Ajanta Caves – Mysteries of the Cave Temples in India

The 29 Ajanta caves and their purpose

Ajanta cave monastery complex is a tourist attraction in India, the ancient craftsmen in the rock caves have created a monument of Buddhist culture.

Ajanta Buddhist cave monastery is located in the state of Maharashtra (Maharashtra), in central India. The complex consists of 29 caves, 13 of which have unique paintings covering the walls, columns and ceiling. Ajanta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important tourist attraction in India.

History of the Cave Temples

The monastery complex was built over seven centuries – from the II century BC to the V century. The most intensive construction took place at the end of this period. The monks lived in the monastery supposedly until XI-XIII centuries. By that time, Indian Buddhism had ceded its positions to Hinduism, which was being revived in the country, and to Islam, which was being actively imposed by the Muslim invaders. Ajanta was abandoned and forgotten.

The second discovery of the cave monastery took place in 1819. British soldiers hunting tigers in the jungle, opening the dense bushes, discovered the entrance to the cave. The British entered, lit torches, and suddenly found themselves in a large painted hall with pillars and a stone Buddhist stupa. They then discovered many paths leading to other caves in the horseshoe-shaped rock.

Over the next quarter century, several scientists and tourist groups visited Ajanta.

A serious study of the cave complex was undertaken in 1843 by the British archaeologist James Ferguson. He described the caves in detail, pointed out their scientific value and the need to save the decaying paintings.

Although the abandonment and inaccessibility of Ajanta contributed to its preservation, the paintings continued to disappear under the effects of time and climate.

Following Ferguson’s report to the Royal Asiatic Society, artist Robert Gill was sent to the monastery in 1844. He was tasked with carefully copying the unique rock art on canvas. Gill took a very conscientious approach to his work, to which he devoted two decades of his life. During the work, the often aching artist heard Hindu talk about the curse hanging over the caves, but he did not pay attention to them.

At the end of his work, he showed his work at the Crystal Palace in London. Alas, the fruits of 20 years of painstaking work by the artist burned in a major fire that occurred in 1866 at the exhibition. It was then that he had to recall the legend of the vengeance of the gods against men who disturbed them. Gill found the strength to return to Ajanta and start all over again. Soon, however, he died of an unknown illness, and was buried not far from the caves.

The next attempt to copy the rock art was made by the Bombay art historian John Griffiths and his students. Ironically, at an exhibition in London in 1885, where they presented the 300 paintings they had made, there was a fire, and a third of the paintings were destroyed.

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The only successful attempt to remove a fragment of the frescoes without negative consequences for himself was made by James Edwin Williams in the first half of the 19th century.

The cave monastery became widely known less than a century ago, in 1928, when many newspapers published a series of photographs taken by Italian scientists studying the ancient monument.

29 Ajanta Caves

The cave monastery stretches for more than half a kilometer in the gorge of the river Waghora (Waghora). From the road parallel to the shore there are branches to each of the 29 caves. Their entrances are connected by a terrace built much later.

The caves were numbered by Ferguson in the east-west direction. This sequence does not coincide with the chronology of construction. The oldest caves are in the center of the complex, and those receiving the first two numbers were arranged later than the others.

Some of the caves (Nos. 9, 10, and 12) were created during the earlier Hinayana period of Buddhist development. At that time the emphasis was on the independent perfection of the individual in the monastic community. Therefore there are no statues of the Buddha in them. The Mahayana period is characterized by a complex religious cult. In caves dating from this period there are many paintings and statues of the Buddha, and the ceilings are decorated with plant ornaments and pictures of birds and animals. This technique of the ancient painters allowed them to visually raise the height.

The wall and ceiling paintings preserved in 13 caves can be called a pictorial encyclopedia of life in ancient India. Since Buddha is not a god, but a teacher of mankind who lived among people, the subjects dedicated to him often depict pictures of everyday life. There are many erotic drawings, which in India have never been considered antagonistic to religious subjects.

It is still unclear how the ancient masters were able to create such highly artistic paintings in semi-darkness. According to one version, they directed the sun’s rays reflected by a polished sheet of metal inside the cave. A white cloth might have been used to spread them further inward. Another mystery of Ajanta is the luminous paint of the ancient masters, which was found during the restorations and which retained its brightness for many centuries. It is able to perceive light, accumulate it, and then radiate in the dark.

Chaitanya Temples

Of the 29 caves, 5 were designated as prayer temples (caitya, chaitya) and the remaining 24 (vihara) were dormitories for monks or shrines to Buddha. The chaitiya is a narrow hall with a high ceiling and many columns on each side. Sunlight comes in through a single window above the entrance.

