Carved out of a steep ravine in the Ajanta village of Maharashtra, India, are thirty caves known as the Ajanta Caves.
The Ajanta Caves were gradually forgotten until their rediscovery by a party of British tiger-hunters 1819.
The Buddhist caves at Ajanta contain some of India’s most magnificent paintings. The 29 caves were excavated beginning around 200 BC, but were abandoned in 650 AD in favor of the caves at Ellora.
The caves were painted between 2 and 7BC. Monks have made the rock faces receptive to pigment by using the “coating technique,” where they coated the caves with a clay mixture and covering them with moist lime. Hewn painstakingly as monsoon retreats or varshavasas for Buddhist monks, the cave complex was continuously lived in from 200 BC to about AD650.
Five of the caves were styled as prayer halls called chaityas while 24 were used as monasteries or viharas, thought to have been home to some 200 monks and artisans.
Thirty chaityas and viharas have paintings that illustrate the life and incarnation of Buddha. Intense creativity and vitality have been lent to the beautiful frescoes that have survived through time. Tourists visiting the caves can’t help but feel spellbound by the vibrant images on the caves’ walls and the over-all spiritual atmosphere of the place.
Some caves contain rich tapestries that graphically describe places, royalty, culture, and tales of everyday life of ancient India.
The frescoes illustrate Buddhist texts, date from before and during the Gupta period of Indian history. Many panels of the caves hold depictions of the Jatakas and numerous images of Buddha, Indian nymphs, and princesses.
The flying Apsara in cave 17, the preaching Buddha in cave 16, and the sculptured seated Nagaraja with his consort and a female attendant are just a few things which continue to make the caves a popular tourist draw.
The design styles of the caves themselves may best be described in two phases. Separated by about 400 years, the architectural phases coincide with the two schools of Buddhist thought: the older Hinayana school where Buddha was represented through symbols like the stupa, a set of footprints, or a throne.
The later Mahayana sect, on the other hand, portrayed Buddha in human form.
Chaityas of caves number 9 and 10, and the viharas of caves 8, 12, 13, and 15 focus mainly on the Hinayana style of architecture. Reminiscent of the stupas at Sanchi and Barhut, the cave’s frescoes and sculpted figures may be dated back to as early as the first or second century BC.
The Mahayana monasteries include 1, 2, 16 and 17, while the chaityas are in caves 19 and 26. The caves, incidentally, are not numbered chronologically but in terms of access from the entrance.
A terraced path of modern construction connects the caves. In ancients times, each cave was accessed from the riverfront by individual staircases.
The sculptures and paintings in the caves detail the Buddha’s life as well as the lives of the Buddha in his previous births, as related in the Jataka tales.
Tourists will also find in the caves a sort of history of the times – court scenes, street scenes, cameos of domestic life and even animal and bird studies come alive on these unlit walls as the sunlight streams through the cave’s openings.