Ajanta and Ellora are the pride of Maharashtra. The rock-cut caves of both these sites are world famous and illustrate the degree of skill and artistry that Indian craftsmen had achieved several hundred years ago. Ajanta dates from 100 B.C. while Ellora is younger by some 600 years. The village of Ajanta is in the Sahyadri hills, about 99 kms. From Aurangabad; a few miles away in a mammoth horseshoe-formed rock, are 30 caves overlooking a gorge, `each forming a room in the hill and some with inner rooms.
Al these have been carved out of solid rock with little more than a hammer and chisel and the faith and inspiration of Buddhism. Here, for the Buddhist monks, the artisans excavated Chaityas (chapels) for prayer and Viharas (monasteries) where they lived and taught. Many of the caves have the most exquisite detailed carvings on the walls, pillars and entrances as well as magnificent wall paintings.
These caves were discovered early in the 19th century quite by chance by a party of British Officers on manoeuvres. Today the paintings and sculptures on Buddha’s life, belonging to the more mellow and ritualistic Mahayana Buddhism period, are world famous. Copies of them were shown in the Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1866. These were destroyed in a fire there.
Further copies were published soon afterwards and four volumes of reproductions were brought out in 1933 by Ghulam Yazdani, the Director of Archaeology of the then Hyderabad State. Ajanta has formed an epicentre of interest for those who appreciate and are eager to know more about Indian history and art. It is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India and has been listed in the World Heritage list of monuments.
The 30 caves of Ajanta were created over a span of some 600 years. In their range of time and treatments they provide a panorama of life in ancient India and are a source of all kinds of information… hair styles, ornaments, textiles, musical instruments, details of architecture, customs etc.
It was from this collection of classical Indian art that a particular style was formed that traveled with Buddhism to many parts of the world. Similar paintings can be seen in Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, Bamiyan in Afghanistan, temples and shrines in Tibet, Nepal, China and Japan. Royal patronage made Ajanta possible. Professional artists carried out much of the work and each contributed his own individual skill and devotion to this monumental work.
Visitors often ask how the artist who painted the detailed frescoes and chiseled out the intricate carvings, managed to work in the dark interiors of the caves. It has been noticed that the caves are illuminated by natural light for part of the day and it is presumed that metal mirrors or sheets of white cloth were used to reflect sunlight into the inner recesses.
Here, briefly, are some of the highlights of the caves. In the Cave 26, the sculpture is elaborate and beautiful though the painted frescoes are incomplete. The arched chapel window set in an elegantly simple façade, is repeated in an elaborate frontage in Cave 19 with its complete Chaitya and a slender votive stupa enclosing a standing Buddha at the far end. Of particular note is a sculpture of a seated Nagaraja with his consort and female attendant.
Cave 16 is an elegant Vihara with an inscription that mentions the king and his minister who had the cave built. Here a towering Buddha sits preaching. He is flanked by attendants with fly whisks.
There are undamaged portions of the wall paintings that are clear and vibrant in Caves 1, 2, 16 and 17. Cave I has the well known Bodhisattva Padmapani which is a wonderful portrayal of tender compassion. A gentle figure holding a lotus delicately in one hand. In the same cave is the golden figure of Avalokiteswara, elaborately adorned. The women, nymphs, princess and attendants are elegant and beautifully attired.
Here also is a lively panel of dancing girls and musicians. In Cave 2 there is a detailed panel of Queen Maya’s dream, of the white elephant which was interpreted by royal astrologers to mean the birth of an illustrious son. The row upon row of Buddhas, can be seen in this cave. In Cave 17, there is a flying apsara in a fashionable embroidered turban and splendid jewellery.
It is worth walking away from the caves in order to look back on to the horseshoe gorge. The ingenuous water cistern system can be seen which must have provided water for the monks and their visitors. Ajanta was on the ancient trade route leading to the coast so there must have been considerable activity and many visitors. Nobody really knows what life was like in those times and visitors can interpret the past as they wish, which is perhaps yet another secret charm of Ajanta.