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AJANTA CAVES - HISTORY & TRAVEL INFORMATION
Ajanta Caves are about 66 miles from Aurangabad. They were carved out of a steep rock side in a horseshoe shaped gorge below which the Waghora River flows. Its source is just near the caves. At a vantage point that is now a popular viewing site, in 1819, a group of British soldiers were wonderstruck by the few sections of the caves that were visible through the dense foliage covering the entire façade of the Ajanta Caves. They named the site Ajanta after the name of a village nearby and this name became the official designation of this wonder of the world’s art and sculpture. The news of this chance discovery went quickly to the Nizam of Hyderabad. Ajanta was part of the territory of Nizam of Hyderabad. Through the British officers at the court of Nizam, the eminent archeologists and historians of that period like James Burgess, William Major Gill, John Griffiths and Lady Herringham, were attracted to this site. Soon there were systematic studies of these unique creations of the Indian classical art. The Government of India appointed the Archeological Survey of India as sole supervisor of Ajanta and Ellora groups of Caves in 1953.
The caves of Ajanta as well as Ellora are located in an area that was quite unique in the early years of the Christian era. In sharp contrast to the chaos and anarchy that was prevailing in the northern regions of India, this region under the Satavahana Dynasty rulers enjoyed a very orderly environment as well as an efficiently managed and controlled administration. Consequently there was prosperity in the entire region around these caves. The modern city of Paithan that is now famous for its Himroo Textiles was their capital and it was called Pratisthana. This ancient capital is about 62 miles from Ajanta Caves. The Satavahana Dynasty of rulers were Hindus but they must have been very tolerant towards Buddhism because the early Buddhist caves in region in general and at Ajanta in particular were carved during their reign and the sites of these caves were in their kingdom. There were merchants exchanging goods from as far away as the Mediterranean region with their Indian counterparts. Some of these merchants may have found shelter and food in the various caves in Maharashtra. At Ajanta an inscription was found in cave # 12 that it was a gift from a merchant called Ghanamadada. He must have contributed towards the expenses of the monks living in that cave. Even in these earlier caves there were paintings adorning the interior walls and ceilings. Most of these earlier paintings have eroded. In the Chaitya caves 9 and 10 there are some tantalizing remnants of these most ancient Indian paintings still visible. The hair styles and garments of women in these earlier paintings resemble those of the figures in the older sculptures at Sanchi and Bharhut enabling them to be dated between second and first centuries BCE. In these caves some paintings were done in a much later period like the one-eyed monk in front of Buddha. This is definitely a work of Mahayana period. In cave 10 there is a modern and now historical signature of John Smith dated April 28, 1819 when he and his hunting friends chanced upon these caves for the first time after more than a thousand years of no human existence in the caves. The monks inscribed words honoring donors in this cave also. One such inscription in this cave honors a Buddhist teacher, Sachiva for his gift to the monks living in this cave.
The Vakataka Dynasty that succeeded the Satavahana Dynasty from third to fifth century CE inherited a prosperous and well organized kingdom. They maintained it and even improved its standard by avoiding any bloody conflicts. They had very cordial and harmonious relations with the imperial Gupta Dynasty of the northern India. This alliance was further consolidated by intermarriages between the two royal families. This period is regarded by eminent scholars as the golden age of Indian art and culture as evidenced from the artifacts and monuments in Mathura, Sarnath and Ajanta Caves in particular as well as from the Sanskrit language classical works of literature by poets and dramatists like Kalidas and others.
The Ajanta caves are exclusively Buddhist. There are altogether 29 caves of which the cave numbers 2, 3, 5, 8, 23 to 25 and 28 are unfinished. The numbers given to the caves are merely for convenience and do not represent their chronological order. Some caves have sculptures where as the others have wall paintings also. These paintings cannot be designated as frescos technically as in the western painting style because the paint in Ajanta and in other places in India was not applied on wet surface like in European frescos. These paintings originating from the sixth and seventh centuries CE are much older than the paintings of the Renaissance Period in Europe. They represent the same importance and significance in the history of Asian Art as the Renaissance Period paintings have for the history of European Art. All Buddhist painting in South East Asia, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Korea and Japan was inspired by the wall paintings of Ajanta. The sculptures and paintings at Ajanta depict scenes from life of Sidhartha Gautam Buddha and from the Jataka tales of Bodhisattvas or previous incarnations of Buddha. They were done in a period when Buddhism in India was fast moving from the original Hinayana phase, where images of Buddha were not allowed to a blooming Mahayana phase, where images of not only Buddha but also of his previous incarnations and all the heavenly deities were very vividly depicted. The caves sculpted in Hinayana tradition depict Buddha in symbolic form like a Stupa, Dharma Chakra or the wheel of religion, or the horse (that Buddha rode to leave the royal, material life to seek enlightenment). The Chaitya (prayer or meditation halls) cave numbers 9 and 10 as well as the Vihara (residential monasteries) cave numbers 12 and 13 belong to the first phase dating from second century BCE to the first century BCE. The Chaitya cave numbers 19, 26 and 29 as well as the Vihara cave numbers 1 to 7, 11, 14 to 18, 20 to 25, 27 and 28 are from the second phase dating from fifth century CE to sixth century CE. The unfinished caves mentioned above could be from sixth and seventh century CE. The caves that have wall painted murals are mostly of Mahayana period because the earlier paintings have eroded or faded.
