Discovery of Ajanta Caves

Discovery of Ajanta Caves

If you look at the time lines, Ajanta Caves have had this peculiarity of going into a cycle of oblivion for many centuries, over its known history. Ajanta was an active center for many centuries during the Hinayana period of Buddhism. The oldest of the cave was probably excavated in 2nd or 1st century BC. The last of this series, probably a 100 years later.

What happened to Ajenta for another 400 or 500 years is not very clear. It went into an oblivion before rediscovered and patronised by the Mahayana Buddhists. This happened around 4th century CE, though the exact period is still debatable.

Ajanta then went through an intense phase.More than 20 of its caves were excavated during this period. This lasted probably till the end of 7th century CE. This time again, the circumstances for its decline is at the best sketchy.

However there are some patterns, the decline and re-emergence of activities at Ajanta coincided with other political and religious happenings in the region.

So when was Ajanta rediscovered again? About 1000 years after its second oblivion. This time we have a definite date :28 April 1819, to be precise !

How do we know that? The military officer during the colonial period who was on a hunting expedition ran across the arched window of a cave. He did a favor.

Right across the chest of a painted Buddha's image he scored, “John Smith, 28th Cavalry, 28th April, 1819″.

Little did he know at that time that he was vandalizing some of the beautiful ever murals the medieval world has created.

Nevertheless that mark still remains at the on the 13th pillar on the right in Cave 10. Where John Smith stood and wrote his piece os claim was a 5feet rubble that got deposited at the court of this cave over the centuries. That mark now stands about 10 feet high on that pillar.

What happened to Ajanta after the John Smith event is history!

By the way the last cave in this series was discovered as late as 1956.

Ajanta Murals

It's a challenge to photograph inside the dimly lit caves. Flash is prohibited, as it will deteriorate the pigments (think of 500 flashes a day on these paintings!). These are lit by fibre optic lighting.

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Ajanta Cave 5

Ajanta Cave 5

This is a fairly large (about 33 x 56 feet), but unfinished montessori. On the facade is a series of large cubical columns. The extreme columns are unfinished, this gives you an idea of the manner in which the columns are excavated and finished.

Also at a corner is an unfinished chamber. The opening is cut neatly in rectangular shape, but inside is not excavated fully. Again this can give a good idea of how those chambers were outlined and executed.

The doorframe is interestingly carved. Next to the cave is a series of steps that give avccess to the cavelocated slightly above the Cave 5
By the way the Cave 5 belongs to the later phase of excavations.

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Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Caves

In the middle of a forest range stands a steep horse-shoe shaped coffee brown rocky cliff. A stream, the Waghora river, cascades down from the cliff and traces the arc of the horse-shoe valley. A chain of spacious rock cut caves made with unique architectural zeal on the vertical face of the cliff overlook the green valley beneath.

Many of the caves are generously decorated with sculptures and other patterns. Some of them are gigantic while the other shows the dexterity of the artist with its intricate details. On the flat walls and celings of these caves are the paintings, popularly known as the Ajanta Paintings.

You can small a touch of mystery filled mildly cold air of Ajanta.

There are a total of 30 caves located in the form of an arc. For the sake of easy identification the caves are primarily identified with a number, in the order of its location.
About 6 of these were places of worship known as chaityas or sanctuaries. The rest of it were Montessori and residential quarters where the monks lived, prayed and contemplated.

Though the caves are located one next to another, these were neither executed during the same period nor they were part of a single architectural master plan. See Discovery of Ajanta Caves.

The caves of Ajanta can be broadly classified into two distinct groups.

Six of the 30 caves were built during the early pursuit of Buddhism in the region which is during the 2nd century BC. After this initial sprout, there was a pause of about 4 centuries.

The 5th to 7th century CE has seen a feverish activity in Ajanta. About two dozen caves were built during this period. Some of the finest caves of Ajanta was conceived and executed during this second phase.

As a visitor you practically start with the Cave 1 and finish with Cave 27 following a counterclockwise tour path.

