of the cave ceilings have an illusionary painting with one might feel is undulated, but actually is very flat. Cave 17 has the best preserved paintings of the Ajanta caves.

  1. Carvings and sculptures:

Along with the extraordinary paintings, there are several intricate carvings and sculptures housed in these caves. Cave 2 has 1000 Buddha depiction along with dancing girls, maids and other characters from the Jataka tales. The entrances to each caves is adorned with beautiful carvings along the pillars and the doorway. There are depictions of pink elephants, geese, bull fights as well as scenes from the royal court. One outstanding carving depicts shining pearls on a woman’s body when a torch light is reflected on it.

  1. Stupas:

Apart from the detailed sculptures and intricate paintings, Buddhist mounds or stupas were also built inside the caves depicting prayer rooms. Beautifully carved pillars surround the stupas with Buddha situated in the middle. The ceilings are equally stunning with repetitive arches running across the entire ceiling length.

  1. Story behind the caves:

Buddha did not want fame and recognition for his teachings and led a simple life. He restricted his followers from making his idols or paintings. But after his death, several of his ardent disciples wanted to preserve his preaching and thus gradually depicted his way of life and his teachings through the cave paintings. This way they could spread what Buddha taught for the future generations. In ancient times, these caves were used by monks to take shelter during the monsoon season during their travel from one place to the other.