Vignettes of Ajanta & Ellora

Archaeological Survey of India

Where time and place stand still

Hidden away into the side of a cliff overlooking a gorge, sit about 30 rock-cut caves - the discovery of which changed the landscape of Indian archaeology forever. When John Smith of the 28th Cavalry stumbled upon one of the caves (Cave 10) on the 28th April 1819, he desecrated the site which is perhaps the oldest surviving monument to india’s Golden Age.

And while he inscribed his name and the date on the walls of the cave (still visible, at a level higher than usual human height - given he stood on several feet of rubble that had accumulated over the ages) - he unlocked a world that had lain forgotten for over 14 centuries.

Ajanta: Caves 1 to 19
The Ajanta complex, as seen from Cave 6

The Ajanta Caves today hold a mirror to the Golden Age of the Subcontinent that lured travelers and conquerors alike. These Buddhist architectural wonders are dated to have been built between 200 BC and 700 CE in two prominent phases, whilst they were abandoned between the second and after the 7th century, with the evolution of religious predominance to Hinduism. Accounts mention that when John Smith entered Cave 10, he found locals using a part of it as a site of worship. The same cannot be verified and historians believe that by and large the caves remained forgotten, having once been flourishing centers for religious worship, teaching and expression.

Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller is said to have mentioned the marvels of Ajanta in his account of India around the 7th century though he may have never really visited the caves himself and his writing is based on accounts heard from fellow travelers.

These images that follow introduce you to the majestic Ajanta caves and allow you to explore them in an immersive manner.

The caves have been known far and wide for their remarkable 'dry frescos' (which technically aren't frescos at all, but are created with the application of mud plaster on the rock, followed by a wash of lime that allowed it to dry before local pigments are applied.) The paintings are created within a limited colur palette of reds and ochres, shades of green, and some highlights of lapis lazuli, black, lime and gypsum.

Ajanta, Cave 17: Painting in the verandah
Cave 1: ceiling of the sermon hall
Inside Cave 1

There are primarily two kinds of caves that served the purpose of teaching of the emerging Buddhist principles of life. Through living, worship and formal education, the caves served the purpose of propagating Buddhism and were built as either Chaitya Grihas (temples) and Viharas (monasteries)

The earliest cave (no. 10) is believed to have been built either in 2BC or 1BC. Primary research brought up varying dates. While the first phase of excavations is said to have lasted uptil 1AD, Walter Spink, the leading authority of the caves of Ajanta remarks that they were abandoned or rarely used/built further until the 5th century. With  forty years of painstaking research “in situ”, Walter M Spink further argues that “ ..while it was thought that the later caves were made over a long period from the 4th to the 7th centuries CE, (his work over the years has revealed that most of the work) took place over the very brief period from 460 to 480 CE during the reign of Emperor Harisena of the Vakataka dynasty. There was a sudden halt of building and use almost immediately after Harisena's death.

The exterior of a cave
Cave 19: Chaitya hall

Archeologists have unearthed evidence based on stylistic representations of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas as well as architectural details, that some caves were transformed from their first avataar after the earliest excavations when the process of carving began again.

Ajanta is best known for its paintings, which embody incredible grace, elegance and a refined quality of form. These paintings predate evidence of western art by centuries yet remain strong influences in Indian art today as well. With their discovery in times of British India, they played their part in reinforcing the rising nationalist sentiment and inspired the work of artists such as Nandalal Bose and Abindranath Tagore.

The sculptural details at Ajanta, while often overshadowed by the legacy of the paintings are exemplary markers of the time. The intricate carving techniques empleyed are considered fairly rare for the period.

Cave 1: ceiling of sermon hall
Cave 2: Kubera
Cave 16: Celestial couple on the ceiling
Cave 16: Yaksh
Cave 16: Flying figures
Cave 2: A Thousand Buddhas
Cave 16: The dying princess
Cave 2: Kuber

Both in painting and sculpture, one finds reflections and depictions of Buddha and the bodhisattvas, derived from Jatakamalas – famous work in both Sanskrit and Buddhist literature. The works bring to life numerous stories of the Buddha in his previous births and the deeds he accomplished in those incarnations. In addition, one can find elaborate details of everyday life in the times of painting and excavation, depictions of all classes, the cycles of life, places and spaces like courts and forests, succinct representations of everything from costume to utensils, myths of the time as well as of war and conflict.

Upon the discovery of Ajanta and the interest it drew worldwide from this revelation, James Burgess was appointed by the Royal Asiatic Society 1844 to 1863 to make copies of some of these paintings and these were exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London in 1866. Major Robert Gill was also responsible for subsequent copies.

Column depicting bull fight
Details of a pillar - Cave 23
Cave 9: Sculptures on the facade

The painted ceilings in Ajanta are mostly pattern driven, depicting elements from nature such as fruits, leaves, flowers, plants and animals.

Cave 1, completely covered in sculptural detail  is often referred to as the Emperor’s cave. It is understood to have been excavated under the reign of the Vakatakas who were contemporaries of the Gupta rulers.

The Bodhisattva Padmapani and Avalokitesvara Vajrapani are two landmark paintings that have been rooted in collective consciousness forming ideas about exemplary Indian aesthetic and being ‘poster’ images for Ajanta over the years. These are both found in Cave 1.

Spink mentions that “the paintings in cave 1 commissioned by Harisena himself concentrate on those Jataka tales which show previous lives of the Buddha as a king, rather than as an animal or human commoner, and so show settings from contemporary palace life”

Whilst all the 30 caves have individual characteristics worth exploring, the scope of this exhibition allows us to focus on a few.

While Cave 4, which is considered the largest monastery was never finished, Cave 24, if completed would have been the grandest monastery of them all. The detailed and refreshing treatment of the bracket capital is a marked choice to evoke grandeur.

