Excavation of Ajanta Caves

The most striking part of the cave architecture is its absence of materials in its construction

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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