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The chaitia include caves 9, 10, 19, 24, and 26. The first two are the oldest. It was cave number 10 that was first discovered by the British. It consists of a central hall, lateral octagonal pillars, and a stone stupa that closes the space. In cave 19 one can see many ornate carved elements of the facade, a horseshoe window, a triple stupa, and many images of the Buddha in different poses. A special feature of cave 26 is a huge statue of the reclining Buddha. The walls are covered with numerous carved episodes of his life.

Vihara Caves

Most of the caves of Ajanta are Vihara. They tend to have a square hall with a flat ceiling and monk cells on each side. These were where the monks gathered, ate and rested.

Cave 1 – the biggest: its height – 6 m, width – 12. It is also considered the most beautiful. The most famous work of Ajanta rock art – the image of Bodhisattva Padmapani (Bodhisattva Padmapani) is in the cave. The ceiling of the cave is covered by a beautiful painting with a surprisingly accurate artistic perspective

Cave 2 is not inferior to No. 1 in the beauty of the ceiling paintings, and Cave 17 stands out with the best preserved frescoes. Their main subjects are the everyday life and travels of royalty.

How to get to the Ajanta Caves

Most tourists come to Ajanta from Aurangabad, the center of Maharashtra state. There are trains from Delhi, Mumbai, Jalgaon and Bhusawal. There is also an airport in Aurangabad, which is served by local airlines.

The distance from Aurangabad to Ajanta Caves is about 100 km. Aurangabad – Jalgaon bus operates in this direction. The bus takes two hours and 80 INR (Indian rupees) to get to Fardapur village. There is a T-junction next to it from which the caves are 5 km away. You can get there by frequent buses for 5 INR.

The monastery complex is open from 9 am to 5:30 pm. Entrance fee for foreigners is 250 INR, another 25 INR for a video. Note that the cave monastery is closed on Mondays.

Ajanta, India – the mysteries of the cave monasteries

Ajanta caves are one of the most mysterious and interesting sights in India. Found by chance in the 19th century, they still have not revealed to the world all their secrets. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come here every year, who talk about the incredibly strong energy of this place.

Ajanta Caves

General Information

Ajanta is an ancient Buddhist monastery complex located in the state of Maharashtra. The uniqueness of this place is that the religious buildings (and there are 29 of them) are carved right in the rock. The first caves appeared here in the 1st century BC, and the last – in the 17th century.

The ancient complex is located in a very picturesque but inaccessible place. The distance to the nearest town Kuldabad is 36 km.

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Near Ajanta caves one more underground monastery complex is situated Ellora.

Historical reference

The first mention of the monastery complex dates back to the 1st century BC. At that time, monks lived here and built new temples. But this only lasted till the 10th-11th centuries, this time Muslims came to the territory of modern India and Indian Buddhism ceased to be popular among locals (even today less than 2% of the population practice it). The unique cave temple was abandoned and forgotten for long 800 years.

Ajanta Caves Entrance

The second breath this sight has found only in the middle of the 19th century – the ordinary English soldiers, hunting for the tiger, accidentally discovered this amazing structure. Inside the caves they discovered an amazing picture: frescoes on the walls and columns, stone stupas and statues of Buddha.

From that moment regular pilgrimages of scientists and tourists to Ajanta began. The most serious study is considered to be the expedition of James Ferguson, who described all the frescoes and explained to the world the cultural value of the place.

After that, artists visited the village more than once to redraw some of the frescoes. Their efforts ended in failure – all the paintings burned during the exhibitions. The locals believe that this is the revenge of the gods for interfering in their world.

Most of the mysteries associated with the caves are still unsolved. For example, scientists can’t figure out how the underground structures were illuminated. Many believe that the monks used mirrors to catch the sun, but this has not yet been confirmed.

Frescoes in Ajanta Cave

The paint the monks used to paint the walls also raises questions – it glows in the dark, and even after 800 years has not faded. Modern scientists have not been able to determine its exact composition.

The structure of the complex

The Ajanta complex in India consists of 29 caves, each with something to see.

These are some of the newest (12th-13th century) and well-preserved caves in Ajanta. Their almost perfect condition is explained by the fact that only monks had access here, and ordinary people had the right to enter only the neighboring buildings.

Cave No. 1 in Ajanta

The uniqueness of this part of the temple lies in the surprisingly clear rock paintings. For example, on one of the walls was found the image of children in school, and on the neighboring walls – the silhouettes of women. There are also vivid frescoes on a religious theme and tall carved columns that give the temple a solemn appearance. The most famous images are:

  • King Asquith’s fresco;
  • King Sibi Jataka;
  • Vajrapani.