Varahadeva, the Prime Minister to Vakataka king Harisena (475-500 AD)was a devout buddhist. Inscriptions suggest that Cave 16 was dedicated by him to the Buddhist Sangha.

“The paintings themselves, or what survive of them, tell us about the technical aspects of their art, such as the preparation of the ground, the execution of the painting itself with the sense of perspective, line, space division, colour-overlay, the material used in the preparation of the pigment and the harnessing of the visual and tactile senses and to the pacing of the narrative to be depicted. Mysteries abound: the yoking of the sacred and the profane; the adjacency of the naked and the robed; the division of the art activity between the ceilings and the wall murals into geometric design and figurative narration, and so on,” Swaminathan - Ajanta Paintings, A Layman’s Guide (published by Sudharsanam)

“One should (therefore) set up a memorial on the mountains that will endure for as long as the moon and the sun continue”

- Inscription in Brahmi translated by Walter M Spink from the caves of Ajanta (seven-volume series titled Ajanta: History and Development

Locally known as ‘Verul Leni, the Ellora caves lie about a 100 kilometers away from Ajanta. Built by the Rashtrakuta dynasty. in the Sahyadri Hills in  Maharashtra, they are considered the epitomy of rock-cut architecture in India.

Unlike building up, stone by stone, Ellora’s caves have been shaped into viharas and temples by chiselling top down, from often, a monolithic rock. The site lies in an area of volcanic activity, created by layers of basalt formations. A sharp vertical edge to the rock face allowed for chiselling of the caves (rock hewing) and finer grain of the reddish brown rock enabled intricate sculpting techniques.

Unlike Ajanta, the Ellora caves were never lost to the world and find mention in multiple travel accounts over the years

There are 34 caves in all, that are products of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain philosophies stylistically. Built between the 5th century and 10th century, the temples, viharas and mathas served each religion and its need and represent the evolution of religious inclinations of the rulers of the region over time. The excavations began at a time that Buddhism was slowly paving way for Hinduism  under the Chalukya and the Rashtrakuta emperors of the South West whilst by the 10th century there was a shift from Shaivism (Hinduism centred around Lord Shiva) to the Digambara sect of Jainism. 

Some accounts do suggest however, the Hindu caves having preceded the Buddhist caves.

Irrespective, coexistence of the three kinds of rock-cut caves echoes the tolerant sentiments of the time.

Cave 16, is a Hindu cave known as the Kailasa temple, which is heralded as the  cynosure of Ellora, if at all it is possible to pinpoint one.

Touted as the largest monolithic excavation in the world the temple was strated

by King Krishna I (757–773) of the Rashtrakuta dynasty.

It is designed to mirror Mount Kailash, which is considered to be the home of Lord Shiva and was once covered in white plaster to suggest the snowy mountain range of the Himalayas that Kailash forms a part of.

Being a Shiva temple, the complex boasts of a Nandi bull that flanks the entrance of the temple whilst the inner sanctum houses the Lingam. The temple architecture, though carved out of a single rock, can be seen echoed in later day versions of Dravidian temples of the South, built even centuries later. Pattadkal, a site not far from both Ajanta and Ellora was often used for temple architecture training. The temple within Cave 16 seems similar in form, language and study in proportions to Virupaksha Temple at Pattadkal. Sculptural details depict Shaivite and Vaishnavite deities on either side of the inner shrine while the sculptural highlight is often the image of Ravana attempting to lift Mount Kailash. While this may seem like an extraordinary feat suggested by the mythologies surrounding the image, the rock-cut temple itself boasts of an awe-inspiring effort of over a 100 years it took to complete the complex.

The Vishwakarma Cave (no.10) is the highlight of the Buddhist caves at Ellora. Carved out as a Chaitya Vihara, it is flanked by grandiose columns on either side of the cave leading up to the Stupa/Chaitya that stands three stories tall in the center. The roof is vaulted and chiselled smooth. The stupa is a votive chamber used in early Buddhism at a time when the depictions of Buddha were not yet defined or considered the norm. However, in cave 10, a 15 foot sculpture of Buddha in vyakhyana mudra (teaching posture)  is incorporated within the front section of the stupa foregrounded by the image of a carved Bodhi tree. The cave derives it’s name from the Vishwakarma caste that tradionally included carpenters, as the Chaitya Vihara exhibits imitation of wooden construction of rafters and beams  (rock, chiselled to look like wood). The cave is dated to have been built in the 8th century.

details about wood-like rafrers carved out

The monumentality and finesse of these rock-cut caves can only be described in words that may not do justice to the experience of actually visiting the two sites. Often clubbed on tourist itineraries as well found mentioned in pairs, the histories of the caves is intertwined, as with all of the 900 odd caves that are found in Western India. 

Archeologists and art historians have spent lifetimes deciphering the worlds these depict and those that they were once a part of. The caves are like windows to the Golden Age of India and perhaps resonate the feelings that the world outside may have felt, when the tales of this land reached far and wide. The sheer delight of encountering these rock-cut wonders is indescribable and they set a benchmark in Indian aesthetic macrocosms that are often found hard to match, especially in contemporary architectures for living, religious worship and teaching. 

What has survived is for us to treasure and upkeep, so that generations may derive from these sites inspiration and a discernment of the shared pasts of the country as it stands today.

Credits: Story

Narrative — Payal Wadhwa, Founder- ICR Design and Cultural Strategy Practice (
Text Sources —
Role — Archeological Survey of India
Role — World Heritage Center, UNESCO
Walter M Spink,  — Ajanta; History and Development
Swaminathan — Ajanta Paintings: A Layman's Guide
Takeo Kamiya — Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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