Ajanta Caves in the Maharashtra state of India are a group of 30 Buddhist caves dating back to as early as the 2nd century BC. The caves are carved out on a horseshoe-shaped precipice extending over half a km overlooking a narrow gorge through which Waghora river streams. The caves were rediscovered by a British officer named John Smith in 1819 on his tiger hunt expedition when he accidentally spotted the arch of the highest cave no 10.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ajanta tops the list of Aurangabad tourist places and is situated at a distance of 96 km from Aurangabad city. The caves are said to be inhabited by the Buddhist monks for living and meditation purposes. The caves exemplary of remarkable rock cave architecture are amongst the most beautiful caves in India and are a reminiscence of our visit to the Badami caves temples in the Karnataka state of India.
Intended to spend more time at Ajanta we started early morning. Unfortunately, an accident blocked the road ahead leaving the vehicles stranded 5 km before the caves. We were informed that it would take around 3 hours for clearance which would mean we will be left with very less time to explore the caves.
When we thought the return was inevitable our driver came up with an alternative route of Ajanta viewpoint. Reaching the caves would require a 20 minutes trek. We instantly agreed as it would save our day though it came for the price of extra bucks payable to the driver.
Within 15 minutes we were at the viewpoint. The view of the caves of Ajanta lining the dry gorge from this point is astounding. The same panorama teems with an abundance of greenery covering the hills dotted with waterfalls during the monsoons. The river flowing through the gorge at the foot of the caves is called Waghora for the plenty of tigers which roamed around the river (Wagh means Tiger) in ancient times.
The location of the caves conjures up an image of the ancient times when the caves were a retreat for the Buddhist monks. Amidst the plenitude of verdant nature and wildlife skirted by the gushing Waghora river in absolute seclusion from the mundane life, the caves with beautifully carved sculptures definitely provided for a serene aura for peaceful contemplation of life.
The steps descending down from the view point winding through the dry forest area are well built. Midway we reached a rocky terrain which offered a closer view of the caves and Satkund on the extreme left beyond the cave 28 which is an exceptional waterfall of seven cascades which flows to form the Waghora river.
From here another set of stairs descended to a bridge running over the gorge. There are several porters available here to carry your luggage several of them even offered to carry our kiddo. We ignored and moved ahead.
The first cave you reach from here is the cave no 9. There is a small ticket counter here where we bought our tickets. But this counter does not always have the tickets as this is not the main entrance and you may need to walk to the cave 1 to issue tickets. The caves are sporadically located at different levels of the scarp. In older times each of the caves are said to have a separate set of stairs leading down to the gorge.
The guides are government appointment and pricey with no room for negotiation. The guide regaled us through loads of Ajanta caves information with frequent breaks. Though the guided Ajanta cave tour was very informative and interesting we refrained from using guides at Ellora and Daulabad Fort on the next day. Instead, we bought some guide books from the ticket counters which are cheaper and of better quality than the ones sold by the hawkers outside attractions.
Guide: Why or Why not?
1. Though the guide books are loaded with enough facts and figures for each Ajanta cave history you may not be able to locate the exact spot of importance. Most of the caves are pitch dark and you would need a torch to spot the Ajanta paintings and the stories painted on the walls and ceilings which the guide can easily walk through.
2. We wouldn’t have been able to cover all the caves with the speed our guide ran us through even after taking breaks. If you are in short of time guide can quickly walk you through the important and noteworthy caves.
3. Again there is definitely a difference on how you interpret the Ajanta cave paintings or designs with guide books compared to the explanation provided by learned guides.
Sculptures and Buddhist Caves Ajanta
Out of the 30 Buddhist caves, five are Chaityas or prayer halls and remaining are Viharas or monasteries. Chaityas have a nave leading upto to a stupa which has a base and dome crowned with harmika. Earlier Chaityas followed aniconism whereas the ones built later as in Cave 19 pictured below houses a statue of Buddha carved on the stupa.
Viharas are halls flanked by small meditation rooms where the monks were believed to reside and the shrines house colossal sculptures of Buddha.
Magnificent of all – Cave 26
This cave turned out to be very impressive. The decorations on lofty facade consist figures predominantly of Buddha with meticulous details.
A colossal figure of Buddha reclining on a couch on the inner left wall.
The last figure on right has the smallest sculpture of Buddha featured in the crown as shown in the inlaid picture.
Several graceful sculptures depicting scenes from the life of Buddha.
Apart from the remarkable sculptures, caves have rich paintings which can be found in caves of 1, 2, 16 and 17. The walls of these caves have wonderful stories painted from the life of Buddha and cultures and traditions of a bygone era.
Paintings of Bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani on either side of the Buddha in Cave 1 are the most famous Ajanta paintings.
Simhala’s conquest of Srilanka painted in Cave 17
The ceilings are decorated with remarkable paintings in amazing patterns woven with flowers, plants, fruits, birds and animals.
Most of the colors used in the painting were locally found like red and yellow ochre, green, lime, gypsum, lamp black but the lapis lazuli which contributes to the bright blue colors of the paintings in Cave 2 were imported from Persia.
Few of the caves are unfinished like that of cave 24, 29 or 3 which aided in studying the course of cave sculpting. Some of the caves were unearthed much later like Cave 30 which stands between the cave 15 and 16.
Renovation and excavation work is an ongoing process. Some of the pillars our guide pointed out are not carved out of stone but built out of concrete.
There are water taps at frequent intervals which are safe to drink. Bottled water are available in the MTDC canteen further down from the cave 1 or the main entrance. One can have lunch or snacks in the canteen the food is good though the prices are little high.
The private vehicles to caves are allowed only until a junction some 4 km before the caves. From here you need to board a bus shuttle which will transport you to the main entrance of the caves. Tickets can be bought onboard.
The caves are open from 9 am to 5.30 pm and are closed on Mondays.
Have you visited the Ajanta Caves, what was your favorite part?
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