Ajanta Ellora : A journey back in time

Chetan Kulkarni

Super User
Ajanta Caves - Historical View

The Ajanta Caves, accidentally discovered by a shooting party in 1829, are excavated out of amygdaloid trap rock, and situated in the scarped side of a deep ravine that is shaped like a crescent. They are entirely Buddhist and date from about 200 BC to approximately 650 AD. It is of interest to note that the Chinese Buddhist travellers, Hiuen Tsang and Fa Hien, refer to Ajanta in accounts of their travels. The dates vary but the caves are very old.

Of the 29 excavations, four are chaitya halls (all differing in design) and the rest are viharas. The decorative motifs differ with the age of the excavations.

The Hinayana and Mahayana phases are also well defined, the first being simpler the second being much more decorative and characterized by images of the Buddha. The caves are unique in that they combine three forms of art—architecture, sculpture and painting.

The paintings were executed after elaborate preparation of the rock surface initially. The rock surface was left with chisel marks and grooves so that the layer applied over it can be held in an effective manner. The ground layer consists of a rough layer of ferruginous earth mixed with rock-grit or sand, vegetable fibres, paddy husk, grass and other fibrous material of organic origin on the rough surface of walls and ceilings. A second coat of mud and ferruginous earth mixed with fine rock-powder or sand and fine fibrous vegetable material was applied over the ground surface. Then the surface was finally finished with a thin coat of lime wash. Over this surface, outlines are drawn boldly, then the spaces are filled with requisite colours in different shades and tones to achieve the effect of rounded and plastic volumes. The colours and shades utilised also vary from red and yellow ochre, terra verte, to lime, kaolin, gypsum, lamp black and lapis lazuli. The chief binding material used here was glue. The paintings at Ajanta are not frescoes as they are painted with the aid of a binding agent, whereas in fresco the paintings are executed while the lime wash is still wet which, thereby acts as an intrinsic binding agent.
The paintings sought their inspiration from the Jatakas, legendary Buddhist stories.

The caves, famous for its murals, are the finest surviving examples of Indian art, particularly painting.

Caves No. 13, 12, 10, 9 and 8 (according to chronological sequence) belong to the Hinayana period; No. 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 18, and 20 and perhaps No. 6 and 7 belong to a later Mahayana period ending approximately AD 580 No, 1 to 5 and 21 to 29, also Mahayana in character, came into existence between AD 500 and 650.

These caves are excavated in horse–shoe shaped bend of rock surface nearly 76 m in height overlooking a narrow stream known as Waghora.

Ellora Caves - Historical View

The Ellora Caves are dedicated to three great religions (Buddhism, Brahminism and Jainism). In a time of religious intolerance it is great to see three religions coexisting in a single group of monuments. This is the true India.

There are 34 monasteries and temples, spread out over around 2 km, dug out of a high basalt cliff, not far from Aurangabad, in Maharashtra. Ellora (or वेरूळ as it is colloquially known), dates from AD 600 to 1000, brings the civilization of ancient India to life. However it also in a way denotes the decline of Ajanta caves. The work stopped at Ajanta was later continued at Ellora.

Ellora is also world famous for the largest single monolithic excavation in the world, the great Kailasa (Cave 16).

The region is also famous for its antiquity. It has been inhabited since time immemorial, the stone tools belonging to the Upper Palaeolithic (around 10,000 to 20,000 years ago), Mesolithic (less than 10,000 years ago) bearing testimony to this fact. The Chalcolithic remains (2500-1000 BC) in the vicinity also indicates the continuity of human occupation in this region.

In total, there are nearly 100 caves in the hill range out of which 34 caves are famous and visited by many tourists, out of which Caves 1 to 12 are Buddhist; Caves 13 to 29 are Hindu and Caves 30 to 34 are Jain. Two more groups of caves are noticed on the Elaganga and on an upper terrace, namely, the Ganesh Leni and Jogeshwari Leni.

These religious establishments could have received royal patronage from various dynasties, even though inscriptional evidences are lacking for most of them. The only definite inscriptional evidence is that of Rashtrakuta Dantidurga (c. 753-57 A.D.) on the back wall of the front mandapa of Cave 15. The Great Kailasa (Cave 16) is attributed to Krishna I (c. 757-83 A.D.), the successor and uncle of Dantidurga. A copper plate grant from Baroda of the period of Karka II (c. 812-13 A.D.) speaks about the greatness of this edifice. The inscription tells us that this great edifice was built on a hill by Krishnaraja at Elapura (Ellora) and even the celestial beings moving in the sky were struck by its magnificence, as though it was self-existent, not created by mortals, and, even the architect who caused it was wonder struck that he could build it

How to reach?

