We flew from Mumbai into Aurangabad, a city in Maharashtra, which is the closest airport to visit the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. We used the Vivanta by Taj Hotel in Aurangabad as our base for our 2-day exploration of the area. It is about a 2-hour drive from Aurangabad to Ajanta Caves and we arrived before 9am when we were almost the only ones there.
The Ajanta Caves are made up of about 30 rock-cut Buddhist caves dating from the 2nd century BC. The wall paintings and sculptures here are some of the finest surviving ancient Indian art, most depicting the lives and rebirths of Buddha. The caves were used as monasteries during the monsoon seasons, as well as a resting site for pilgrims and traders. The site was entirely covered by the surrounding jungle until discovered by a colonial British hunting party in 1819. Ajanta Caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Most archaeologists believe that the Ajanta Caves were built during two distinct periods, the first in 2nd century BC and the second between 400-650 AD. The first period caves belong to the Theravada tradition of Buddhism while the second period caves belong to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. These caves were believed to be commissioned by wealthy patrons to gain merit in the afterlife. The caves were made by cutting a narrow tunnel at the top and then going downwards and outwards with artisans carving the intricate pillars and idols while others excavated the caves. There are two main types of caves here: monasteries and worship halls. Monasteries are square and have square dormitory cells attached to the main hall. They also have a shrine at the rear of the cave with a Buddha statue and deities surrounding him. Worship halls, in contrast, are rectangular with a high arched ceiling and resemble the architecture of Christian churches.
We spent a good 5 hours at the caves and I constantly have to wrap my mind around the fact that all the structures, pillars, cells, sculptures, etc are built by excavating rock from the caves. We had a wonderful guide who explained the building process as well as the Buddhist stories painted and carved on the walls. The Ajanta Caves together with the Ellora Caves, which I will cover in the next post, should be included in everyone’s bucket list and should no doubt be one of the wonders of the world.
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