Over a 100km away from Aurangabad, past the arid topography and volcanic provinces of
the Deccan Plateau, lie the Ajanta Caves – remnants 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 mountain halls, today the complex is awash with pilgrims and tourists who come to witness the greatest example of Classical Buddhist art and architecture in the world.

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.

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.

Historians believe that the caves were built in the 2nd century BCE during the Hinayana era – the earliest phase of Buddhism. As Buddhism retreated from this part of the world in the 5th century CE, the caves were abandoned.

Intricate sculptures at the entrance to one of the caves in Ajanta
Intricate sculptures at the entrance to one of the caves in Ajanta
Courtesy MTDC

Things to See & Do
A terraced pathway runs the length of the arena, making it simple for visitors to explore the chronologically labeled caves. Although it takes you past all the caves, there are some that demand more than a cursory perambulation. Cave 1, a vihara (monastery), is one of the largest caves and also one of the most handsomely ornamented.

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. It is believed that the scene is a representation of the sermon at Sarnath.

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 (prayer hall), has an apsidal layout. It has a nave, an apse and aisles, which are divided from the main area by a colonnade of 23 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.

The historical value of the complex is unprecedented. However, time is gradually catching up and signs of wear are more evident that ever. Even so, the maginificent caves of Ajanta are an archaeological treasure.

Entry Indians ₹30; Foreigners ₹300 Torch ticket ₹15 Timings 9.00am– 5.30pm Closed Monday

The magnificent Kailash Temple, Ellora
The magnificent Kailash Temple, Ellora
Lasya Nadimpally

Although constantly outshone 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 about 30 odd kilometres 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.

Things to See & Do
An 8th-century structure, created under the patronage of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, the Kailash Temple was conceived as the mountain home of Shiva and his consort, Parvati.

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, which 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-ft-high, imposing sculptures of the gods.

There was an intense surge of activity in Ellora that began in the 6th century CE and continued for over 500 years. It is interesting to note that the initiation of these establishments in Ellora almost coincides with the abandonment of the Ajanta caves.

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. While the comparisons with Ajanta will never cease, Ellora is an architectural marvel in its own right. It is a conglomeration of the iconography of three different religions, and therein lies its uniqueness.

Entry Indians ₹30; Foreigners ₹300 Timings 7.00am–6pm Closed Tuesday

Where to Stay & Eat

In Ajanta
The MTDC Holiday Resort (Tel: 02438- 244230; Tariff: ₹1,200–2,105) is located 5km from the caves. The hotel has a restaurant with a bar. Ajanta T Junction Resort (Tel: 02438-244033; Tariff: ₹2,136) is another MTDC property that is located close by. Though it is wiser to eat at your hotel, you can try MTDC’s Kanhaiya Kunj situated near the bus stand or the Vihara Restaurant, a multi-cuisine restaurant located near MTDC Holiday Resort, Fardapur.

In Ellora
Hotel Kailas
(Tel: 02437-244446, 244543; Tariff: ₹2,000–3,500) is the only good hotel in Ellora. Travellers keen on visiting Ellora are advised to book their stay well in advance. MTDC’s Ellora Restaurant has moderately priced dishes, thalis and cold beer. Heritage Restaurant at Hotel Kailas serves Indian as well as Chinese dishes. The Milan Restaurant is an excellent snack stop. Ellora also has several roadside stalls that sell delicious bhajias.

Fast Facts

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 code Aurangabad 0240 Ajanta 02438 Ellora 02437

The magnificent Kailash Temple, Ellora

Getting There

Air Nearest airport: Chikalthana Airport, Aurangabad (Ajanta Caves 102km/ 3hrs; Ellora 28km/ 1hr). Taxis to Ajanta and Ellora charge ₹2,800 and ₹1,850 respectively

Rail Nearest station: Aurangabad

Road Bus Non-AC/AC sleeper, seater and Volvo buses ply daily from Mumbai to Aurangabad. Fare ₹500–1,200

Getting to Ajanta Take Jalgaon Road from Aurangabad to Fardapur. At Fardapur T-Junction, take an MTDC Green Bus (AC/ non-AC: ₹20/15)

Tip Autos, taxis and sedan chairs are permitted only up to Fardapur T-Junction

Getting to Ellora Taxis and buses available from Aurangabad to the MTDC Ellora Visitor Centre (EVC), 200m from the caves. Parking is available. No vehicle is permitted to go from the main gate to the caves. The MSRTC Green Bus transfers you for ₹10–20 (Non-AC/AC)