Set in a wide, steep, horseshoe-shaped gorge above a wild mountain stream, the Ajanta caves reward intrepid travelers—you'd be surprised how few are willing to make the trip here, a three hour-drive from Aurangabad—with a stunning glimpse into ancient India. India's greatest collection of cave paintings dates back two millennia and is housed within massive carved stone caverns. If you can make it only to either Ellora or Ajanta, choose Ajanta for the comparative lack of crowds, and the pristine serenity of the forest.
It's believed that a band of wandering Buddhist monks first came here in the 2nd century BC, searching for a place to meditate during the monsoons. Ajanta was ideal—peaceful and remote, with a spectacular setting. The monks began carving caves into the gray rock face of the gorge, and a new temple form was born.
Over the course of seven centuries, the cave temples of Ajanta evolved into works of incredible art. Structural engineers continue to be awestruck
by the sheer brilliance of the ancient builders, who, undaunted by the limitations of their implements, materials, and skills, created a marvel of artistic and architectural splendor. In all, 29 caves were carved, 15 of which were left unfinished; some of them were viharas (monasteries)—complete with stone pillows carved onto the monks' stone beds—others were chaityas (Buddhist cathedrals). All of the caves were profusely decorated with intricate sculptures and murals depicting the many incarnations of Buddha.
As the influence of Buddhism declined, the number of monk-artists became fewer, and the temples were swallowed by the voracious jungle. It was not until about a thousand years later, in 1819, that Englishman John Smith, while tiger hunting on the bluff overlooking the Waghora River in the dry season noticed the soaring arch of what is now known as Cave 10 peeking out from the thinned greenery in the ravine below; it was he who subsequently unveiled the caves to the modern world. Incidentally, tigers are not too far from this area (the thick forests from Ajanta to Kannad are the Gautala wildlife sanctuary). Today the caves at Ajanta and Ellora have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
Both Ajanta and Ellora have monumental facades and statues that were chipped out of solid rock, but it's at Ajanta that you can also see India's most remarkable cave paintings, which have survived the centuries. The monks created these by spreading a carefully prepared plaster of clay, cow dung, chopped rice husks, and lime onto the rough rock walls, and painting pictures on the walls with local pigments: red ocher, burnt brick, copper oxide, lampblack, and dust from crushed green rocks. The caves are now like chapters of a splendid epic in visual form, recalling the life of the Buddha, and illustrating tales from Buddhist jatakas (fables). As the artists told the story of the Buddha, they portrayed the life and civilization they knew—a drama of ancient nobles, wise men, and commoners.
Keep some loose change with you, and if you're not sightseeing with a guide, ask one of the attendants at each cave to tell you a bit about its significance; tip them ten rupees for their kindness.
Where to Start? The caves are connected by a fair number of steps; it's best to start at the far end at Cave 26 and work your way back, to avoid a long trek back at the end. The initial ascent, before you reach the cave level, is also quite a climb, at 92 steps. Palanquins carried by helpers are available for the less hardy, for Rs. 400. Flash photography and video cameras are prohibited inside the caves (shooting outside is fine), but for an extra Rs. 5 added to your admission fee, lights are turned on in the caves as you enter. Right outside the caves, a shoddy MTDC-run restaurant, predictably called the Ajanta, offers simple refreshments; this is the only refreshment area or stall near the caves.
What is the most important to see? Opinions vary on which of the Ajanta caves is most exquisite: Caves 1, 2, 16, 17, and 19 are generally considered to have the best paintings; caves 1, 6, 10, 17, 19, and 26 the best sculptures. (The caves are numbered from west to east, not in chronological order.) Try to see all eight of these caves, at least.
Most popular at Ajanta are the paintings in Cave 1. These depict the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and Bodhisattva Padmapani. Padmapani, or the "one with the lotus in his hand," is considered to be the alter ego of the Lord Buddha; Padmapani assumed the duties of the Buddha when he disappeared. Padmapani is depicted with his voluptuous wife, one of Ajanta's most widely reproduced figures. When seen from different angles, the magnificent Buddha statue in this cave seems to wear different facial expressions.
Cave 2 is remarkable for its ceiling decorations and the murals relating the birth of the Buddha. For its sheer exuberance, the painting of women on a swing is considered the finest. It's on the right wall as you enter, and when you face the wall it's on the left side.
