A tree-shaded road winds north-east from Aurangabad across the midriff of India. The hills are blond, the light sharp enough to wound the eyes. Now and then a sunny yellow mustard field, or a fiercely crimson bougainvillaea, splashes across the brown Deccan Plateau. It’s all soft volcanic rock, and hard, fine granite. After two hours of driving you crest a rise and glimpse the enormity of the plateau before descending into a spur of the hills.
Here, over 2,000 years ago, people began to dig into the Sahyadri Hills to create what is now a World Heritage Site. Cut into a horseshoe-shaped hillside, silent but for birdsong and the rippling Waghora River below, Ajanta is a hidden sanctuary. The 30 monastic caves and prayer halls were begun in 2 BCE, when Buddhism was alive and well, and completed between 460 and 478 CE under the Vakataka dynasty. The monks who lived in this sweep of hill meditated in their painted caves, drew their water from the stream, and watched monsoon rain cascade in waterfalls between the caves. For a brief time, Ajanta was a beacon of glory in the Buddhist world.
But as Buddhism retreated from this part of the world in the 5th century CE, the caves were gradually abandoned, and remained lost to memory for another 14 centuries. It fell to a British cavalry officer by the ho-hum name of John Smith to rediscover them in 1819; hunting boar at a spot now called Captain’s Point, he noticed a carved façade behind a tangle of greenery on a hill across the Waghora. His curiosity preserved some boars, and catapulted Ajanta Caves, one of the famous local attractions in Ajanta, back into the limelight of art and religion.
The natural gallery of the caves houses India’s most sophisticated ancient paintings, but 1,500 years later, they are slowly giving in to age, climate and hundreds of daily visitors. Cloth over the verandahs screens them; low-intensity bulbs minimise damage, and steel barriers guard against touchy-feely tourists. As the sun-dazzled eye adjusts, you realise how much has been lost; Caves 16 and 17 are well-preserved, but others are badly damaged. Despite the reddish cast of the lamps, the richness of subject and detail remains spectacular.
The Gupta and post-Gupta style paintings are inspired by the Jatakas: the miracle at Sravasti, Maya’s dream of a white elephant, the Dying Princess, the Buddha returning home. In one vihara, Bodhisattva Padmapani holds a delicate blue lotus, symbolic of the Buddhist aspiration to rise above one’s condition. Focus like a terrier on this as you move through herds of howling schoolchildren. Every ornament, every expression, every fold of drapery is magnificent. One necklace is painted so luminously that its beads glow like real pearls.
The verandahs are also lushly decorated, their motifs reproduced in arts and craft all over the region. The Flying Apsara, a beautiful woman’s face in a turban, was used as the emblem of the 1996 World Beauty Pageant in Bangalore. The monks painted by the light of oil lamps and sunlight reflected off water on the floor. They smoothed the rock with a layer of mud, vegetable matter and a coat of plaster, and mixed their palettes from natural pigments. For special effect they used lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Almost every inch of the rock surface inside some caves was once painted.
There is also some inspired stonework. The Buddha in Cave 1 has three distinct expressions depending on the light. Fabulous stone-ribbed roofs rest on carved pillars. In one cave, the dying Buddha’s soul rises from his feet. The stonework though is threatened: one chaitya was disfigured by graffiti, and when this was covered with wood-framed glass, people wrote on the wood. Time will catch up with Ajanta, but until then, the serenity and beauty of the paintings are something everybody should experience at least once in a lifetime.
The first caves date back to the 2nd and 1st century BCE and include Caves 9 and 10, both of which are prayer halls (chaityas). Caves 8, 12, 13 and 15A are monasteries; they are from the Hinayana tradition. Then came another spurt of excavation with the carving out of Caves 19 and 26 (both chaityas) and Caves 1, 2, 16 and 17 (viharas). These are generally said to be Mahayana monuments.
The Mahajanaka mural in Cave 1 is the most detailed story. An important sculpture here is the large figure of the Preaching Buddha in the shrine room. This is the most magnificent cave in Ajanta, so if you want to save the best for the last then come here only after you have finished with the other 29 caves. Though Cave 4 is incomplete, like Cave 3 and Cave 5, it is still the largest vihara, supported by 28 pillars. Cave 6 is the only two-storey vihara in Ajanta. Cave 10 (2 BCE), a chaitya, is said to be the first cave spotted by the British; look for the earliest surviving Buddha mural here. A famous painting, the Dying Princess, can be seen in the 5th-century vihara, Cave 16.
Spend quality time in Cave 17 if the paintings and murals are your main interest. A famous image (on a pillar) is that of the sultry, dark-skinned princess putting on her make-up and admiring herself in a mirror while her attendants and a female dwarf look on. Ask the guide to shine a torch from the side so you can see her eyes and jewellery glow like pearls against the black background.
