Saturday, June 18, 2011


Ajanta Caves
Ajanta, another World Heritage site, is something that cannot be missed. Situated at around 100 kms away from Aurangabad, you need the whole day to travel to Ajanta, visit the caves, and return to base camp.

The village near the caves is called Ajintha (अजिंठा) and in Marathi the caves are called अजिंठा लेणी. Ajanta caves are 30 rock-cut cave monuments dating from 2nd century BCE.

Ajanta caves include paintings depicting the Jataka tales. The paintings and a few sculptures are considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art.


The Ajanta caves were carved out of a horseshoe-shaped cliff along the Waghora river. They were used by Buddhist monks as chaityagrihas (prayer halls) and viharas (monasteries) for about nine centuries, and then were abruptly abandoned. The walls of the caves are covered with beautiful paintings and sculptures of Buddhist origin. They fell into oblivion until they were rediscovered in 1819.


Ajanta caves were discovered by John Smith, an army officer in the Madras Regiment of the British Army in 1819 during one of his hunting expeditions.

Number of Caves

There are 30 caves, with mostly been completed. A few caves are unfinished. A pathway is scooped out from stone and runs as a crescent by the caves. From this, one can have a glorious view of the ravine below.

What can you see in the caves?

The wall paintings illustrate the events in the life of Gautam Buddha. Stories and scenes from the Jataka Tales are brought to life on the walls.

Waghora River Valley
Why Ajanta?

Ajanta lies on the ancient trade route from the Arabian sea to the Deccan plateau. The Buddhist monks found the peace and seclusion they were looking for in the cool ravine of the Waghora river. With trade centers of Jalgaon and Aurangabad close by, the monks could go to these places to collect alms and return to the quiet of the caves.

Moreover, the texture of the granite rock in layers made it easy for the sculptors to cut the rocks with their instruments and for painters to paint.

How were the Paintings done in such Dark Caves?

Painters used stick torches to light up the caves. Mirrors were used to reflect sunlight into the dark caves. Skills were passed down from father to son. New techniques, tools, and new ways of handling paint and chisel were also invented.

Colours Used

Local colors available from mountain rocks and soil were used. The main colours used were yellow ochre, brown ochre, lamp black, white, and lapis lazuli (blue). Lapis lazuli was imported from Northern India, Central Asia, and Persia. Green was created from lapis lazuli using Indian yellow ochre.

Techniques of Painting

The paintings were executed after elaborate preparation of the rock surface. The rock surface was chiselled and grooves were made so that the layer applied over it could be held in an effective manner. The ground layer consisted of a rough layer of clay, cow dung, mixed with rock-grit or sand, vegetable fibers, paddy husk, grass, and other fibrous material of organic origin on the rough surface of walls and ceilings, thoroughly pressed into the rock.

A second coat of mud and ferruginous earth mixed with fine rock-powder or sand and fine fibrous vegetable material was applied over the ground surface. Finally, the surface was finished with a thin coat of lime wash. Over this surface, outlines are drawn boldly. The spaces were filled with requisite colours in different shades and tones to achieve the effect of rounded and plastic volumes.

The colours and shades utilised also varied from red and yellow ochre, terra verte, to lime, kaolin, gypsum, lamp black and lapis lazuli. The chief binding material used here was glue. The paintings at Ajanta are not frescoes, because they are painted with the aid of a binding agent. In frescoes, the paintings are executed while the lime wash is still wet which, thereby acts as an intrinsic binding agent.


Caves 1, 2, 10, 16, 17, and 26 should not be missed.

We visited the caves starting from cave number 1. But I read it recently, which I found really sensible, that you should start with the last cave first. Thereby, you end at cave 1, which is also the exit point.

But let me caution you for this route. Make sure that you leave enough time in hand for the caves 1 and 2. Usually, as we start, we spend more time in the beginning. As time flies by, we tend to skip caves, or hurry across the numerous paintings and sculptures. That would mean that you have very little time for caves 1 and 2. Make sure you avoid that mistake.

I am still going to describe the caves as we visited them.

Cave 1

This is the most important cave of Ajanta and has elaborate carvings on its facade. There are scenes carved from Buddha's life and also decorative motifs. There are three doors, central, and two side-doors. Two square windows are carved between the doors.

The walls of the hall are nearly 40 feet (12 m) long and 20 feet (6.1 m) high. Twelve pillars make a square colonnade inside supporting the ceiling, and creating spacious aisles along the walls. A shrine is carved at the rear end of an impressive, seated image of the Buddha, his hands being in the dharmachakrapravartana mudra. A group of the master's first five disciples is also shown.

The walls are covered with scenes that are mostly didactic, devotional, and ornamental. The themes are from the Jataka stories (the stories of the Buddha's former existences as Bodhisattva), the life of the Gautama Buddha, and those of his veneration. One pillar in the central right row has a remarkable carving of four deer in different positions sharing the same head that seems to belong to each one of them.

The doorway of the antechamber of the shrine is flanked by two Bodhisatvas: Vajrapani, holding the thunderbolt on the right, and Padmapani, holding the lotus on the left. Vajrapani is richly bejewelled and leans gracefully against an attendant. Padmapani's eyes are lowered in meditation, his face showing depths of spiritual calm born of compassion for all living forms.

The sidewalls of the antechamber show two scenes from Buddha's life: his temptation by Mara just before his enlightenment, and the miracle of Sravasti, where the Buddha multiplied himself into thousand images.

Above the left porch is the scene of Three Signs (a sick man, an old man, and a corpse) that Buddha saw outside the palace that led him to become a monk. Other tales of the life of Buddha from the Jataka Tales are depicted on the walls.

