The Ajanta Caves, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra State of India. One of the finest surviving examples of Indian art, particularly painting, these caves were built in two phases and are the masterpieces of Buddhist religious art, with figures of the Buddha and depictions of the Jataka tales.
A protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India, Ajanta Caves is around 104 km (65miles) from the city of Aurangabad and around 100 km (62miles) from Ellora Caves. The caves are numbered 1 to 28 having emphasis on teachings based on living, education and worship, which are reflected in different caves that were assigned probably to Monks who after finishing their first training returned to Ajanta.
In its prime the settlement would have accommodated several hundred teachers and pupils. A celebrated philosopher and controversialist, author of well-known books on logic, lived at Ajanta in the 5th century as informed by the travelling Chinese scholar Xuanzang in the 7th century.
Separated by several centuries, the caves are generally agreed to have been made in two distinct periods: Caves of the first (Satavahana) period and Caves of the later (Vakataka) period.
According to Walter Spink, the earliest groups of caves (9, 10, 12, 13 and 15A) were built around 2nd Century BCE probably made under the reign of the Satavahana Dynasty. The caves under this phase, often called the Hinayana phase, lacked figurative sculpture. The Caves 9 and 10 have emphasized the stupa halls and caves 12, 13 and 15 A are viharas whereas the early caves seems to have vanished through excavations.
The second phase of paintings started around 5th – 6th centuries A.D. and continued for the next two centuries, as per the website of the Archaeological Survey of India. The second phase comprised of the Caves 1–8, 11, 14–29, which are possible extensions of earlier caves and most of them said to have been built during the reign of Emperor Harishena of the Vakataka dynasty.
The Caves 19, 26, and 29 are Chaitya Grihas and the rest Viharas representing majority of images narrating scenes of the life of Buddha alone. However, they do not show the supernatural characteristic of that phase of Buddhist art and it is too early to be properly called Mahayana because of the problems that surfaced regarding our understanding of Mahayana.
These caves were nothing more than abode for birds, bats and other large animals and were used by local people for prayers until 1819 when, while hunting, they were accidentally discovered by John Smith, a British Officer working for the Madras Presidency. While exploring the caves, Captain Smith deliberately destroyed the wall by scratching his name and the date, April 1819, over the body of a Bodhisattva.
After being rediscovered, these caves became famous for their exotic setting, impressive architecture and extraordinary paintings. Copies of these unique paintings were made and a paper on the caves by William Erskine was read to the Bombay Literary Society in 1822 and the “Bombay Cave Temple Commission” was established in 1848 by the Royal Asiatic Society with John Wilson, as president to clear, tidy and records the most important rock-cut sites in the Bombay Presidency, which became the centre of the new Archaeological Survey of India.
Eventually, the Ajanta site, which came under the territory of the princely state of the Nizam of Hyderabad rather than British India, was conserved and researched considerably by the Archaeology Department of the State of Hyderabad founded by Ghulam Yazdani in 1914.
Trip to Ajanta used to be a very adventurous journey through narrow ledges, animals and Bhil people, armed with bows and arrows. A modern road between the caves was built by the Nizam’s government and eventually the caves, combined with Ellora, became the most popular destination in Maharashtra and are sometime heavily crowded during holidays.
Anticipating possible threat to the caves, especially the paintings, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation announced plans to add complete replicas of caves 1, 2, 16 & 17 to reduce crowding in the originals, and enable visitors to receive a better visual idea of the paintings, which are dimly-lit and hard to read in the caves.
The paintings that were executed directly on the walls survived both the earlier and later groups of caves. From the earlier caves (9 and 11) are unique court-led paintings in India showing that painters during the Satavahana Times had naturally mastered the art of dealing with large group of people. The work of painters was widely practiced and appreciated and was used as a medium to decorate palaces and temples and exhibited details of the life of a wealthy court.