The world-famous, rock-cut Ajanta Caves is one of those places where background reading or research doesn’t help. At least, it didn’t help me.
Prior to visiting the caves in December 2013, I had read up on the best time to visit, the must see paintings in the caves, etc., but my first look at the Ajanta Caves spread out before me like an arc, and I forgot all that I had read. So, when I walked into Cave 1 and saw the shimmering painting of Bodhisattva Padmapani (see photo below), I was surprised and delighted. Arguably, the best known Ajanta painting, I was as surprised and delighted as the 3 villagers who were standing next to me, and who had perhaps neither seen a picture nor read anything about the Ajanta cave paintings before.
The Ajanta Caves is also one of those places, which has been very difficult to write about. More than a year and countless drafts later, I finally wrote this post — my nth attempt. I have written it with the full knowledge that it does not do justice to what I saw and experienced. Hopefully, the photographs in this post will try to convey what my words cannot.
Located about 106 km from Aurangabad in Maharashtra on the banks of the river Waghora, the caves derive their name from the nearby Ajintha village.
There are 30 caves at Ajanta carved on the outer walls of a horseshoe-shaped glen at different levels. Inscriptions found in the caves reveal that the caves were not a collective effort; rather, they were commissioned by individuals.
Of the 30 caves, 6 were never completed and currently, two of the caves are inaccessible. The caves extend for over 500 m and though a path connects them all today, in ancient times each cave had an individual staircase leading to it. Most of these staircases don’t exist anymore.
The Ajanta Caves are creations of about 700 years (200 BCE – 525 CE), which lay forgotten for over a millennia before being discovered in 1819 by a British Officer out on a tiger hunt. The importance of the caves was not realised immediately.
It took lectures and paper presentations by eminent scholars in symposiums and academic journals for the world to sit up and take notice of the caves and recognise its importance for Buddhist art, Buddhist history, and for Buddhism itself. The Ajanta Caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Ajanta’s 30 caves are numbered for convenience and in the order they can be accessed, rather than chronologically. Of these, 25 are viharas or monasteries or residences for the monks, and 5 are prayer halls or chaitya grihas.
While the facades of the prayer halls are sculpted, the interiors are painted with scenes from the life of the Buddha. Some of the paintings have faded completely or have been washed away, and it is a miracle that they have survived for over a millennia or more. One of the reasons given by experts for this is that construction activity ceased completely in the region, leading to paintings getting preserved. I guess, it also helped that the caves were abandoned and then forgotten over time.
The Ajanta Caves are important from the perspective of art, as all three forms of fine art — architecture, sculpture and painting — have converged here to depict Buddhist art at its best. Unfortunately, the first two arts are completely overshadowed by the third. It is only in the caves where there are no paintings or the paintings have faded or have been washed off is the attention drawn to the sculptures.
The Ajanta Cave paintings are mistakenly called frescoes, which implies a process where pigments are mixed in water without any binding medium and applied on wet lime plaster. In fact, all Ajanta paintings have a binding medium, a glue obtained from an animal source. The theme of all the paintings at Ajanta is religious and revolves around the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Jataka tales. Even though the paintings have faded and it is not easy to make out the story in the dim light, it is easy to pick out that the simple colour scale — red and yellow (derived from ochre), green (derived from terra verde or green earth), lime, kaolin, gypsum, lamp black and lapis lazuli. Of all the colors, it is the blue of the lapis lazuli that shines the brightest.
Apart from the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, other discernible motifs to be seen are the devas, gandharvas, apsaras, kinnaras, nagas, yakshas, dwarves, and so on.
The visit to the Ajanta Caves was overwhelming and it was very difficult to narrow down the photographs I wanted to share here. But it was not so difficult to pick out my favourite moments from that visit.
Sleeping Buddha in Cave 26. I rounded a corner and there was this sculpture in front of me.
This vivid and brilliantly coloured panel that seemed to glow and throb with life.This group of Buddhist devotees from Burma who prayed so beautifully and touched every sculpture of the Buddha so reverentially that it bought tears to my eyes.
This monk and his small group of devotees who prayed togetherI met the Buddhist monk outside Cave 26 he led his group through a prayer and then delivered a short discourse in Marathi on emotions, particularly love and anger. The monk’s sonorous voice was soothing and compelling enough at the same time to make me stop and to listen to him. When he quoted the Buddha and said, “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger”, it struck a chord with me.
It had been a frustrating day thus far, beginning with the ITDC-organised tour vehicle taking an inordinately long time to reach Ajanta Caves from Aurangabad, which meant that I had just 3 hours at the Caves. This was followed by the disappointment of not getting a guide as I reached too late. Then there was the craziness of literally racing from cave to cave in the limited time that I had and trying to make sense of what I saw.
In other words, it was a much-anticipated visit that just went downhill. At the monk’s words, I sensed a calming down, a cooling down of the rush the day had been. A year later the anger is no longer there; just a disappointment at the incompleteness of the visit to Ajanta Caves.
I know that only a trip back to the caves will rectify it. I wonder when I’ll be able to go back, though.
Have you visited the Ajanta Caves? What was your experience? Please do share in the comments section.
- For further reading, I recommend that you pick up the ASI publication on “Ajanta” from the ticket counter, and also “Ajanta” by Arvind Jamkhedkar.
- If your purpose to visit Ajanta is to strike it off your bucket list, then by all means try the ITDC day package from Aurangabad. If you are a discerning traveller or tourist, please hire a cab for the day and arrive early as there is a lot to see.