Cave 2

Paintings in Cave 2
Cave 2, very similar to cave 1 has robust pillars, supported by ornamental designs. The facade of this Mahayana monastery cave shows the kings of Naga and their entourage.

The hall is supported by four pillars making colonnades parallel to the walls. A glorious mandala dominates the ceiling and is decorated with humans, animals, birds, flowers, fruits, semi-divine forms, and abstract designs. The ceiling gives the effect of a cloth canopy, right down to the sag in the middle.

Jataka tales are abundant in the wall paintings. These tales inform us of of Buddha's teachings and life through successive births. The narrative episodes are not depicted in a linear order on the walls.

One of the paintings dramatizes the legend of the Buddha's birth in vivid details. It depicts how Queen Maya dreams about an elephant with six tusks. It also describes how Buddha is born and how he takes six steps as Lord Indra holds an umbrella over him.

Cave 10

Cave 10 is a chaityagriha-prayer hall of the monks. It is 28.5 X 12.3 m with a height of 11 m. It has a stupa at the end of the cave. The cave boasts of an imitation of wooden construction to the extent that the rafters and beams are also sculpted even though they are non-functional.

The paintings in this cave resemble the relief carvings at Sanchi in the 2nd century B.C. The painting on the left wall shows a King with his Retinue, worshiping the Buddha tree. The royal party stops at the stupa and then passes through a gateway. On the right wall are a series of large wall paintings. One painting shows the Shada-danta jataka-the Buddha in his elephant incarnation. The whole crowd is in movement.

One scene shows a six-tusked elephant that was the Buddha in one of his earlier birth. The animals are beautifully drawn and the large space of the forests is shown with its thick foliage and trees. In the second scene, the princess, seated on a stool, is shown fainting, because the six tusks of the elephant are brought to the king. The queen has wished that the elephant be killed. Now that his tusks are brought before the court, she faints at their sight.

On one of the pillars, a gracious figure in a pink and buff cloak surrounded by green aureole is emerging to cast blessings on mankind. Two monks kneel by his feet and the flying angels above his black head indicate that they are going to lift him to heaven. The umbrella on the top is symbolic of the protection he offers to all.

The painting of Buddha and the one-eyed-monk show the devotion of the followers of the Enlightened one. The face and figure of the Buddha and the monk seem to be echoes of the heavy physical types of Gandhara art of northwest India. Only the flowing draperies have softened their contours. The aureole on the Buddha's head and the closed eyes show a dreamy calm. The Shyama-Jataka on a wall in this cave relates the story of where the Bodhisatava was born as son of two blind parents, a hunter and his wife.

Cave 16

Cave 16 has a seated, more than life size Buddha shrine. Lions and other active animals support the throne. Bodhisattvas stand behind him.

Sundari fainting, with an attendant and nurse (in spot light) in Cave 16
It has a beautiful painting of the princess Sundari fainting after learning that her husband (the Buddha's half-brother, Nanda) was going to become a monk. The sad drama is depicted by the bent head of the the princess and the tense female attendants.

Another painting shows Buddha with the begging bowl.

In yet another painting, Prince Siddhartha is shown stretching the bow. Another master painting is the descent of Buddha from the Tushita heaven.

The Dying Princess is one of the famous paintings from Ajanta in this cave. There is agony in the drooping, sightless eyes, the helpless abandon of fingers, and the farewell gestures. The emotions of the attendants are also expressed beautifully.

Prince Gautam practising archery
The Sutasama Jataka painting narrates the story of the previous incarnation of the Bodhisattva and the son of the king of Indraprastha named Sutasama. The prince is trained in all the arts and sciences by a guru at Taxilla. One day, Sutasama was seized by a man-eating dacoit. The prince promised him he would come back and be eaten after he had offered flowers to the Enlightened one. And he did as he promised. The cannibal was surprised to see Sutasama. He, who had once been a fellow student of the Bodhisattva at Taxilla and then king of Benares was converted, and he became the king of Benares again.

Cave 17

The Wheel of Life
Cave 17 is covered with maidens, celestial musicians, celestial guardians, goddesses, and lotus petals. One mural shows Prince Simhala's encounter with the man-eating ogresses of Sri Lanka, where he'd been shipwrecked. Another shows the king of gods flying amidst clouds with his entourage of celestial nymphs (apsaras) and musicians.

On the portico's left wall, the Wheel of Life shows life in its different phases.
The love of happiness radiates through the pictures in Cave 17. The earth has become heaven. The Apsaras and the Flying Spirits float across the sky. Lovers sit in the air houses. All paintings seem to illustrate the beauty of nature and human love and happiness. There is a magnificent painting showing a king and queen with their attendants going in a royal procession. There are colorful umbrellas over their heads and trees in the background. Some women are looking at them through the window.

The Sleeping Buddha
Cave 26

Cave 26 is a chaityagriha. It houses the famous Sleeping Buddha statue. It's Buddha in the Parinirvana state in a horizontal position with all his followers mourning his death. The wall also depicts the scene of the Temptation of Buddha.

So Much to See and So Little Time

That's what you feel when you are in the caves, looking at the paintings, and taking in their beauty and art. I have been able to describe almost only a few of the important paintings and sculptures in the caves. But what each wall and each painting shows, is something that needs to be experienced by oneself.

Lifetime Experience

I shall recommend that we all should see these caves and paintings at least once in our lifetime. We take time out to visit places of natural beauty, fun and frolic, and even religious places. But we should really visit these caves to acknowledge and appreciate our glorious, rich heritage.

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