The oldest cave, that is the Caves 8, 9, 12 and 13, are located somewhere in the middle of the arc. Two of these first generation caves are sanctuaries ( Cave 9 and 10) and the other two were ( cave 12 & 13) functioning as Montessori.

Out of the later period ones 3 caves are sanctuaries (Cave 19, 26 & 29), and the rest again Montessoris.

Of the 30 caves, 6 caves contain paintings on its walls. Both earlier and later period caves spots paintings. The style of paintings are however somewhat different. After all, these murals were done during two periods separated by about 400 years.

The paintings in cave 9 and 10 (both sanctuaries) represents the old style whereas caves 1, 2, 16 & 17 (all Montessoris ) celebrates the high water mark of Ajanta Paintings.

Whether sanctuary or Montessori, there are some notable difference in its philosophy between the earlier and later series of caves.

True to the ethos of Buddhism during the Hīnayāna period, images of Buddha is absent in the earlier caves made during the 2nd century BC. The only exception is probably the cave 10, where an image of Buddha is carved on the “Stupa” in the hall. According to archeologists this was later carved on to this old cave during the later period of construction.

In scale and details too the later period caves are more ambitious. The sanctuaries are characterized by its vaulted (arched) halls and a stupa at the center of the semicircular quarter. A giant horseshoe shaped window stands above the porch of the sanctuary.

Monasteries are built keeping in mind the functional aspects of the residents. Some of them are multistoried and with multiple chambers inside.

All the caves face the valley and the river that flows along the arc. Originally all the caves did have some kind of a porch facing the valley separate stairways to access the river beneath. Much of it is damaged and not traceable. However you can see the traces of the original stairs of cave 16 and 17.

The contrast is astonishing. Some of the finest and oldest paintings the ancient India produced gleam on the walls of rocky caves located in the middle of nowhere. Imagine an art gallery scooped out of a volcanic rocky hill in the middle of a forest.

From an artistic point of view, sensual beauty of women and the spiritual aura of Buddha sit in proximity with surprising ease, and rivals each other in its aesthetic appeal. Ajanta celebrate a fine blend of art, architecture and religion.

While the Ajanta Paintings steal the show, the rock cut architecture and the sculptures of Ajanta never fails to awestruck a visitor.

In religious terms Ajanta represents a series of Buddhist Montessoris and sanctuaries (chaityas) built by the two traditions of Buddhism namely the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna.

In artistic terms Ajanta is the high water mark of Indian mural art, rock cut architecture and sculpture, in that order.

From a historic perspective, Ajanta exemplifies the evolution of Buddhism in India, especially its footprints in the region during the 2nd century BC, its feverish comeback after four centuries and the eventual decline by the turn of 7th century CE.

In terms of heritage , Ajanta is one of the finest showpiece of Indian ethos, in popularity only rivaled by the Taj.

Ajanta is open to visitors. This site is under the management of Archeological Survey of India, the federal agency responsible for the preservation of such monuments in India.

Entrance Fee for Ajanta Caves
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) standard admission fees applicable to Ajanta caves

Citizens of India Rs.10
Citizens of SAARC Countries – Rs 10
(Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives and Afghanistan)

Citizens of BIMSTEC Countries – Rs 10
(Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar)
Visitors from Other countries: US $ 5 or Indian Rs. 250/- per head
(children up to 15 years admitted free)

The admission ticket is sold at the counter at Ajanta Caves.
Open from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.
Closed on Mondays

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Photography at Ajanta

Photography at Ajanta

Photography in Ajanta Caves is riddled with that typical good-news bad-news tradeoff. In general photography is discouraged inside the caves, especially those caves with paintings (Ajanta Cave 1, Ajanta Cave 2, Ajanta Cave 16 , Ajanta Cave 17).

It’s not photography per say the authorities are worried about, but use of the harsh flashes that causes damage to the murals. Left unrestricted, millions of camera flashes that’s going to fire in front of these invaluable murals, would have further damaged the already faded paintings. That is not a good idea of tourism.

The caves are pretty deeper with only point of light entry from its facade. This is a challenge in the conventional photography. To top it – for a different reason – use of tripod too is prohibited in Ajanta.

