Ajanta is a 2-hour drive away from Aurangabad and we went there on a day-trip. It is home to one of Maharashtra's key attractions: the Buddhist cave monuments cut into the rocks of the Sahyadri hills. The caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.
The photo below was taken from a viewpoint opposite the site. It clearly shows (through the morning haze) the horseshoe-shaped escarpment above a river gorge on which the caves are situated.
They were 'discovered' in 1819 by a British tiger-hunting party, who spotted the top of one of the taller caves from just this viewpoint. The rest was obscured by the dense vegetation which had taken over the site.
The next photo shows the caves, or rather a section of them, from a ground-level perspective.
There are 30 caves in total. From a functional viewpoint, they can be divided into two categories: prayer halls and monasteries. The earliest date back to the 2nd century BC; the later ones were added in the 5th and 6th century. The nomenclature is simple – the caves are numbered 1 to 30, with Cave 1 the first after the entrance.
Because of its exquisite murals, Cave 1 (dating from around the 5th century) is also one of the most famous ones. The photo below shows Vajrapani, one of the deities protecting Gautama Buddha (in this branch of the Buddhist belief system).
The next photo depicts another set of murals from the same cave. On the right of the shot (and holding a lotus flower) is Padmapani, the embodiment of compassion.
We were very impressed by the vivid colours of the paintings. They are more than 1500 years old after all.
In between the murals of Vajrapani and Padmapani is this shrine with a well-preserved statue of a seated Buddha.
Cave 2 next door is strikingly colourful and contains another large Buddha statue.
Whilst some of the caves have relatively plain entrances, others have intricate decorations on the outside as well as inside.
Decorative reliefs can also be found flanking some of the staircases.
Cave 10 is considered to be Ajanta's oldest cave. It is a prayer hall, but fairly plain. A few murals have survived more or less intact.
The following photo shows the entrances to two of the monks' cells in one of the cave monasteries.
Cave 16, near the centre of the site, contains various paintings as well as this statue of a seated Buddha.
There is a colonnaded porch outside Cave 17 containing some nicely preserved frescoes.
Further along is another prayer hall – Cave 19 dates from the 5th century. Like some of the other caves it was actually sponsored by a Hindu ruler. My guidebook tells me that it is quite unusual in as far as the figure of Buddha is carved into the stupa itself. We had not fully appreciated that at the time, but were impressed by the carvings on the pillars and parapets.
A photo back along the row of caves from here shows, once again, the extent of the site.
We were a bit 'caved out' by the time we reached Cave 26, but soon perked up – because we found this cave to be one of the most captivating ones. The photo of the reclining Buddha shown at the beginning of this article was taken there, as were the next three.
The sculptures and reliefs, in my opinion at least, surpass much of what we had seen in other parts of the site. Cave 26, of course, is one of the 'newer' ones, which partly accounts for the craftsmanship and the near-perfect preservation of the artefacts.
Below is another look back along the row of caves. By the time we got back to the entrance we were more than ready for a pot of tea – and, in my case, also a delicious cheese and garlic naan.