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The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India: magnificent Buddhist cave monuments

Boban Docevski

Among the manmade cave monuments around the world, the Ajanta caves in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state of India are certainly one of the most beautifully crafted.

This ancient cave complex consists of 30 cave temples built between the second century BC and 650 AD. They are one of the finest examples of ancient Buddhist sacred art and served as an inspiration to all future Indian artists.

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Panoramic view of Ajanta Caves / Photo credit

Although the caves were well known to the local population and mentioned in memoirs of many Buddhist travelers, the western world only heard about them in the 19th century when they were “accidentally” discovered by a British officer.

It was 28 April 1819, when John Smith, an officer of the 28th Cavalry, was hunting a tiger in the jungle when he stumbled upon a cave entrance. This cave would later be known as Cave No. 10.

The entrance was hard to reach and overgrown with plants; Smith asked the villagers of a nearby village to help him clear the path.

When he finally got inside, the first thing he did was vandalizing a painting of a bodhisattva by writing his name and the date of the “discovery” on it.

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The inscription made by John Smith / Photo credit

The cave was covered by a huge pile of rubble, so Smith’s carving stands high above the sight of a person today.

Structurally speaking, the caves are built by carving into the flood basalt rock of a cliff face that is part of the Deccan Traps (located on the Deccan Plateau of west-central India, its one of the largest volcanic features on Earth).

The horseshoe-shaped cliffside along the river Waghora, where the caves are located, is made of horizontally layered rocks that vary in quality.

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A map showing all of the Ajanta caves / Photo credit

 

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A view of the Ajanta Caves / Photo credit

Because of the different strength of the rock material across the layers, artists were forced to constantly change their plans and carving methods throughout the whole building process.

The parts that were weaker have cracked and collapsed over the years.

Construction of the caves involved cutting a small tunnel near the roof level and then spreading downwards and outwards from that point. They were built from top to bottom.

 

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Different quality rock layers and cracks visible on the outside of one of the caves / Photo credit

The Ajanta Caves objects are ancient monasteries and worship halls erected in the styles of two different Buddhist traditions.

Most of them are so-called vihara halls: a form of Buddhist monasteries with symmetrical square plans. The original meaning of the word is “a secluded place in which to walk.” Vihara halls were used by monks as sacred dwellings.

The second type of architecture that dominates the caves are the rectangular shrines called chaitya-griha (“the house of stupa”).

These are a form of Buddhist places of prayer, or worshiping halls, with a stupa placed at one end.

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The entrance of cave No. 9

Stupas are hemispherical structures reminding of mounds, which contain sacred relics and serve as places for meditation.

All of the caves are decorated with paintings that represent the rebirths of the Buddha, depiction of famous tales about the life of Buddha, and sculptures of some Buddhist deities.

According to the surviving records from the time when the Ajanta caves were still in use, they served as monk abodes during the monsoon season, but also a place where merchants and pilgrims often came.

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Paintings in cave no. 17 depicting Buddha in his past lives, and couples during their everyday life / Photo credit

The caves played an important part in the religious life, as well as in the ordinary life in ancient India.

Caves such as No. 16, 17, 1 and 2 contain some of the best and largest collections of preserved ancient Indian wall-painting.

After years of excavations and research, archeologists today recognize two distinctive periods in which the Ajanta Caves have been constructed: those made in the first (Satavahana) period and those from the later (Vākāṭaka) period.

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Inside cave 26: a Mahayana style Chaitya Griha / Photo credit

 

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A plan of the two levels of cave 6 which represents a vihara (monastery)

The old caves, such as No. 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15A, are built according to the Hinayana (Theravada) tradition of Buddhism.

It is commonly accepted that they were built between 100 BC & 100 AD, most likely sponsored by the Hindu Satavahana dynasty (230 BC – c. 220 AD)

Two of them (caves No. 9 & 10) chaitya-griha worship halls with a stupa while caves No. 12, 13, and 15A are viharas or Buddhist temples.

After these first caves had been constructed, the development of the compound was stopped until the mid-5th century, but the finished shrines and temples continued to be in use and were visited by many pilgrims.

 

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Inside cave 9, a Hinayana style Chaitya-Griha / Photo credit

 

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The porch of cave 1 / Photo credit

The second phase began in the 5th century, and this was when caves No. 1–8, 11, and 14–29 were built. This period was short, and most of the work was done between 460 and 480 AD, probably during the ruling of Hindu Emperor Harishena of the Vākāṭaka dynasty.

Objects build during this period are also chaitya-grihas (No. 19, 26, and 29) and viharas, and belong to the Mahayana Buddhism tradition.

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The sanctuary of cave 1 / Photo credit

While earlier period caves were more simple (but still beautiful), the ones from the second period are with more detail.

We have more stories on caves, here is one: The colorful Reed Flute Cave in China is a fascinating gallery of natural sculptures which has been one of Guilin’s attractions for over 1, 200 years

Today, the Ajanta Caves are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Maharashtra state with huge crowds visiting, especially during holiday times.