The caves of Ajanta and Ellora are amongst the top Buddhist caves in the country. They are always a marvel, and only after a visitor sees them first hand, will he truly appreciate the beauty. The amazement increases once he realises that the two thousand year old paintings and carvings in the rock faces are done to the last perfect detail. Imagine creating those inside the dark caves without the help of any lights and electricity. Now imagine the advanced level of the techniques used in the paints which have remained intact after almost two millennia. Welcome to ancient Incredible India! There are around 30 caves in total. In this post, I shall discuss the most important caves of Ajanta.

I will divide my article in two sections –

  1. An introduction about the Ajanta Caves,
  2. Description of some of the important caves.

The Caves of Ajanta

A brief introduction: The Ajanta Caves were excavated between the 2nd century BC and the 6th century AD. However, by the end of 7th century, Buddhism began to decline in the land of its origin, and the shrines fell into desolation and ruin. For over a thousand years, Ajanta lay buried in the jungle clad slopes of the western ghats, until they were discovered by an expeditionary team of the British Army.

The caves are located in an isolated scrap of horse shoe rock by the Wagora River. They are more compact than those of Ellora.

The Waghora River
The Waghora River
The Ajanta Caves
The Ajanta Caves

The architectural and sculptural value in these rock temples get surpassed by addition of a third art form – painting. The wall paintings of Ajanta caves represent the finest examples of Indian wall paintings. It is indeed amazing that they have survived more than 2000 years. Off course, some of the paintings have gotten damaged with time.

Getting into details: There are 30 caves in total, some of them unfinished and negligible. 16 of them contain mural paintings, but the best works are found in Caves 1, 2, 16, 17 and 19. The best sculptures are in caves 1, 4, 17, 19, 24 and 26.

Techniques Used: The techniques used by painters in ancient India have been described in contemporary works on aesthetics. First, a rough plaster of clay, cow dung and husk are laid upon a selected rock surface and thoroughly pressed. It made a layer of 1 cm thickness. On this, a fine coat of lime is spread in order to attain smooth surface. The outlines were drawn on brush and then colour is applied. The pigments used are made from simplest kinds of materials such as yellow earth, red ocher, green rock crushed into burnt dust brick, lamp black and copper oxide. Other brushes were used to fill in colours until the picture, in the language of ancient Aesthetics, “bloomed”. Finally, plastic relief was attained by shading with darker lines and toning down highlights.

The central theme on the walls come under two heads:

  1. narrative scenes from Buddha’s life
  2. illustrations of Jataka fables

The paintings on the ceilings, unlike those on the walls, are mainly decorative patterns. They include geometric designs, floral and ornamental motifs, flying figures of celestial beings, animals, birds and plants.

Geometrical patterns on the ceilings
Geometrical patterns on the ceilings

Detailed description of the most important caves of Ajanta

Cave 1: It has one of the finest examples of vihara architecture which emerged towards the end of the fifth century. The facade is lavishly ornamented, its beauty enhanced by six richly carved columns on the verandah.

The most famous painting in this cave is that of Bodhisattva Padmapani. His eyes are lowered meditatively, his face has depths of spiritual calm borne of compassion for all living beings. Besides the bodhisattva is his wife, a dark beauty who had featured often in Ajanta reproductions. The left corner of the composition has divine figures at the right, monkeys and peacocks are seen in joyous postures.

Cave 2: Cave 2 is somewhat like Cave 1. The veranda has a lovely painted ceiling. Among the excellent murals, one on the left wall of the hall near the third cell door dramatises the legend of Buddha’s birth in some vivid panels.

The Buddha Statue inside Cave 2
The Buddha Statue inside Cave 2

Cave 4: Cave 4 is the largest vihara and one of the most important caves at Ajanta. The decorated main entrance leads to a hall with twenty eight pillars. To the right of the door is a carving of a Bodhisattva to whom devotees are praying for deliverance from eight fears.

Intricate carvings outside Cave 4
Intricate carvings outside Cave 4

Cave 16: Cave 16 of Ajanta has some of the most detailed and finest examples of wall-painting in the entire Ajanta series. An inscription on the left end wall outside the verandah gives its history – a minister of the royal court had it excavated as a gift for the “Best of aesthetics”. The date is sixth century.

The masterpiece in this cave is a painting next to the front plaster of the left wall, famed as “The Dying Princess”. There is agony in the drooping, sightless eyes, and helpless abandon of fingers, the farewell gestures.

Cave 19: Cave 19 is a chaitya-hall of the late Mahayana period. It has exquisitely carved facade with many large Buddha figures. The great arched windows add to its grandeur. Boldly conceived, and superbly executed in minute details, this cave is regarded as one of the best examples of Buddhist arts. With its large number of stone figures, it has been aptly described as “the sculptor’s treasure chest”

Cave 26: This cave is almost as crowded as Cave 19, but the chaitya-griha is larger in size. The most important figure here is of the colossal reclining Buddha representing Parinirvana, in a grouping of kings and queens and monks. The same wall also contains a relief of “The temptation of the Buddha”.