Ever since I read about Ajanta caves in history books, I was eager to see the place. It has been a world heritage site as well and has all the ingredients to be on my to do list. However the comparative inaccessibility of the place and just an outside knowledge of it, led to delay in actually seeing this place. Meanwhile I had seen Rock cut temples of Mammalpuram thrice and was impressed by the efforts of ancient Indian, down south. However only when I actually reached out to Ajanta this month, I realised that what a great gem it was. Its simply unbelievable that humans could do it over thousand of years ago. I was not only awestruck but was humbled by the experience. It actually gave me one more reason to be proud about my cultural heritage.
Lined along river Waghora, Ajanta caves are situated in Aurangabad district of Maharshtra and is at 100 odd km from the world famous caves of Ellora. The Ajanta caves can be accessed easily from Aurangabad and Jalgaon. The caves, in all 30 and collectively lined in a horse shoe shape have been carved out of volcanic basalt rocks of Sahyadri hills over a period of 800 years. While the cave no 10 believed to be oldest, was hewn out in 2nd century B.C. The caves individually were linked to river flowing there by flight of steps. The last of the caves were done around 6th century A.D. The caves no 9,10,26 and 29 were Chaityagrihas or worship places while the rest were used as Vihars or living places. The caves can be broadly divided into categories of Hinayana and Mahayana. The earlier ones were associated with Hinayana where the stupas were worshiped, the later ones can be linked to Mahayana, where the Images and idols of Buddha were worshiped.
While the caves started before Christ, it got one big push during the Vakatak rulers, a contemporary of Gupta rulers. The Vakatak ruler Harishena (475-500 AD) and his minister Varahadev patronized the caves in their time. Their mention comes in cave 26 in form of an inscription in Pali. Hieuntsang too mentions caves in detail in his memoirs though he did not visit the place himself. However from 7th or 8th century onward, the caves were abandoned and got covered with trees and jungles. This continued till next 1000 years.
The chance discovery of caves was due to a British army officer John Smith, who while hunting in Sahyadri hills, saw the opening of cave no 10 from a viewpoint and reported the matter to then ruler, Nizam of Hyderabad in 1823. The Nizam had their own archaeology department and therefore worked for next tediously to unearth the caves in next few years. Archaelogical survey of India took over the protection and preservation of the caves after independence.
I reached the cave along with my friend and his son few weeks ago. The access to cave is controlled with only few devoted buses allowed to ferry the passengers up to the caves. After buying Rs 10 entrance ticket and Rs 5 light ticket (it authorizes you to carry a low glare torch to see inside the caves), we hired a guide Mr Sheikh to know about the place. The caves are little up the hills but still are easily accessible for even medium fit person. The cave no 1 is of later age but named as no 1 due to its location. It is the most famous one as it has best paintings left even after 1500 years. The most famous is one of Budha where is holding a blue lotus and is in contemplative mood. This picture is called as Padmapani Buddha. The expressions on face of Buddha are just amazingly done.
The paintings of the caves were done with all natural elements and colors. First, the grooves were made in the rock surface and then a plaster of sand and vegetable and paddy husks was applied to make it smooth. Then the 2nd coat was done with mud and ferruginous earth followed by a coat of lime wash. After that, out lines were drawn boldly and they were filled finally with colors made from flowers and other vegetation available locally. As per our guide, the lapis lazuli, used for blue color was sourced from Central Asia. The paintings done are based on Jataka stories, based on previous births of Lord Buddha.
Seeing these paintings you can not but let you eyes and mind, eclipse to the glory of Indian art and heritage of those times. And when you realize that these paintings were done after decades and centuries of rock cutting to create a hall just by chisels and hammers, you can not but be mesmerized. I had my notions about beauty of Ajanta but seeing them actually was initially shocking and when you realize that this was all done by devoted monks and painter over years, decades and centuries sans any technological advances of 21st century, you feel humbled.
I went to cave after cave and just continued to be bowled over by the magnitude and beauty of these caves and the work inside them. The cave no. 10 has this huge rock cut stupa structure so beautifully done that you will be only amazed to see this art form. In fact, every cave showed us one more aspect of outstanding skills of Indians sculptors cum monks of those times.
Its unbelievable actually that human beings would have toiled this hard to cut rocks and then to paint in to express their devotion and commitments. I am at loss of words to say more about them and I feel really privileged and lucky to see this one more unmatched Gem of India through my own eyes.
Actually after this journey, I am now even more proud to be an Indian.