It is the largest (970 sq. m.) and the least deep cave in Ajanta. It consists of a sanctuary, a verandah and a main hall. In the center of the room sits the stone Buddha and on the sides – the heavenly nymphs.

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Interestingly, the cave used to be deeper, but after an earthquake in the 6th century, Indian craftsmen were forced to raise the ceiling to hide a large crack in the rock.

Cave #5 at Ajanta

One of Ajanta’s unfinished caves. It began to be built in the 3rd century, but was soon abandoned. There are no frescoes or sculptures, but there is a double frame, decorated with intricate carvings.

It is a two-story monastery, on the walls and ceilings of which you can find numerous images of Buddha. One of the main sanctuaries of the whole complex where the faithful came to pray.

According to historians, it is the oldest cave, which, however, perfectly preserved. It is located at a greater depth than the neighboring caves. Here tourists can see the statue “Late Thought” and several rock paintings. Interestingly, historians believe that this part of the temple used to be completely painted red.

Cave #9 at Ajanta

Caves 9 and 10 are small prayer rooms, on the walls of which unique paintings have been preserved: frescoes with Buddha, images of nymphs. The main decoration of the premises are high columns and carved arches.

These are two small monasteries built around the 5th-6th century. Inside the premises is a long stone pew, and on the walls can be seen frescoes depicting the Buddha and monks. A small part of the temple is damaged, so it is not very popular with tourists.

It is three small monasteries, which due to natural factors were not completed. Historians say that previously there were definitely paintings here, but now you can see only the bare walls.

These are the two most studied caves of Ajanta. Historians have spent more than one year here, and they say that these are the central and therefore the main parts of the complex. There are indeed a great many paintings and frescoes in these rooms: the miracle of Shravasti, the dream of Maya, the story of Trapusha and Bhallika, the feast of plowing. On the right wall you can see images of scenes from the life of the Buddha.

Cave #16 of Ajanta

It is a very small but very beautiful cave with columns and an arch. Its function is not yet fully understood.

The main attraction of the hall is the figure of Naga, who protects the Buddha. Earlier, according to scholars, mandalas and images of Yaksha could also be seen here. The entrance to this part of the temple is richly decorated with floral patterns and carved figures of the gods.

These are small caves, built among the last. Monks lived and worked in this part of the complex, periodically the rooms served as sanctuaries. Some rooms had attics and cells.

Cave #22 at Ajanta

The dungeons were decorated as follows:

  • images of flowers on the walls:
  • frescoes with Buddha;
  • inscriptions in Sanskrit;
  • carved ornaments on the walls and ceiling.
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Cave number 26 is the place for Buddha worship and long prayers. The sculptures in this part of the complex are the most elaborate and refined. Here one can see the Mahaparinirvana (the reclining Buddha) and at the foot of it the silhouettes of the daughters of Mara. In the center of the apse is a stupa carved in the rock. On the walls of the temple is a mass of inscriptions in Sanskrit.

Caves 27, 28, and 29 were together a small but frequently visited monastery. There are not many decorations here, so tourists do not often look into this part of the Ajanta complex.

How to get there

There are regular buses from Aurangabad (distance – 90 km) to Ajanta village. The travel time is a little less than 3 hours. The cost of the ticket is 30 rupees.

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You can get to Aurangabad itself from any big city in India by train or bus.

A cab ride through India will be much more comfortable and faster. The main thing is that the cab driver knows exactly the way. The cost from Aurangabad is 600-800 rupees.

Practical Information

Location: Ajanta Caves Road, Ajanta 431001, India.

Opening hours: 08.00 – 19.00, Monday off.

Cost to visit: 250 rupees for foreigners, 10 for locals. You can also buy a single ticket to visit Ajanta and Ellora in India for 350 rupees.

Prices on the page are for October 2019.

Helpful Tips
  1. Various parts of the Ajanta complex have taps from which tap water flows.
  2. The underground temples with the most beautiful frescoes have rather low lighting, so tourists are advised to bring a flashlight to see all the details.
  3. Plan your trip in warm but not hot weather – the place is very interesting, but with the scorching sun you are unlikely to be able to get around everything. Also you shouldn’t come here in the evening, because the stones get very hot during the day.
  4. Before entering the cave temples of Ajanta you should take off shoes.
  5. In the temples it is forbidden to take pictures with a flash.
  6. Since the road to Ajanta is quite long, tourists are advised to either go with a travel agent or to hire a guide in India (many know several languages).

Ajanta Caves is one of the most energetically powerful places in India.

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Author: Maria Protasenya

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