If one wishes to make a trip to the caves you can do that over a weekend. The best way is to make a base at Aurangabad and do Ajanta at one day and Ellora the next. There are a decent set of hotels in Aurangabad starting from Lemon Tree which is around 5K per night to some decent budget hotels. I stayed in Hotel Panchavati which is a decent place. They also have a travel agency who arranges for a tour in case you don't wish to drive yourself

Ajanta is farther away from Aurangabad and takes around 2 hours. Ellora is at 45 minutes.

If possible see them on weekdays to avoid the crowd.

Ajanta is closed on Mondays and Ellora on Tuesdays.


Check out the websites of ASI :



Note that you don't need full time guides at either sites but get some reference material upfront.

Thank You

A big thank you to @uturn for his response to my request in the itinerary forum.
Last edited:

Chetan Kulkarni

Super User
Day 0 and Day 1

This was a very short trip over a weekend. We left from Pune by a Shivneri at 3 pm and arrived at Aurangabad at 8 pm. The hotel Panchavati is at a 5 minutes walking distance from the Bhabha petrol pump stop.

I had booked a cab with Ashok Kadam of ASHOKA TOUR AND TRAVELS. His contact # is 9890340816.

He came to pick us up and walked us to the hotel. Their service includes a free pickup and drop to the bus stand or railway station. Some amount is charged for an airport pickup/drop.

Since Ajanta was at a longer distance from Aurangabad we decided to do it on Saturday. We packed some breakfast from the hotel and left at 7 am. The vehicle provided was not very clean but functional. Driver was a decent guy but his driving was of Schumacher reincarnate on overtaking. The road itself is very good and we managed to cover the distance of 105 kms in around 1.5 hours.

Ajanta is a very systematically maintained place. You cannot just go and see the caves. Firstly you have to go to a pickup stand. From here a bus, normal or AC, picks you up and takes you to the entry point of the caves. This would probably be a 10 minutes ride. Here you buy a ticket and then proceed towards the caves. Please bear in mind that the caves need a good amount of walking. Drinking water is available at places but only one or two as far as I can remember. So carry food and water along with you.

The best time to visit the place is in the rains. Normally you get to see a beautiful waterfall as well. This time round rains had vanished so we had no such joy. Also if you can manage do visit on working days and not weekends. Especially public holidays.

However we did have the joy of being amongst the first to be taken towards the caves. You have the option of climbing up the stairs or walking up the ramp. For the elderly or ones who cannot walk there are also palanquins (or palkhis) to carry them.

As you walk you would be greeted with beautiful verdant views of the caves and the valleys.


Cave 1

Ajanta Cave 1 is among the most popular cave temples, for it has relatively better preserved the paintings. The temple’s attraction is also because of the apparently ‘completed’ outlook. This is one of the finest monastery of its kind as no other monastery at Ajanta has been so handsomely ornamented. It is squarish (35.7 X 27.6 m) vihara, consists of an open courtyard and verandah having cells at each side, datable to 4th –5th centuries A.D. Importantly it represents a seated Buddha in dharma chakra pravartana mudra (turning the wheel of law attitude) in the sanctum. Every inch of this cave was originally painted even the pillars and the sculptured being no exception. Unfortunately much of the painting has peeled off, but from the surviving patches one can easily imagine its pristine grandeur. The cave contains some of the masterpieces of painting in the world like, Padmapani and Vajrapani. Besides, it depicts Sibi, Samkhapala, Mahajanaka, Maha-ummagga, Champeyya Jatakas and the scene depicting temptation of Mara. Two of the pillar capitals in the main hall have pillar capital shown with four bodies of deer sharing one head.

From a photographer's perspective the entire place is a challenge. The light is very low, no flash or tripods are allowed. And the focus lights give an uneven lighting. So all you can do it keep your lens at the largest aperture, ISO around 3200 and hope you get good photos.

A wide view of the hall.


