Ajanta and Ellora Caves Information

The ancient cave temples at Ellora and Ajanta are among the finest historical sites India has to offer, and a detour to this far-flung region of Maharashtra to view these World Heritage Sites is well worth the effort. You can cover both Ellora and Ajanta comfortably in 2 days, but for those who are truly pressed for time, it is possible to see both sets of caves in a single (long, tiring) day. To do this, you’ll need a packed lunch from your hotel, and plenty of bottled water. Set out for Ajanta at about 7am, reaching the ticket office as it opens (recommended for the tranquillity of the experience, even if you’re not trying to cover both in a day). Spend no more than 3 hours exploring Ajanta, before heading for Ellora; your driver should be aware of the detour along the Ajanta–Aurangabad road that will get you there much faster. The caves at Ellora are spread out, so don’t drag your heels, and be sure not to miss the ultimate jaw-dropper, known as “Cave 16”: the Kailashnath temple complex is more carved mountain than cave. The world’s largest monolithic structure, it is twice the size of the Parthenon. Note that Ajanta is closed on Monday and Ellora on Tuesday.

AJANTA TRAVEL ADVISORY

The drive from Aurangabad to Ajanta takes between 2 and 3 hours, so you’re advised to set off early in the day to avoid as much of the midday heat as possible. There are two ways of getting to the caves. Generally, visitors are dropped off in the public parking lot, several kilometers from the caves themselves; here you’ll find stalls selling awful souvenirs, snacks, and tourist paraphernalia, and “guides” flogging their services. You’ll also find green, eco-friendly buses that are the only vehicles allowed in the vicinity of the caves. Purchase a ticket and hop aboard for the short drive to the Ajanta ticket office. A far more rigorous but rewarding alternative is to have your driver drop you at the “Viewpoint,” reached via a turnoff some distance before the official parking facility. From here you can take in a panoramic view of the site across the river, then make your way down the rather difficult pathway (don’t attempt this route if you’re unsteady on your feet) and eventually to a footbridge that spans the Waghora River. Make for the ticket booth and proceed to the caves. Be sure to arrange to have your driver collect you from the parking lot when you’re done. ELLORA TRAVEL ADVISORY These caves are only 30km (19 miles) from Aurangabad, but you should rent a car and driver for the day for transfers between certain caves. Starting at Cave 1, visit as many of the principal caves as you have time for, until you reach Cave 16, where you should arrange for your driver to pick you up and then drive you to Cave 21, which is worth investigating. Having seen this cave, again have your driver take you to Cave 29, located alongside a waterfall, reachable via a rather dangerous pathway. Another short drive will take you to the Jain Group of temples, of which Cave 32 is the best example.

