History Ajanta Caves - Finest Examples of Ancient Indian Art

Ajanta Caves – Finest Examples of Ancient Indian Art

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In a far-flung river valley, about 105 kilometers northeast of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, the ancient cave temples of Ajanta are carved into the steep rock face of a horseshoe-shaped gorge along the Waghur river. Ajanta Caves are one of the most impressive Buddhist monuments in India. These caves are rock-cut and were built in the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE. Brilliant in their detailing, the Ajanta Caves are among the greatest surviving examples of ancient Indian cave art.

The Bodhisattva of compassion Padmapani with lotus
  • Ajanta caves were listed amongst the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983.
  • Ajanta caves were discovered by an Army Officer in the Madras Regiment of the British Army in 1819.
  • Ajanta caves are excavated in a horseshoe-shaped rock surface.
  • Ajanta caves date back to the pre-Christian era, with Cave 10 being the earliest, dating from the second century B.C.
  • The colours and shades used were red and yellow ochre, terra verte, lime, kaolin, gypsum, lamp black, and lapis lazuli.
  • The main binding material used in the paintings was glue. Thus, the paintings at Ajanta are not frescoes as they are painted with the help of a binding agent.
  • The main theme of paintings in the caves is the illustration of various Jataka stories and events from the life of Buddha.

It is believed that several Buddhist monks spent a significant amount of time at the Ajanta caves during the monsoons as they were forbidden from traveling during that particular period of the year. This was the time when the monks put their creativity and time to use and painted the walls of the caves.

It was only in 1819, when Jon Smith, who belonged to the 28th Cavalry accidentally chanced upon the horse-shoe shaped rock while hunting a tiger in and around the Deccan Plateau region. The entrance to the cave-like structures intrigued the British official enough to make them cross the Waghora River in the vicinity and reach the caves. Soon, archaeological experts excavated the sites and the news of the discovery of these caves spread like wildfire making it an instant hit among European travelers.

Apart from the stunning paintings and sculptures, there were also huge Buddhist mounds like stupas built, massive pillars intricately detailed carvings on the ceilings and walls made big news, giving the Ajanta caves the status of a heritage site.

Painted ceiling depicting Life circle of Lord Buddha

It was soon studied that there were over 30 caves in the cave complex out of which one part of the complex was developed during the Satvahana period and the other was done during the Vakataka period. After closely studying several of these artifacts, historians and archaeologists speculated a connection between the Vakataka dynasty that ruled the region to the Gupta dynasty of north India!

Exterior view of Cave 4

Construction

The caves were built in two phases, the first phase starting around the 2nd century BCE, while the second phase was built around 400–650 CE. During the first phase of construction, the sanctuaries known as the Chaitya-grihas were built in the canyons of the Waghora River. Caves 9, 10, 12, and 15 A were built in the first phase during the Satavahana dynasty.

Entrance façade and inside worship hall, Cave 19, sponsored by king Upendragupta

The second period of construction was carried out during the rule of Emperor Harishena of the Vakataka dynasty. Close to 20 cave temples were simultaneously built which resemble the modern-day monasteries with a sanctum in the rear end of the structure.

Towards the end of the reign of Harisena, these caves were abandoned and eventually forgotten through the centuries. The dense forests were partly to be blamed for camouflaging these caves.

Theme

Cave 4: The Buddha in a preaching pose flanked by bodhisattvas

The Ajanta caves are home to paintings and sculptures that depict the heavy influence of Buddhist philosophy and religious teachings of the Buddha. Various incidents from the life of Gautam Buddha and the Jataka Tales are represented and recreated on the walls of these caves. Scenes from the royal court of the respective eras are also painted.

Throughout his life, Buddha was against the idea of sculpting and painting images of him. He preached that life was a process through which one must overcome the desire to attain salvation or nirvana.

However, after Buddha’s death, his followers who wanted to worship him decided to paint his images so that they had something to hold on to while spreading the faith and teachings of the Buddha. At the entrance of the first of Ajanta caves, you will be greeted by a tall image of the Buddha. The doorway to the cave is decorated with auspicious motifs and the cave has numerous sculptures and paintings of Bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani; carvings of princesses, lovers, maids and dancing girls; scenes depicting the Persian Embassy, Golden Geese, Pink Elephants and Bull Fights. Though the caves are over 2,000 years old, the Buddha statues had been added close 600 years later.

So far, there are about 1,200 cave temples still in existence, in India. Some 1,000 of them are located in the western state of Maharastra, India. Others are located in the northeastern state of Bihar and Karnataka to the south of Maharastra, with a few scattered throughout other states.

Hidden, unvisited and undisturbed until 1819, the rock-cut temples were accidentally rediscovered by a British Army officer, John Smith, who is believed to have been in the group of the first recorded visitors to the caves.

Time to Visit Ajanta Caves

The caves are shut for the general public on Mondays and on other days visiting hours are between 09:00 am and 05:00 pm.

How to Reach the Ajanta Caves

You need to arrive into Aurangabad first to explore the Ajanta Caves. Aurangabad is about 333 kilometre from Mumbai. From Aurangabad city centre, the Ajanta Caves are about 102 kilometres away on the Aurangabad – Ajanta – Jalgaon road. Hiring a local taxi is the most preferred way of making a day trip to Ajanta. But if you are driving down, you should be apprised of the fact that the highway linking Aurangabad to Mumbai is connected to other major cities in the country such as Delhi, Jaipur, Udaipur, Bijapur, and Indore.

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