And some paintings





Cave 2

Extensively painted cave is famous for the ceiling paintings of the hall, antechamber, shrines chapels and verandah with side porches. The side walls of all are painted with countless Buddha’s in various attitudes. The Jatakas painted here are Ruru, Vidhurapandita and Puranvadana. Among the life scenes of Budhha story of his birth and miracle of Sravasti are depicted here.






Cave 4

Ajanta cave 4 is among the largest temples at the ancient sangharama. It was probably patronized by one Mathura whose name is mentioned in the donative inscription on the pedestal of the main Buddha image inside the shrine. A rendition of "OM" by the kids brought a beautiful reverberation in the hall. Acoustically this place is well designed and I could imagine the place with its monks meditating.


Cave 6

Cave 6 is a single number given to the otherwise two distinct, yet inter-related and inter-connected, edifices at the ancient sangharama of Ajanta. The blunder was committed because no one realized, except Spink (2005-2012) and Singh (2008) that the floors are distinctly apart. Thus, they are also known as Cave 6 Lower and Cave 6 Upper.




Cave 9

Cave 9 has a stupa and a natural light chandelair at the top. This is one of the earliest chaitya griha dated to the 1st Century BC. At the center of the apse stands a globular stupa on high cylindrical base. This chaitya is provided with an arched façade and a doorway giving appearance of a double storyed building.



Cave 10

Cave 10 is of about the same time as cave 9. It has a similar shape. The large chaitya gathering hall is 28.5m X 12.3m wide and 11m high. It has a stupa shrine at the ambulating passage around the symbolic stupa. The ceiling and pillars are painted with stories.





This is a image from the cave whose number I don't remember


Cave 16

This is the largest (19.5 X 22.25 X 4.6 m) and certainly the finest and most interesting monastery of Ajanta from the perspective of art and architecture. This monastery with its colossal hall, ornate doors and windows, beautifully painted galleries, sculptures, ornamented pillars, cistern was the gift of Varahadeva a minister of Vakataka King Harisena (475-500 A.D.)A central hall is surrounded by 14 cells on three sides, and sanctum housing Buddha image is shown seated in pralambapadasana or English chair posture. The sanctum of this cave is devoid of doorway and antarala. Originally the entire Damsel with mirror in Cave 17 Buddha with Rahul & Yashodhara in Cave 17.

Unfortunately the painting has peeled off.

The entrance itself is beautifully worked.





Cave 17

Ajanta Cave 17 is among the most important cave temples at the site. Its importance comes from the fact that it appears to have been mostly completed, and its paintings are relatively most well preserved. Although its history, architecture, epigraphs, and sculptures are equally important, it is actually the gamut of the paintings that steals the show.









Cave 19

This chaityagriha (16.05 X 7.09 m),in excellent state of preservation is considered as one of the most perfect specimens of the Buddhist art in India, datable to 5th century A.D. The roof of the aisles is flat and has been painted chiefly with ornamental flower scrolls, Buddha, a wall have been painted of Buddha with attendants. This cave has only one entrance door.

A vertorama



Wall paintings


Sculpture on the walls


Infront there is a courtyard with side chapel flanked by two porch right porch, containing a sculpture representing a Nagaraja and his wife, and the opposite site of this image, a porch which probably was place of rest for pilgrims.



Cave 20

A Brahmi inscription in the verandah records the gift of the mandapa by one Upendra. This monastery (16.2 X 17.91 m) belongs to 450-525 A.D. with its small portico in front of verandah, verandah flanked by cell at each end and square hall with two cell on each site.



Cave 26

This chaityagriha is quite similar to Cave 19, but of a larger dimension (25.34 X 11.52 m) and more elaborately and exquisitely provided with sculpted figures and other designs. An inscription (A.D. 450 – 525) found on the wall of the front verandah records the gift of this chaityagriha by a monk Buddhabhadra, a friend of Bhavviraja, a minister of the king of Asmaka.



Buddha in a mahaparinirvana pose


Wall sculptures





This whole process of seeing the caves took us around 5 hours. Had I been alone I would have spent the entire day. Also by noon the place was full of people.

Ajanta is largely maintained by donations from Japan. The security is well maintained and any flash photography in the caves is strongly censured.

The kids also loved the place and the history associated with it.

Lastly images don't do justice to what one can see with their own eyes. Do visit and see it while it lasts!