THE BUDDHIST CAVES OF AJANTA

During the 2nd century B.C., a long, curving swath of rock at a sharp hairpin bend in the Waghora River was chosen as the site for one of the most significant chapters in the creative history of Buddhism. Buddhist monks spent the next 700 years carving out prayer halls for worship (chaitya grihas) and monasteries (viharas) using little more than simple hand-held tools, natural pigments, and oil lamps and natural light reflected off bits of metal or pools of water. They decorated the caves with sculptures and magnificent murals that depict the life of the Buddha as well as everyday life. The caves were abandoned rather abruptly after almost 9 centuries of activity and were only rediscovered in 1819 (by a British cavalryman out terrorizing wild boars). Time has taken its toll on many of the murals, and modern-day restoration projects have even contributed to the near-ruin of some of the work. Despite this, the paintings continue to enthrall, and it’s hard to imagine the patience and profound sense of spiritual duty and devotion that led to the creation of this, arguably the best Buddhist site in India. It takes some time to explore all 29 caves (which are numbered from east to west), and the sensory overload can prove exhausting; try at least to see the eight described below. It’s a good idea to make your way to the last cave, then view the caves in reverse numerical order—in this way you won’t be running with the masses, and you won’t have a long walk back to the exit when you’re done. Richly decorated with carved Buddha figures, Cave 26 is a chaitya hall featuring a stupa (dome-shaped shrine) on which an image of the Master seated in a pavilion appears. In the left-hand wall is a huge carved figure of the reclining Buddha—a depiction of the Mahaparinirvana, his final salvation from the cycle of life and death. Beneath him, his disciples mourn his passing; above, celestial beings rejoice. Featuring the greatest profusion of well-preserved paintings is Cave 17, where maidens float overhead, accompanied by celestial musicians, and the doorway is adorned with Buddhas, female guardians, river goddesses, lotus petals, and scrollwork. One celebrated mural here depicts Prince Simhala’s encounter with the man-eating ogresses of Ceylon, where he’d been shipwrecked. Cave 16 has a rather lovely painting of Princess Sundari fainting upon hearing that her husband—the Buddha’s half-brother, Nanda—has decided to become a monk. Cave 10 is thought to be the oldest Ajanta temple, dating from around the 2nd century B.C. Dating to the 1st century B.C., Cave 9 is one of the earliest chaitya grihas, and is renowned for the elegant arched windows carved into the facade that allow soft diffused light into the atmospheric prayer hall. A large stupa is found at the back of the prayer hall. Cave 4 is incomplete, but its grandiose design makes it the largest of the Ajanta monasteries. Take a quick look, then head for Cave 2. The facade features images of Naga kings and their entourage. Inside the sanctum, a glorious mandala dominates the ceiling amid a profusion of beautiful floral designs, concentric circles, and abstract geometric designs with fantastic arrangements of flying figures, beasts, birds, flowers, and fruits. On the walls, well-preserved panels relate the birth of the Buddha. Cave 1 is one of the finest and most popular of the viharas at Ajanta, especially renowned for the fantastic murals of two bodhisattvas (saintly beings destined to become the Buddha) that flank the doorway of the antechamber. To the right, holding a thunderbolt, is Avalokitesvara (or Vajrapani), the most significant bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. To the left is bejeweled Padmapani, his eyes cast humbly downward, a water lily in his hand. Within the antechamber is a huge seated Buddha with the Wheel of Dharma (or life) beneath his throne—his hands are in the Dharmachakra pravartana mudra, the gesture that initiates the motion of the wheel. On the wall to the right of the Buddha is an image of the dark princess being offered lotuses by another damsel. Last but not least, for a magnificent view of the entire Ajanta site and an idea of just why this particular spot was chosen, visit the viewing platforms on the opposite side of the river; the natural beauty of this horseshoe-shaped cliff is the perfect setting for a project so singularly inspired by spiritual fervor. It may even be the ideal starting point for your exploration.

EXPLORING ELLORA

Ellora’s 34 rock-sculpted temples, created sometime between the 4th and 9th centuries, were chiseled out of the hillside by Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains. A visit here allows for an excellent comparison of the stylistic features and narrative concerns of three distinct but compatible spiritual streams. Of the 12 Buddhist cave-temples, carved between the 6th and 8th centuries, the largest is Cave 5. The “cave of the celestial carpenter, Vishwakarma” (Cave 10), is acknowledged to be most beautiful of the Buddhist group. A large ribbed, vaulted chamber, it houses a big figure of the Teaching Buddha, while smaller figures look down from panels above. The atmosphere here is chilling, a place for the suspension of worldly realities and for complete focus on things divine. In the three-story vihara (monks’ domicile) of Cave 12, note the monks’ beds and pillows carved out of rock. Cave 13 marks the first of those carved by the Hindus which, when viewed in combination, offer a wealth of dynamic, exuberant representations of the colorful Hindu pantheon: Shiva as Natraj performs the dance of creation in Cave 14 (where he is also seen playing dice with his wife Parvati and piercing the blind demon Andhaka with a spear); and in Cave 15, the manifold avatars of Vishnu tell numerous tales while Shiva rides the divine chariot and prepares to destroy the palaces of the demons. Created over 150 years by 800 artisans, Kailashnath Temple (Cave 16) is the zenith of rock-cut Deccan architecture, and Ellora’s star attraction. A dazzling visualization of Mount Kailash, the mythical sacred abode of Shiva in the Tibetan Himalayas, it is unlike the other caves at Ellora, which were excavated into the hillside— it is effectively a mountain that has been whittled down to a free-standing temple, measuring 1,700 sq. m (18,299 sq. ft.). The intricacy of detail is remarkable; the temple basement, for example, consists of a row of mythical elephants carrying lotuses in their trunks as they appear to support the entire structure on their backs. Sculpted detail abounds in the temple and its excavated courtyard, with hardly an inch of wall space left unadorned—demons, dwarfs, deities, humans, celestial asparas, and animals occur in abundance. In the Nandi Pavilion facing the entrance is a beautiful carving of Laxshmi surrounded by adoring figures; seated in a pond, she is being bathed by attendant elephants carrying pots in their trunks. Also be on the lookout for mithunas— male and female figures in erotic situations.