The Ajanta and Ellora Caves in Western India showcase the exceptional genius of stone architecture, sculpture and the origins of Indian classical art forms in splendid variety. Here is the glimpse at the best caves at Ajanta and Ellora, which you should not miss.
In a remote valley in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, stands a world renowned UNESCO site- the Ajanta cave complex. Ajanta is a series of 31 caves which have been excavated in the shape of a horse shoe on a rock rising 76 metres to overlook a narrow stream named Waghora. An aerial view of the site showcases the raised platform of caves surrounded by a sea of greenery. Discovered by a British hunting party in the 17th century from a vantage point a short way across the valley, each of these caves was excavated sometime between 2nd century BC and 6th century AD.
The Ajanta caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks who found the remoteness conducive to their religious pursuits as they delved deeper into the teachings of Buddha through intellectual discourses. Some of the caves were built as residential monasteries with rectangular dormitory cells and some were designed as worship halls with stupas.
Most Important Cave Monasteries and Cave Temples
This cave was excavated as a viraha- an impressive monastery comprising of large hall with 14 cells on the side, a vestibule, an open veranda with two cells on either side, an open courtyard with two cells and a sanctum sanctorum.
A depiction of Buddha seated in the Dharmacakrapravartana Mudra (preaching pose) in colours which still preserve their depth and glow, the famed paintings depicting Padmapani and Vajrapani and various other murals including the depiction of Mara make this one of the most important cave monasteries in Ajanta.
The fourth cave is not only the largest monastery at Ajanta but also has a unique ceiling which preserves the geological feature of a lava flow. Although only traces of the paintingswithin this cave remain, the entrance is exquisitely sculpted and flanked by the Bodhisattva as the Reliever of Eight Great Perils.
Two of the most important paintings are found on the walls of the sixth cave- the Miracle of Sravasti and the Temptation of Mara. Several sculpted figures of Buddha in different attitudes are also present in the cave. An interesting feature of this cave is that it is a double storeyed monastery supported by rock cut pillars.
The structure of this monastery is unique in its oblong shaped hall and porticos. Various sculptural panels, beside the preaching Buddha depict interesting scenes from the life and tales of Buddha.
With a stupa at the end of the hallway, this Chaitya Graha is one of the earliest excavated prayer halls in the group and well renowned. A unique feature in this cave is the presence of arched windows which let in gentle diffused sunlight.
This cave dates back to the 2nd century BC and is the oldest cave temple at Ajanta. Interestingly, it was this very cave that was spotted first by Captain Smith from the British hunting party, which led to the discovery of the Ajanta caves after centuries after being abandoned. The temple consists of a large hall, 39 octagonal pillars adorned with sculpted figures of the Buddha, a stupa and paintings and sculptures dating from two different periods. The murals in this cave are also worth spending some time over.
This Mahayana monastery is popular for various depictions of stories from Jataka and renowned paintings depicting the themes of Conversion of Nanda, Maya’s Dream and Miracle of Sravasti.
Visitors who take the Ajanta Ellora tourspend a fair amount of time in this Mahayana monastery admiring many of the well preserved murals from the Vakataka age. Elaborate and beautiful murals depicting celestial guardians and musicians adorn the ceilings; there are other murals depicting incidents from the life of Buddha. An interesting sculpture panel placed above the doorway depicts seven Buddhas in their human forms sitting under their Bodhi trees accompanied by Maitreya.
This Mahayana chaitya (prayer hall) houses a large carved statue of Buddha in a reclining pose. It depicts the liberation of Buddha from Earth (Mahaparinirvana) as in a panel below, his followers mourn and in a panel above, celestial beings rejoice. The contrasting depiction of the Assault of Mara also adorns the same wall.
If the Ajanta caves are a celebration of Buddhism and classical art, the Ellora cave shrines showcase, amongst many other things, the prevalence of the secular spirit of India in a grand fashion- here, you find Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism coexisting within the cave complex comprised of 17 Hindu caves, 12 Buddhist caves and 5 Jain cave. Located at a mere distance of 24km. from Aurangabad, Ellora is another important UNESCO World Heritage Site in India.
Most Important Caves in Ellora
The first eleven caves, numbered 1 to 12 with the exception of cave number 10 are cave monasteries. Out of these, caves 6, 10, 11 and 12 are most highly recommended.
Numbered from 13 to 29, the Hindu Caves are specious and elaborate with much diversity. The most popularly caves in this section are 14, 15, 16, 1 and 29. Of these, cave 16 is the most notable. The Kailash Cave Temple is a monolithic structure which represents the mountain abode of Lord Shiva. Considered to be a feat of human genius, this is one of the centre pieces of Ellora and a must visit on your Ajanta Ellora tour.
The Jain Caves are a splendid exhibit to exquisitely detailed artwork. Most notable among the Jain caves is cave 32 (the Indra Sabha), with elaborate carvings and exquisite sculpture work which reflect Jain philosophy and tradition quite remarkably.