The caves were carved from the front inward and from the ceilings downwards. The sculptors modeled these caves on wooden structures of their times. That is why one can see wooden rafters and beams that had no structural significance in the rock carved caves. The sizes of the various caves also vary considerably. The cave 27 is so small that it could be regarded as side structure of the neighboring larger cave. Cave 10 is 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. The main hall alone of cave 1 is 64 square feet in dimensions. Originally they had carved steps leading from individual caves down to the banks of Waghora River in the gorge. Only one of these original steps has partially survived to give us an idea how the monks would have gone down to the river to collect water. The modern terraced path on which the visitors now go to view the caves has been created by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The wall surface for the mural paintings was sculpted rough by hammer and chisel. On this rough surface a plaster comprised of such organic materials like vegetable fibers, paddy husk, grass and similar plants was mixed with fine sand. At first a coarse layer of plaster was applied and then on top a very fine layer was applied to give a final extremely smooth finish to the surface on which the painting was done. Except for the black color that was collected from the residue of oil lamps all others were mineral colors. The pigments and colors were all available locally except for the blue that was extracted from Lapis Lazuli, which had to be imported from central Asia. Some form of gum or glue was used as a binding material.
The cave numbers 1, 2, 16 and 17 have the mural paintings. These cave paintings were done almost six hundred years after the first phase of Hinyana paintings and sculpture. The caves numbers 9, 10, 19 and 26 are especially noteworthy for their sculptures. The two latter caves were carved and painted in fifth and sixth centuries when the benevolent Hindu Vakataka Dynasty kings were ruling the area. There is an inscription in cave 16 that mentions that Varahadeva, a minister of King Harisena (475 to 500 CE) dedicated the cave to the Buddhist Sangha (congregation). In one mural in this cave, most of which is not visible any more, the Queen Sundari is lamenting that her husband, the king Nanda, has abandoned her to become a monk. The cave 17 was also a recipient of a donation from a feudatory of the king Harisena of the Hindu Vakataka Dynasty.
The sculptures and paintings depict Buddha and Bodhisattvas – the previous incarnations of Lord Buddha in both human and animal forms. Though Bodhisattvas are surrounded in the paintings with all aspects of material life including sensuous women with beautiful hair styles, head decorations and other jewelry adorning their attractive physical bodies, the look in the eyes of Bodhisattvas reminds one of their urge for introspection and meditation as well as their deep desire for finding some purpose of their lives beyond the mortal and the physical existence. In one of the paintings the great king Mahajanaka (another Bodhisattva) has a look of adoration on his face as he is kneeling down in front of a Bhikshu – a hermit, who may or may not be Buddhist.
The Jataka tales that are depicted in the paintings usually have a moral significance. The mural showing scenes from Shaddanta Jataka portrays boundless generosity. The Visvantara Jataka tale mural is showing the quality of charity. The Vidhurapandita Jataka mural depicts wisdom. It seems that the monks painting these murals were interested in influencing the viewer to lead a virtuous life in the first instance. If some one was influenced enough to study about Buddhism and even convert to that philosophy would have been a secondary motive. Men, women and children from all economic status in society are depicted along with animals. In the cave 17 the humble ants are shown climbing a trunk of a tree in a scene from Shaddanta Jataka. On the ceilings the monk artists gave free vent to their creativity using not only real animals and creatures but also fantastic and semi-divine creatures taken from rich mythology of ancient India. There is literary evidence that by the time of the second phase of painting at Ajanta caves, the art of painting in India was highly developed. A treatise on painting was composed at the same time as this later phase at Ajanta that was called Chitrasutra, which is a part of the Vishnudharmottara Purana. This treatise documents thousands of guidelines informing the members of the guild of artists on how to paint. There are quite precise instructions about how to prepare various colored paint, how to use the colored paint and how to create the shades. For instance it mentions that the color of water in a pool is a reflection of the sky where as the falling water is the natural color of water that resembles moon light. In ancient India the different arts like painting, dance, music and sculpture were all intermingled. The painter was familiar with all the other disciplines and he could also be leading a life of an ascetic Buddhist monk.
In the early seventh century CE the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and student, Hsuan T’sang visited the site of Ajanta caves and was amazed to see the immensity and the esthetic beauty of the works of sculpture and painting in these caves. The Buddhist monks lived, carved gigantic caves into the granite surface of the mountain wall, meditated, prayed, sculpted and painted beautiful scenes from the life of Buddha and his previous incarnations as they imagined after reading the Jataka tales. Generation after generation of ascetic Buddhist monks worked for more than 900 years to create the wonder that Ajanta Caves finally became.
The caves are open to public from 9 AM to 5 PM or sunset, whichever is earlier. The site is closed on Mondays and public holidays.
Most tourists visit the Ajanta Caves by driving from Aurangabad in a full day excursion. Aurangabad is connected with Mumbai, Delhi, Udaipur, Agra by Air Sahara, Air Deccan, Indian and Jet Airways flights.
Jalgaon is the nearest train station to Ajanta Caves. From Jalgaon there are trains going to Mumbai, Bhopal, Sanchi, Jhansi (nearest station to Khajuraho), Gwalior, Agra, Delhi and other cities of north & south India.
Very basic hotels:
Ajanta Travellers Lodge has rooms and dormitory accommodation with common bath.
MTDC Holiday Resort at Fardapur, 5 kilometers away has air-conditioned rooms with attached baths.
Most visitors stay at Aurangabad but there are some relatively good hotels available in Jalgaon for tourists traveling by train.
Distance from Ajanta Caves in kilometers and miles:
Aurangabad: 106 kilometers or 66 miles
Jalgaon: 59 kilometers or 37 miles
Mumbai: 478 kilometers or 297 miles
Pune: 360 kilometers or 224 miles