All is not lost. The caves are illuminated with sobber fibreoptic lighting. The light source is kept outside the caves and the ‘cool light’ is taken into the caves through fibreoptic pipes.

If you carry a digital camera with reasonably high ISO setting , you would be able to get decent pictures without flash.

If you are very particular about photography at Ajanta keep in mind a few more this. First, avoid visiting this place during any of the weekend, holidays or in general avoid seasons when everyone goes to Ajanta!

The crowd in the otherwise confined space is a major distraction for photography.

The second point is, be there early. Be well ahead of the ‘first wave’ of visitors that’s going to sweep through the caves. Photography or otherwise, this is a good strategy to explore the caves in relative peace.

That essentially means be there at the entry point well before 9 in the morning.

The third thing is to understand the orientation of the caves from a photography point of view. The caves are located on the inner part of a horse shoe shaped cliff.

Ajanta Cave 1 to Ajanta Cave 6 faces a tentative east. These caves get reasonably well illuminated by natural light during the later part of the day.

Similarly the series of Ajanta Cave 7 to Ajanta Cave 20 faces south. Ajanta Cave 21 to Ajanta Cave 28 faces east to northeast progressively in that order of its position.These are better illuminated during the morning hours, when the sunray is quite slanted to enter the east facing caves.

So you got the point, shoot when and where there is ample sunlight to your advantage. Also be aware that entry to the caves closes by 5.30 in the evening. Plan your photography strategy accordingly.

And one more thing. Ajanta’s landscape looks significantly different during summer and in rainy season. The stream dries up during summer and the whole landscape presents a rugged look. Post monsoon, the panorama spots a pleasant coat of undulating green, thanks to the freshly sprouted trees and the outgrowth. The waterfall in the middle further adds to the beauty. For that cliche horseshoe panorama shot you’ve to trek to the

Both summer and monsoon presents distinct photo opportunities.

There is no camera fee!

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Excavation of Ajanta Caves

Excavation of Ajanta Caves

The most striking part of the cave architecture is its absence of materials in its construction. Ajanta caves were created by scooping into the vertical surface of the rocky hill, much like a single ended short tunnel. What astonishes is however the sophistication and aesthetic zeal with which there caves were made. Everything from the pillars to sculptures to arches to the stupa has been created out of this carving operation. Nothing is added, except lime plaster for making the painting.

Some of the caves are unfinished. That gives a good idea of various stages and method by which the excavation was done. From the tool marks on the walls archaeologists could even deduce the types of chisels and pickaxes the Buddhists used to construct – rather carve – the Ajanta caves.

The outline for the cave design is marked first. Then the excavation is started from the top, that is from the ceiling level.This is in contrast with the regular construction sequence, where the work starts from the base.

Once the ceiling portion is finished, the excavation moved downward progressively, finishing and walls and the floor.

In the Unfinished Ajanta Cave 3 and Ajanta Cave 5 you can see the method of excavation. A grid of deep allies were cut on the excavation floor using pickaxes. These blocks where then removed one by one further chipping operations.

Once the ceiling, walls and floor is done, the excavation further moved on the walls to create chambers and cells.

The only portion that left not removed are parts of the cave design, like the pillars, stupa or portions that would later carved into sculptural and architectural elements. In other words unwanted rock is removed to create the space that is finally left behind in cave.

Once the roughly finished cave is ready, the artisans started their work on carving the details.

Where did all the excavated debris go? Deep down the valley. The stream further washed it away. So at Ajanta you’ll not see a heap of debris created as a result of the excavation.

Ajanta Caves

View of the vertically excavated caves from across the river.

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Shravanabelagola

Shravanabelagola

Shravanabelagola,located 160km west of Bangalore is an important center of Jainism. You can see the high watermarks of Western Ganga Dynasty in the temples and sculptural works in Shravanabelagola.

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Ananthapura Lake Temple

Ananthapura Lake Temple

This is the only lake temple in Kerala. The Ananthapura Temple in Kasargod is believed to be the original seat of the Lord Anantha Padbhanabha if Thiruvananthapuram.

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