Near Ajanta lie the World Heritage Site of 30-odd caves of Ellora which include Mahayana Buddhist, Hindu and Jain works. The 6th-century Buddhist monks who first arrived here worked the hill’s most accessible part. Sixteen Hindu caves can also be seen here. A little further away, there are five Jain caves. However, the most astonishing achievement in Ellora is Cave 16, better known as Kailash Temple.
If Ajanta exudes a still, unassailable peace, Ellora’s Kailashnath is a celebration of thunderous power reflecting the fearsome dance of Shiva. An 8th-century creation of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, it was conceived as the mountain home of Shiva and Parvati. Kailash is a freestanding monolith created top-down, excavated into being from living mountain rock. The masons carved 115 ft down through basalt flesh. It took 150 years to build; 3 million cubic metres of rock were displaced. Still, the effect is not of a structure laboriously built, but of a miracle coalesced into being by the power of its own purpose.
A sculpture of Lakshmi and two dwarpals (doorkeepers) oversees the entrance. The surrounding two-tiered galleries swarm with 10-foot-high reliefs of the gods in all their moods — playing, meditating, battling, dallying…. One tableau shows an indignant Parvati refusing to play dice with her husband who’s cheating. Here Ravana sacrifices his nine heads; there Vishnu crosses the three worlds. One corner shows Shiva leading his shy bride to bed. And in some places an incomplete, emergent sculpture remains half-wrested from the rock, as if gods are even now being born at Kailash.
The temple stands 164 ft x 109 ft in a huge court, guarded by two elephants and two ensign staffs that are 45 ft tall. The base is carved with elephants, lions, tigers, Sphinx-like beasts, and Chinese dragons with bulging eyes who bear the temple like a chariot. In one dramatic scene, Ravana braces himself under Mount Kailash and shakes it with all his might as Lord Shiva’s foot reaches down to pin him under one toe.
Most of Kailash is in excellent condition, though the paintings have faded. The stone floor has worn to the softness of silk by the tread of human feet.The enormous Shivaling is surrounded by Shiva, Parvati and other gods. The spire rises 100 ft high; four lions leap from the roof, roaring at the Deccan plain. Kailash has often, and justifiably, been called the most stupendous single work of art ever executed in India. The chisel impressions of the ancient masons remain, ghostly reminders of how these passionate, squabbling, dancing, playing figures were shaped.
There was an intense surge of activity in Ellora beginning 6th century CE that continued for over 500 years. Caves 1-12, the Buddhist caves at the southern end, are the oldest, dating back to 500-750 CE. The Hindu Caves 14-29 date between 600 and 870 CE (Cave 13, the oldest, is in ruins). The Jain Caves 30-34 are further north of the escarpment and can be traced back to 800 CE and the 10th century CE.
The Hindu caves are different from their restrained Buddhist predecessors; these caves have dynamic scenes from Hindu mythology. Cave 14 or the Ravana ki Khai Cave was a Buddhist vihara that was converted into a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, in the 7th century CE. Cave 15 is a two-storey temple that was also, originally, a Buddhist vihara. The cave’s most riveting sculpture is of the Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance) poised in his famous classical dance pose.
Cave 21, the Ramesvara, was excavated in the 6th century CE and is said to be the oldest Hindu cave in Ellora (other than Cave 13, now in ruins). The Jain Caves were excavated in the late 9th and 10th centuries CE. Though they lack the vitality that marks the Hindu caves and are far smaller in size, they have extremely detailed work. Cave 33 is the most admirable of the lot.
Location Ajanta and Ellora caves are located among the Satmala Hills in Aurangabad District
Distances Ajanta is 491 km NE and Ellora 417 km NE of Mumbai JOURNEY TIME By rail 7 hrs + 3 hrs by road to Ajanta, 1 hr to Ellora By road 8 hrs By air 45 mins + road 3 hrs
Route Expressway to Pune; SH to Aurangabad via Ranjangaon, Ahmednagar and Dahigaon; SH to Fardarpur-Ajanta via Phulambari and Sillod or NH211 to Ellora via Khuldabad.
When to go The winter season (November-February) is the most pleasant time.
MTDC Holiday Resort
Station Road, Aurangabad
STD codes Aurangabad 0240, Ajanta 02438, Ellora 02437
By Mitali Saran and Jerry Pinto
About the author
Mitali Saran has worked full time for Business Standard and Outlook traveller and is now a freelance writer based in New Delhi.
Jerry Pinto has been a school librarian, a medical representative, a mathematics tutor and a school teacher before settling on journalism as a career.