Quick Guide: Ajanta and Ellora, Maharashtra

Quick Guide: Ajanta and Ellora, Maharashtra
Photo Credit: Outlook Traveller

The greatest examples of classical Indian art and architecture, the Ajanta and Ellora Caves, make the perfect weekend destination for history buffs

Our Team
June 29 , 2015
06 Min Read

Fast facts
State: Maharashtra
Distance: Ajanta is 491 km NE and Ellora 417 km NE of Mumbai
When to go: The winter season (November-February) is the most pleasant time
Tourist Office: MTDC Holiday Resort, Station Road, Aurangabad
Tel: 0240-2331513
STD codes: Aurangabad-0240, Ajanta -02438, Ellora-02437

Getting there
Air: Nearest airport is the Chikal Thana Airport, Aurangabad
Rail: Aurangabad Railway Station
Road: Route Expressway to Pune; SH to Aurangabad via Ranjangaon, Ahmednagar and Dahigaon; SH to Fardarpur-Ajanta via Phulambari and Sillod or NH211 to Ellora via Khuldabad


Over a 100 km away from Aurangabad, past the arid topography and volcanic provinces of the Deccan Plateau, lie the Ajanta Caves ­–  remains of a Buddhist monastery complex of enormous proportions and significant historicity. Once the abode of hundreds of monks, whose quest for truth and learning led them to these hallowed mountain halls, today the complex is awash with pilgrims and tourists, who come to bear witness to the greatest example of Classical Buddhist art and architecture in the world. 

 Hidden away from civilization, the caves at Ajanta were constructed to facilitate a peaceful environment for Buddhist monks. Location was key for the monks who wished to remain undiscovered and undisturbed. A horse-shoe-shaped rock scarp overlooking the rippling Waghora River Valley was chiselled to carve out the caves. Indeed, each of the caves is believed to have had its own private access to the river below, by way of a staircase. The steps no longer exist, having been eroded over the millennia. Today, a terraced pathway runs the length of the arena, making it simple for visitors to explore the chronologically labeled caves.    

Historians believe that the caves were built from between 2nd century BCE to 5th century CE. As Buddhism retreated from this part of the world in the 5th century CE, the caves were gradually abandoned. The wild forest that was kept on the fringes now consumed the site and it was lost from memory. They were finally discovered in 1819 by a British cavalry officer, John Smith, who was leading a hunting party in this area, and were quickly accredited as the apogee of Indian Classical art.

It is believed that a total of 30 caves were hewn out of the rock face. Although period of construction is the accepted basis of categorization, functionality also divides the caves into two broad groups. According to the latter, five caves (9, 10, 19, 26 and 29) are chaityagrihas (prayer hall) and the rest are viharas (monastery). Out of these, chaityas 9 and 10, and viharas 8, 12 and 13 belong to the Hinayana phase. The most significant trait of this phase was symbolism, where the Buddha was manifested in the form of a stupa. Despite efforts at preservation, many of the original wall paintings in these caves have not survived. Only some vestiges remain in caves 9 and 10.

The second period of construction was during the Vakataka era. The Vakataka dynasty and their feudatories frequently dedicated or gifted the caves to the monks. This was the busiest period when several caves were constructed and the flourishing complex was mentioned in the writings of Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang. Caves from this era are markedly different in their clear departure from the Hinayana tradition of symbolic depiction. The Buddha statue in all its glorious mudras is ubiquitous in the caves, as are the many scenes from the Jataka, which are painted ‘dry fresco’ on the walls.

Things to See and Do
Although the terraced pathway takes you past all the caves, there are some that demand more than a cursory perambulation. Cave 1, a vihara, is one of the largest caves and also one of the most handsomely ornamented. The ground plan is typical, comprising a large hall, inner sanctum with an antechamber and residential cells. The Buddha statue in the sanctum is in the vyakhyana mudra (gesture of explanation) with bodhisattvas (the Buddha in his previous lives) on either side.

