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Short Insight into Ajanta

Watch a short introduction to Ajanta

The Ajantā caves are rock-cut Buddhist cave temples carved out of a horseshoe shaped valley near the Waghora river at the edge of the Indyadhri range. The caves are a UNESCO World Heritage site and are thronged by thousands of tourists who come to admire its serene location, rock-cut architecture and beautiful Buddhist paintings that are found in the caves. These 30 rock-cut caves are part of a constellation of Buddhist cave temples dotting the Sahayādri or Western Ghats in Maharashtra. But Ajantā is unique as it hosts the finest specimens of art - Cave 9 and 10 contain the oldest Buddhist narrative paintings in India.

British officers called the site - Ajanta - after Ajiṇṭhā - a village 14 kms from cave-site. Closest village is actually ‘Lenapur’ - village of caves - which is only 1 km from the site, where Satavahana pottery was recently discovered and may have been connected to the cave site. We do not know the ancient name of the sanghārāma or monastery at Ajanta.

It is located in Aurangabad district in the state of Maharashtra in India. The caves are at Fardapur, on the Jalgaon-Aurangabad highway. The Waghora river flows along a semi-circular scarp on the slopes of the western ghats or the Sahayādri. The caves were cut into this cliff by ancient Buddhists.

Ajanta is located at Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India.

The caves are located at a U-shaped valley.

The caves are carved out of flood basalt rock formations which are part of the Deccan Traps. These are step-like hills formed through lava flows from volcanic eruptions that happened some 66 million years ago. The rock layers are not homogenous, leading to cracks and collapses of parts of the cave.

The waterfall near the caves.

Buddhist Stupas and monasteries were being built all across the subcontinent. Sacred sites like Sānchī, Nāgārjunikōṇḍā, Amarāvatī, Sārnāth, Bodhgayā were already pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. Rock-cut cave temples just like the ones in Ajanta were being made across the western Deccan, at Bhājā, Beḍsā, Koṇḍāné, Kārḷé, Kanherī, and Pitalkhorā.

The oldest Buddhist paintings in India are at Ajanta in Caves 9 and 10. The paintings are the best preserved samples of ancient Indian art. The sculptures at Ajanta are marvels of ancient rock-cut architecture. These are not natural caves, they are man-made. They were cut by humans out of the hard basalt rock and carved into figures, shapes and idols.

Perhaps the Early caves were meant to be a retreat during the varṣāvāsa or rainy season. Some of the caves are congregation halls for worship. Others were intended as residences for the monks. Some are Buddha temples. Buddhist monasteries were often also centres of learning. These caves were also a pilgrimage centre for monks as well as common people.

The caves were made in 2 phases separated by 5 centuries. The first phase, called the Early phase, was between 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE. Five caves (Caves 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15A) at Ajanta are from this period. In this period, the region was ruled by the Satavahana kings. These caves are relatively simple. There are two chaityagṛhas and three vihāras from this period.

The second phase of construction at Ajanta was in the 5th century CE. Most of the caves at Ajanta are from this Later phase, two chaityagṛhas and numerous Later vihāras were made through royal patronage. These caves have elaborate sculptures and paintings. The region was ruled by Vakataka kings, and fell under the Vatsagulma branch under the ruler Hariṣeṇa.

In the Early phase, the caves were made through collective patronage. Multiple donors - common people, merchants etc paid for the construction of the caves.

In the Later phase, individual donors or patrons - like kings, traders and monks also donated the caves. Cave 16 was made by King Hariṣeṇa’s secretary - Varāhadeva. Cave 4 shrine was donated by a merchant named Mathura of the Karvatiya clan. Cave 26 complex ( which includes caves 25, 26 and 27) was made by a monk named Buddhabhadra. Caves 17, 19 and 20 as well as the water cistern ( numbered as cave 18) was made by a king referred to as Dharādhipa.

