A tree-shaded road winds northeast from Aurangabad across the midriff of India. The hills are blond, the light sharp enough to wound the eyes. Now and then a sunny yellow mustard field, or a fiercely crimson bougainvillaea, splashes across the brown Deccan Plateau. It’s all soft volcanic rock, and hard, fine granite. After two hours of driving you crest a rise and glimpse the enormity of the plateau before descending into a spur of the hills.

Here, over 2,000 years ago, people dug into the Sahyadri Hills to create what is now a World Heritage Site. Cut into a horseshoe-shaped hillside, silent but for birdsong and the rippling Waghora River below, Ajanta is a hidden sanctuary.

Punit Paranjpe
Viewing extraordinary carvings at the 2000-year-old Ajanta Caves
Viewing extraordinary carvings at the 2000-year-old Ajanta Caves

The 30 monastic caves and prayer halls were begun in 2 BCE, when Buddhism was alive and well, and completed between 460 and 478 CE under the Vakataka dynasty. The monks who lived in this sweep of hill meditated in their painted caves, drew their water from the stream, and watched monsoon rain cascade in waterfalls between the caves. For a brief time, Ajanta was a beacon of glory in the Buddhist world.

But as Buddhism retreated in the 5th century CE, the caves were gradually abandoned, and remained lost to memory for another 13 centuries. It fell to a British cavalry officer by the ho-hum name of John Smith to rediscover them in 1819; hunting boar at a spot now called Captain’s Point, he noticed a carved façade behind a tangle of greenery on a hill across the Waghora. His curiosity preserved some boars, and catapulted Ajanta Caves back into the limelight of art and religion.

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The murals at Ajanta, still aglow after centuries
The murals at Ajanta, still aglow after centuries

The natural gallery of the caves houses India’s most sophisticated ancient paintings, but 1,500 years later, they are slowly giving in to age, climate and hundreds of daily visitors. Cloth over the verandahs screens them; low-intensity bulbs minimise damage, and steel barriers guard against touchy-feely tourists. As the sun-dazzled eye adjusts, you realise how much has been lost; Caves 16 and17 are well-preserved, but others are badly damaged. Despite the reddish cast of the lamps, the richness of subject and detail remains spectacular.

The Gupta and post-Gupta style paintings are inspired by the jatakas: the miracle at Sravasti, Maya’s dream of a white elephant, the Dying Princess, the Buddha returning home. In one vihara, Bodhisatva Padmapani holds a delicate blue lotus, symbolic of the Buddhist aspiration to rise above one’s condition. Focus like a terrier on this as you move through herds of howling school children. Every ornament, every expression, every fold of drapery is magnificent. One necklace is painted so luminously that its beads glow like real pearls.

The verandahs are also lushly decorated, their motifs reproduced in arts and craft all over the region. The Flying Apsara, a beautiful woman’s face in a turban, was used as the emblem of the 1996 World Beauty Pageant in Bengaluru. The monks painted by the light of oil lamps and sunlight reflected off water on the floor. They smoothed the rock with a layer of mud, vegetable matter and a coat of plaster, and mixed their palettes from natural pigments. For special effect they used lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Almost every inch of the rock surface inside some caves was once painted.

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A many-pillared chaitya hall in Ajanta exudes peace
A many-pillared chaitya hall in Ajanta exudes peace

There is also some inspired stone-work. The Buddha in Cave 1 has three distinct expressions depending on the light. Fabulous stone-ribbed roofs rest on carved pillars. In one cave, the dying Buddha’s soul rises from his feet. The stonework though is threatened: one chaitya was disfigured by graffiti, and when this was covered with wood-framed glass, people wrote on the wood. Time will catch up with Ajanta, but until then, the serenity and beauty of the paintings are something everybody should experience at least once in a lifetime.

Near Ajanta lie the 30-odd caves of Ellora which include Mahayana Buddhist, Hindu and Jain works. The 6th century CE Buddhist monks who first arrived here, worked on the most accessible part of the hill. Sixteen Hindu caves can also be seen. Further away, there are five Jains caves. However, the most astonishing achievement in Ellora is Cave 16, known as the Kailash Temple, or Kailashnath.

If Ajanta exudes a still, unassailable peace, Kailashnath is a celebration of thunderous power reflecting the fearsome dance of Shiva. An 8th century CE creation of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, it was conceived as the mountain home of Shiva and Parvati. Kailash is a free-standing monolith created top-down, excavated into being from living mountain rock. The masons carved 115 ft down through basalt flesh. It took 150 years to build; three million cubic metres of rock were displaced. Still, the effect is not of a structure laboriously built, but of a miracle coalesced into being by the power of its own purpose.

A sculpture of Lakshmi and two dwarpals (doorkeepers) oversees the entrance. The surrounding two-tiered galleries swarm with 10-foot reliefs of the gods in all their moods—playing, meditating, battling, dallying.

One tableau shows an indignant Parvati refusing to play dice with her husband who’s cheating. Here Ravana sacrifices his nine heads; there Vishnu crosses the three worlds. One corner shows Shiva leading his shy bride to bed. And in some places an incomplete, emergent sculpture remains half-wrested from the rock, as if gods are even now being born at Kailash.

The temple stands 164 ft by 109 ft in a huge court, guarded by two elephants and two ensign staffs that are 45 ft tall. The base is carved with elephants, lions, tigers, Sphinx-like beasts, and Chinese dragons with bulging eyes who bear the temple like a chariot. In one dramatic scene, Ravana braces himself under Mount Kailash and shakes it with all his might as Lord Shiva’s foot reaches down to pin him under one toe.

Most of Kailash is in excellent condition, though the paintings have faded. The stone floor has worn to the softness of silk by the tread of human feet. Guides bounce sunlight off reflecting sheets at the entrance to light up the carvings inside the dimness. The enormous Shivalinga is surrounded by Shiva, Parvati and other gods. The spire rises 100 ft high; four lions leap from the roof, roaring at the Deccan plain. They have been there for 1,200 long years, and will survive many more.

Kailash has been called the most stupendous single work of art ever executed in India. The chisel impressions of the ancient masons remain, ghostly reminders of how these passionate, squabbling, dancing, playing figures were shaped. Faith created Kailash; but even the most die-hard atheist cannot help but be moved by its awesome energy.

This article was first published in print in Outlook Traveller Guides in 2005.