Cave 2, also a vihara, is similar to Cave 1, with the addition of two sub-shrines as well as chapels. The doorframes and pillars are elaborately carved and the ceiling is extensively painted.

Cave 4 is the vihara that was left unfinished, but still attracts visitors for its sheer grandeur. It houses a massive Buddha statue in the sanctum.

Cave 9, the oldest chaityagriha has a nave, an apse and aisles, which are divided from the main area by a colonnade of twenty three pillars. In the centre stands a globular stupa balanced upon a cylindrical base. There are paintings on the pillars and the ceiling, depicting the Buddha.

Caves 16 and 17 are renowned for the most number of tales from the Jataka painted on the walls, while Cave 26 is magnificent owing to its massive representation of the Buddha in the parinirvana mudra (gesture of salvation) and the outstanding statuary that covers every inch of the walls and ceiling.

Although constantly outshined by its counterpart Ajanta, Ellora still holds a certain appeal to the discerning traveller, as it is one of the largest rock-hewn monastic-temple complexes in the world. Located 30 odd kms away from Aurangabad, the caves of Ellora were carved out of the step-like formation of volcanic deposits in the Western Ghats. There are 12 Buddhist viharas, 16 Hindu and five Jain temples in Ellora. However, the most astonishing of the lot is Cave 16, renowned as the Kailash Temple – a giant monolithic excavation.

Things to See and Do
If Ajanta exudes a still, unassailable peace, the Kailash Temple is a celebration of thunderous power, often associated with Lord Shiva. An 8th-century structure, created under the patronage of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, the temple was conceived as the mountain home of Shiva and his consort, Parvati. Kailash is a free-standing monolith carved from the top down, brought into being from inanimate mountain rock.

The temple stands tall in a huge court, guarded by two elephants and two ensign staffs. The base plinth is carved with statues of elephants, lions, tigers, Sphinx-like beasts, and dragons with bulging eyes who bear the temple on their backs like a chariot. Sculptures of goddess Lakshmi and two dwarpals (doorkeepers) oversee the entrance. The surrounding two-tiered galleries swarm with 10-foot-high reliefs of the gods.

 The Buddhist Caves (1-12), at the southern end, are the oldest, dating back to 500-750 CE. The Hindu Caves (14-29) date between 600 and 870 CE and the Jain Caves (30-34) are further north of the escarpment and can be traced back to 800 CE and late 10th century CE. 

Where to stay and eat
In Ajanta
The MTDC Holiday Resort (Tel: 02438-244230; Tariff: INR 1,600-1,900) is on Fardapur-Jalgaon Road, 5 km from the caves. Ajanta T Junction Resort (Cell: 08879222035; Tariff: INR 2,400) is another MTDC property close by. Though it is wiser to eat at your hotel, you can try Foodwallah near the bus stand or Vihara Restaurant near Holiday Resort, Fardapur.

In Ellora
Hotel Kailas (Tel: 02437-244446, 244543; Tariff: INR 1,800-3,500) is the only good hotel in Ellora, so book early.
MTDC’s FoodWallahs has moderately priced dishes, thalis and cold beer. Heritage Restaurant at Hotel Kailas serves Indian and Chinese dishes.

Aurangabad (28 km from Ellora)
If you cannot do without your creature comforts, consider staying at Aurangabad. Among top-end options here are Vivanta by Taj (Tel: 0240-6613737; Tariff: INR 8,500-30,000; www.vivantabytaj.com), near Rangeen Darwaza, The Ambassador Ajanta (Tel: 2485211, 6607200; Tariff: INR 8,500-30,000; www.ambassadorindia.com) near the airport and Lemon Tree Hotel (Tel: 6603030; Tariff: INR 7,200-15,000; www.lemontreehotels.com). MTDC Holiday Resort (Tel: 2331513; Tariff: INR 1,560-1,850) is a decent budget option.

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