These caves were hewn out of the cliff of the mountain by people equipped with only a hammer and chisel. It must have been strenuous work that required planning and skill. These are monolithic caves - the whole cave was carved out of the rock. The rock formations of the cliff were in layers and were uneven. Narrow tunnels were cut at the roof level and this was expanded downwards and outwards to create the cave. Sculptors excavated the caves and sculpted intricate designs and carvings simultaneously. Working in parallel, as the cave was expanded, elements like the pillars and doorways were carved.

Interior of Cave 12, the Early viharas are simple structures

Interior of Cave 17, the Later viharas are larger in scale and ambition

In the 19th century, numerous reports about the site began to appear in British records. But the site was always known to the locals, especially the Bhil tribe.

In the Early phase, there are 2 types of caves. The chaityagṛha or prayer hall was used for worship and congregation. These caves (Cave 9 and 10) are pillared halls ending in an apse with the stūpa at the nave. The main form of worship was pradakshina or circumambulation and it was performed around the stupa. The vihāras - residential caves (Cave 12, 13, 15A) were upāśrayas or dwellings for monks. These cells are equipped with stone beds and niches in the wall. All these caves were once painted. Traces of the paintings in Cave 9 and 10 tell stories from Jātakas. Wooden decorations in the form of rafters and facades were fitted into these caves.

In the Later phase, you again see two kinds of caves - the chaityagṛhas ( Cave 19 and 26) and multiple Later vihāras. The chaityagṛhas have elaborate sculpted decorations - in the form of Buddha images, sculpted figures and ornate pillars.

Left: A stupa from cave 10.
Right: The Buddha image is superimposed
on the stupa in Cave 19.

The stūpa has a Buddha image imposed on it. The wooden decorations from the Early phase have been replaced in stone. The Later vihāras are very different from the simple upāśrayas of the Early Phase. These vihāras from the 5th century CE also have shrines dedicated to the Buddha. There are many cells for monks surrounding a main hall - which has picture galleries - with stories from Jātakas, Avadānas and Buddhacharita painted in the cave interior and exterior.

The caves were fully painted, its exteriors and interiors were covered in devotional and decorative art. Only a few of these paintings have survived. The Early paintings are found in caves 9 and 10. These tell stories from Jatakas, where Buddha appears in animal form or aniconic form. The paintings with the Buddha image are from the 5th century where these caves were repainted. The Later caves also have paintings which tell stories from Jātakas. But there are also devotional paintings that portray scenes from Buddha’s life as well as paintings based on the Avadānas. Some of the paintings in the porch of Cave 17 even have ‘painted inscriptions’ of lines of poetry from Aśvaghoṣa’s epic poem on the Buddha’s life. These paintings were made using mineral colours. The primary colours used at Ajanta were red ochre, yellow ochre, lapis lazuli, lime white, kaolin, terre verte green and lamp black. The process was one of layering. First, the cave walls were chipped to hold enough rough mud plaster. On top of the rough, a layer of fine mud plaster was applied, and on top of this a coat of lime was applied. The artists followed the technique where colour was applied to the dry lime coat. The mineral colour was mixed with animal glue and applied. In the case of sculptures, there was no mud plaster, and mineral colour was applied directly on a lime coat.

The famous Bodhisatva found in Cave 1

The sculptures at Ajanta are all monolithic - carved out of the rock cliff. In other words, not a single rock was brought to Ajanta. Every sculpture you see was excavated and sculpted out of the cliff. Numerous sculptures at Ajanta portray animals, figures and creatures that are part of Buddhist mythology. From the guardian Nāga sculptures to the flying yakṣa and mithuna couples, Ajanta has a large number of sculpted panels and friezes.

Individual elements in the caves like the door jambs, pillars and pillar capitals as well the facade hold numerous sculptures. There are sculpted panels depicting Buddha’s journey on the facade of cave 1. Sub-shrine in Cave 2 narrates the story of Hārītī.

The elephant gateway to Cave 16.

The Mahāparinirvāṇa Buddha and Māra’s attack in Cave 26 are also narrative sculptures that relate events from Buddha’s life. The facade of Cave 19 and 26 are made to look like a multi-storeyed prasāda or palace.