Hewn from the near-vertical sides of a horseshoe-shaped ravine, the caves at AJANTA occupy a site worthy of the spectacular ancient art they contain. Less than two centuries ago, this remote spot was known only to local tribespeople; the shadowy entrances to its abandoned stone chambers lay buried deep under a thick blanket of creepers and jungle. The chance arrival in 1819 of a small detachment of East India Company troops, however, brought the caves’ obscurity to an abrupt end. Led to the top of the precipitous bluff that overlooks the gorge by a young “half-wild” scout, the tiger-hunters spied what has now been identified as the facade of Cave 10 protruding through the foliage.

The British soldiers had made one of the most sensational archeological finds of all time. Further exploration revealed a total of 28 colonnaded caves chiselled out of the chocolate-brown and grey basalt cliffs lining the River Waghora. More remarkable still were the immaculately preserved paintings writhing over their interior surfaces. For, in addition to the rows of stone Buddhas and other sculpture enshrined within them, Ajanta’s excavations are adorned with a swirling profusion of murals, depicting everything from battlefields to sailing ships, city streets and teeming animal-filled forests to snow-capped mountains. Even if you aren’t wholly familiar with the narratives they portray, it’s easy to see why these paintings are regarded as the finest surviving gallery of art from any of the world’s ancient civilizations.

In spite of its comparative remoteness, Ajanta receives an extraordinary number of visitors. If you want to enjoy the site in anything close to its original serenity, avoid coming on a weekend or public holiday – it takes a fertile imagination indeed to picture Buddhist monks filing softly around the rough stone steps when hundreds of riotous schoolkids and throngs of tourists are clambering over them. Among measures to minimize the impact of the hundreds of visitors who daily trudge through is a ban on flash photography – though the introduction of low-impact lighting has aided close viewing – and strict limits on the numbers allowed into the most interesting caves at any given time. Another significant move to reduce the ecological impact on the area has been the creation of the Ajanta T-junction. The best seasons to visit are either during the monsoon, when the river is swollen and the gorge reverberates with the sound of the waterfalls, or during the cooler winter months between October and March. At other times, the relentless Deccan sun beating down on the south-facing rock can make a trip around Ajanta a real endurance test. Whenever you go, take a hat, some sunglasses, a good torch and plenty of drinking water.

Brief history

Located close enough to the major trans-Deccan trade routes to ensure a steady supply of alms, yet far enough from civilization to preserve the peace and tranquillity necessary for meditation and prayer, Ajanta was an ideal location for the region’s itinerant Buddhist monks to found their first permanent monasteries. Donative inscriptions indicate that its earliest cave excavations took place in the second century BC.

In its heyday, Ajanta sheltered more than two hundred monks, as well as a sizeable community of painters, sculptors and labourers employed in excavating and decorating the cells and sanctuaries. Sometime in the seventh century, however, the site was abandoned – whether because of the growing popularity of nearby Ellora, or the threat posed by the resurgence of Hinduism, no one knows. By the eighth century, the complex lay deserted and forgotten, overlooked even by the Muslim iconoclasts who wrought such damage to the area’s other sacred sites during the medieval era.

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