Cave 6 is a two-story cave with lovely detail. Climb the steep steps to the second floor, where there are pillars that emit musical sounds when rapped. On the first floor is an interesting well/undergound tank just outside the cave.
The oldest cave is Cave 10, a shrine dating from 200 BC, filled with Buddhas and dominated by an enormous stupa (a dome, or monument, to Buddha). It's only in AD 100, however, that the exquisite brush-and-line work begins: in breathtaking detail, the Shadanta Jataka, a legend about the Buddha, is depicted on the wall in a continuous panel. There are no idols of Buddha in this cave, indicating that idol worship was not in vogue at the time (although Cave 19 does contain idols of Buddha, showing the progression of thought and the development of new methods of worship as the centuries wore on). Guides and caretakers will enthusiastically point out the name of the Englishman, John Smith, who rediscovered the caves—his name, along with "1819" underneath, is carved on the 12th pillar on the right-hand side of this cave. (It's Cave 10, with its domed arch that Smith first spotted).
The monk-artists seem to have reached their zenith in Cave 16, where a continuous narrative spreads both horizontally and vertically, evolving into a panoramic whole—at once logical and stunning. One painting here is especially riveting: known as The Dying Princess, it's believed to represent Sundari, the wife of the Buddha's half-brother Nanda, who left her to become a monk. Cave 16 has an excellent view of the river and may have been the entrance to the entire series of caves.
Cave 17 holds the greatest number of pictures undamaged by time. Luscious heavenly damsels fly effortlessly overhead, a prince makes love to a princess, and the Buddha tames a raging elephant. (Resisting temptation is a theme.) Other favorite paintings include the scene of a woman applying lipstick and one of a princess performing sringar (her toilette)—this last is on the right-hand wall as you enter, and as you face the wall on the farthest right pillar.
Cave 26 is the more interesting of the caves on the far end. An impressive sculpted panel of a reclining Buddha is on your left as you enter. It's apparently a portrayal of a dying Buddha on the verge of attaining nirvana. His weeping followers are at his side, while celestial beings are waiting to transport him to the land of no tomorrows (no rebirths).
A number of unfinished caves were abandoned, but even these are worth a visit if you can haul yourself up a steep 100 steps (alternatively, you can walk up the bridle path, a gentler ascent in the form of a crescent pathway alongside the caves); from here you there is a magnificent view of the ravine descending into the Waghura River. There's an even easier way to reach this point: on your return by car to Aurangabad, 20 km (12 mi) from the caves, take a right at Balapur and head 8 km (5 mi) toward Viewpoint, as it's called by the locals.
A trip to the Ajanta caves needs to be well planned. You can see the caves at a fairly leisurely pace in two hours, but the drive to and from the caves takes anywhere from two to three hours. Come prepared with water, lunch or snacks (from a shop in Aurangabad, because you won't get much here except packed items like potato chips at the visitor center, and nothing once you enter the caves), comfortable walking shoes (that can be slipped on and off easily, because shoes are not allowed inside the caves), socks to pad about the cave in and not get your feet dirty, a small flashlight, a hat or umbrella for the heat, and patience. Aurangabad can be hot year-round, and touring 29 caves can be tiring. The paintings are dimly lit to protect the artwork, and a number are badly damaged, so deciphering the work takes some effort. The Archaeological Survey of India has, however, put a lot of effort into making the caves more viewable, including installing special ultraviolet lights to brighten certain panels. Shades and nets installed at the mouth of each cave keep out excess sun and bats.
There's no longer direct access to the caves. All visitors are required to park their cars or disembark from their coaches at a visitor center 3 km (2 mi) from the caves. A Rs. 6 ticket (Rs. 10 for an air-conditioned bus, which go less frequently) buys you a place on frequently departing green Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) buses to the caves. Remember to carry the most important (and just enough) possessions with you because it's a long haul back to retrieve snacks, guide books, or hats, or to dump extra belongings. The visitor complex has stalls with people hawking souvenirs, film, sodas, water, and packaged and fresh hot snacks—plus lots of irritating hawkers and unknown guides that need to be assiduously ignored and firmly dismissed. MTDC operates a small hotel (25 rooms, 15 with a/c; 24/3824–4230) 5 km (3 mi) from the caves, at Fardapur. A cloak room is available at the caves to deposit bags for Rs. 5 per bag.