The Ajanta Caves are an ancient cluster of rock-cut Buddhist monasteries carved into a series of 29 caves within the Sahyadri Mountains of Maharashtra State, India.
Deep in the caves lie countless sculptures of Buddhist deities, a massive collection of painted murals depicting the incarnations of Buddha, and a breathtaking arrangement of religious temples engraved into a 250-ft wall of stone.
These hand-hollowed caverns took shape over a staggering 800 years, gradually developed by the dedicated service of unknown artisans, painters, pilgrims and monks who lived and worked there for generations.
The most ancient caves, referred to as Cave 9, 10, 12, 13, and 15A, slowly emerged on the inner face of a U-shaped gorge winding around the Waghur river. The stone wall of the gorge was meticulously hollowed out and sculpted with unbelievably precise detail, finally reaching its realization somewhere between the year 200 BCE and 200 CE.
These subterranean marvels were credited to the patronage of the Hindu Satavahana dynasty (230 BCE – c. 220 CE), under the tradition of Hīnayāna or “Smaller Vehicle” Buddhism (Now known as Nikāya or “Early” Buddhism).
After the initial caves came into being, the faithful venture was suspended and further construction was left alone for hundreds of years. Buddhist monks maintained the caves and pilgrims continued to visit throughout this extended interval.
This is confirmed by the records of Faxian, the first Chinese Buddhist monk & translator to travel to India in search of sacred Buddhist scriptures. Faxian walked through frigid deserts and jagged mountain passes, eventually reaching the Ajanta Caves in approximately 400CE.
After exploring India and returning home in 412CE, Faxian authored an account of his travels, naming it Foguoji(A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, also known as Faxian’s Account). He spent the rest of his life translating the sacred texts he found in India. Faxian’s work may have become a major proponent to the world’s fascination with the Ajanta Caves.
50 years later, King Harishena, who was considered the last known ruler of the Vākāṭaka dynasty, became the primary patron of the once-forgotten grotto, heralding in the revival of the Ajanta caves. According to Walter M. Spink, a leading expert on the Ajanta caves, Harishena was responsible for the construction of the second phase of caves over the course of 460CE – 480CE.
The Caves of Harishena’s revival(known as Caves 1-8, 11, and 14-29) are considered to be the most elaborate of the collection. These ornate masterpieces are revered as the apex of India’s golden age. To further support the growing complex of monasteries, the earlier caves were restored and repainted by the artisans of this dynasty, breathing life into the origin of their inspiration.
The Buddhist tradition associated with this era of caves was known as Mahāyāna or “Greater Vehicle” Buddhism, contrasted with Hīnayāna, or “Smaller Vehicle” Buddhism, which was concerned with personal enlightenment over the enlightenment of the world.
The Mahāyāna tradition revered bodhisattvas- beings who vow to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. The collective faith and devotion of this tradition may have directed the powerful cultural momentum of the Vākāṭaka dynasty. That passion could have lead to the rapid revival of the Ajanta caves, which were dedicated to the original bodhisattva- Buddha himself.
In the approximate year of 480CE, the construction of the Ajanta caves came to a halt after King Harishena’s death, causing the majority of wealthy patrons to lose interest over time. As a result, the Buddhist monks were forced out of their sanctuary by lack of support, territorial greed and a shifting political climate.
The Ajanta caves were believed to be a monsoon retreat for monks, as well as a resting place for traders and travelers. Some have hypothesized that the caves were a scholastic monastery, able to house hundreds of students and teachers in their viharas. The true magnitude of their purpose is a mystery lost to time.
Widely known as some of the greatest artifacts of Ancient Indian culture, the Ajanta caves are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Since 1983, they have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, further solidifying and preserving their timeless worth.
To immerse yourself in the mystery of the Ajanta Caves, feel free to view this documentary: