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The Ajanta Caves—over 30 rock-cut ancient cave monuments located in India believed to date from the 2nd century BCE—constitute ancient monasteries and worship halls of different Buddhist traditions carved into a 250 feet wall of rock.
Located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra in India are over 30 rock-cut ancient cave monuments which are believed to date from the 2nd century BCE.
The magnificent caves include paintings and rock cut sculptures described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art, particularly expressive paintings that present emotion through gesture, pose and form, constituting ancient monasteries and worship halls of different Buddhist traditions carved into a 250 feet wall of rock.
As many other great discoveries, the caves were discovered by chance.
In this article, we go through 10 fascinating facts about the magnificent rock-cut caves.
The ancient caves remained isolated from the world, covered in deep jungles. In 1819, when an officer with the Madras Regiment of the British Army John Smith was in pursuit of a tiger across the jungle just outside of Mumbai he made the discovery. While tracking the tiger, he stumbled upon a mysterious cave with a hidden entrance in the brush. What was believed to be just one cave, turned out to be over 30 massive caves carved into the bedrock in the distant past, beautifully decorated by mysterious builders. (Source: Richard Cohen (2006). Beyond Enlightenment: Buddhism, Religion, Modernity. Routledge. pp. 77–78.)
There are several authors who argue that the builders weren’t that mysterious at all. It is believed that Buddhist monks who spent a significant amount of time at the Ajanta caves during the monsoons as they were forbidden from traveling during that particular period of the year put their creativity and time to use and painted the walls of the caves creating ancient masterpieces. The Ajanta Caves are generally agreed to have been made in two distinct periods, the first belonging to the 2nd century BCE to 1st century CE, and the second period that followed several centuries later. (Source)
The Ajanta caves not only offer incredible paintings and sculptures, the ancient built huge Buddhist mounds like stupas built, massive pillars with intricately detailed carvings on the ceilings and walls.
Each of the Ajanta caves is unique and has an intricate and beautiful design covering its interior and entrances. The caves were excavated and decorated with extreme detail making them one of the most unique rock-cut caves on Earth.
Some experts and authors argue that the Ajanta Caves were not ordinary caves but were built as astronomical observatories and that they align with solstices and other cosmological events. Some researchers have proposed that the arrangement of the caves is not just random. A few dome-shaped caves contain Stupas with the Buddha carved in them, and some researchers suggest that they are arranged in such a way as to be in line with solstices. One, in particular, cave 19, is oriented to the winter solstice, and on that day the sun goes through the opening on the top front of the cave and illuminates the stupa in the back. Similarly, cave 26 is oriented to the summer solstice so that, on that particular day, the sun will illuminate the stupa in this cave. Precise calculations and tools would have been needed to be able to orient the caves to the solstices since the caves are carved into the rock. (Source)
Cave 19 and 26, align perfectly with the winter and summers solstices respectively. During the winter and summer solstices, the sunlight shines straight through an opening in their roof, which consequently illuminates their incredible designed interior. (Source)
Caves 16, 17, 1 and 2 of Ajanta form the largest corpus of surviving ancient Indian wall-painting. (Source)
The caves were carved out of flood basalt rock of a cliff, part of the Deccan Traps that formed by successive volcanic eruptions at the end of the Cretaceous geological period. (Source)
While an exact date for the construction of the caves hasn’t been agreed on, the Ajanta Caves are mentioned in the memoirs of several medieval era Chinese Buddhist travelers to India and by a Mughal era official of Akbar era in early 17th century. (Source)
The Ajanta Caves, along with the Ellora Caves, have become the most popular tourist destination in Maharashtra, and are often crowded at holiday times, increasing the threat to the caves, especially the paintings. (Source Richard Cohen)
According to experts, the cave excavation began by cutting a narrow tunnel at roof level, which was expanded downwards and outwards; as evidenced by some of the incomplete caves such as the partially-built vihara caves 21 through 24 and the abandoned incomplete cave 28. (source)