Ajanta Ellora (Buddhist Pilgrimages )
The Ajanta caves are around three dozen rock cut Buddhist monuments that were built between the 2nd century BCE and 650 CE. The caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since1983, and inside one can find Buddhist art depicting tales from the Jataka series, as well as other religious art. Ellora is an archeological site featuring similar rock cut structures, built between the 5th and the 10th centuries. It features Buddhist caves, as well as Hindu ones, and even a few Jain caves. The Buddhist caves were made around the 7th century, contrary to the long held belief that they were the first of all the three faiths’ structures found here. The Ellora caves were also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Ajanta caves.
The Ajanta Caves are located in Maharashtra, India, near Jalgaon, and approximately 102 km away from Aurangabad city. The caves have been cut into a cliff right on the edge of a gorge on the river Waghur. The Ellora Caves are located approximately 28 km away from Aurangabad city, and around 105 km away from the Ajanta Caves. The areas experience typical monsoon climate, and as a result, the months from March to June are the summer months, followed by heavy rainfall till September. The winters are extremely pleasant, starting in November and ending in February, and so this would be the best time to visit the sites. Even the hilly areas don’t experience any extreme cold weather.
The Ajanta caves are supposedly representative of monasteries, and were markedly segregated into sections for worship, education and living, with a typical emphasis on the educational front. Although there is some dispute over the precise of the later period, it is generally well established that the caves were built in two phases, several centuries apart. The first phase came to be during the Satavahana Dynasty, between the tentative period between 100 BCE and 100 CE. The focus of the art work inside these has been stupa based, as opposed to sculpted figures, and it has been widely speculated that a number of caves from this phase have been lost over time. The ones that have been excavated confirm the lack of intricate art and have given rise to the speculation of this phase being primarily centered around teaching, and the structures built at these times intended only to facilitate as much. After the first phase, it has been suggested that the resurgence of the popularity of Hinduism led to the site being abandoned for the next few centuries, which is what may have caused some caves to be lost. The second phase occurred under the patronage of the Vakataka Dynasty, in the 5th century. Around two dozen caves were constructed at this time, more specifically, between 460 and 480 CE, and some of the most intricate art work the Ajanta caves have to offer was done during this time. Excavation efforts were also made during this time, as well as the expansion of the previous sites. Shortly after this period, however, the site fell out of the favor of affluent patrons, and over the next few centuries the caves were abandoned altogether, eventually being engulfed once more by the forest all around them which grew in depth and buried them deeper in obscurity. After several centuries in this obscurity and its consequent neglect, the caves were rediscovered in 1819, accidentally, by a British officer of the 28th Cavalry, in the course of hunting tigers. Officer John Smith discovered the entrance to cave 10, and the century that followed saw many replications of the art work found inside these caves being commissioned to be shipped out to the Western world. In 1848, the Royal Asiatic Society initiated efforts to make the site more accessible by clearing out the rubble and debris that had accumulated over all the years of neglect.
The Buddhist structures at Ellora, like those at Ajanta, are those of monasteries, multi-storey, spacious ones with clearly marked off quarters for the kitchens, for living, sleeping, etc. Some of the twelve caves have shrines of the Buddha, saints, and bodhisattvas cut right into the mountain face. A lot of effort has been made to give the stone a wood like finish. The Hindu structures, which were built between the 6th and the 8th century, show clear evidence of various styles and influences in the course of constructions. It has been speculated that the designs and concepts of a few select structure was so complicated and intricate that it took several generations for the full model to be fully realized and then brought to reality. The Jain caves found at Ellora are from the ninth and tenth centuries respectively. There are five in total, and offer intriguing and precise dimensions of the Jain philosophy. Though the structures are modest in size, which is in keeping with the sense strict asceticism clearly emanating from them, they feature some profoundly detailed art work within them, in the form of shrines and sabhas.
Noteworthy Art Work:
All the caves that have been excavated well enough to be visited by tourists are worth visiting, with the most intricate and delicate art work from the most prominent phases of Buddhism. However, there are some caves that were left unfinished, or which have suffered too greatly under the pressures of age to still maintain their past glory, and at the same time, there are some caves which have survived this test of time better and hence provide a substantially more detailed insight into the skill and effort devoted to these caves.
Cave One: Cave One is widely believed to have been built in the later phase of the construction of these caves, and features some of the finest paintings depicting the Jataka tales, specifically those depicting the previous life of the Buddha as royalty. It is this fact which has led to the speculation that the Vakataka king Harishena funded the building art work of this cave. According to leading experts, this cave was never actually used for worship, since there is no evidence of the effects of butter lamps or garland hooks anywhere inside it, nor do any of the paintings bear evidence of the harm incurred by the structures as a byproduct of such practices. The cave originally featured a two pillared portico, which has, unfortunately, not survived the test of time, and is no longer there. There are, however, 19th century records and photographs providing pictures of past glory. The cave also features an exquisitely carved façade, whit sculptures on ridges and in other forms. There is a shrine carved out of living rock on the rear wall, featuring a seated Buddha.
Cave Two: Cave Two is structurally similar to the first, but not the same. It is supported by strong pillars featuring intricate design work. The paintings on the walls are depictive of the Jataka tales narrating the past lives of the Buddha as a bodhisattva. Human forms, semi divine ones and animalistic decorative themes dominate the art work found in this cave. Another theme which is highly relevant and evident is the depiction of women as noble and in positions of power. This fact has led to speculations of the art work originally being funded by a little known but affluent woman. At the time of completion, the cave was covered with art work on almost every visible surface except the floor. The condition of this art work, however, has deteriorated, in some cases to the extent of leaving only mere fragments of the original, and in others to being eroded substantially but not enough to the point of being indecipherable, partially owing to the age of the caves, the level of neglect suffered by them in the past, and human interference since rediscovery and possibly even before.
Cave Four, Nine, and Ten: Cave four was the largest monastery planned, but unfortunately the plan never saw completion. There is some noteworthy art work to be found here though, including the depiction of the Buddha in a teaching pose surrounded by bodhisattvas and supposedly, celestial nymphs. Caves Nine and Ten are originally from the first phase of construction and the second phase saw a renovation effort that also never reached completion. Cave Ten features some art work from the first phase, clear evidence of an unfinished effort from the second phase, and a very large number of smaller and diverse artistic efforts, clearly from many different artists, though nearly all depictions of the Buddha, in the spaces left available after the efforts of the two major construction phases.
interesting fact to note about the Ellora caves is that contrary to the fate of the Ajanta caves, the Ellora caves were never abandoned, or neglected for any substantial period of time. As a result, since they were continually frequented by patrons, all the caves collectively amount to a treasure trove of religious art. There are 12 Buddhist caves, the first twelve that one comes across at the site, followed by 17 Hindu caves, and lastly one finds 5 Jain caves. In this immense wealth of cultural and religious art, some examples are bound to stand out more than the others, but all are doubtlessly integral to the endeavor of understanding of these cultures.
Cave Ten: also known as the Vishwakarma, or the Carpenter’s Hut, this is one of the most exquisite examples of Buddhist art available to us today. At the far end of the hall of this cave sits a stone sculpture of the Buddha in the teaching position, the total height of the sculpture reaching approximately 3.30 m, with a huge carving of a Bodhi tree behind the figure of the Buddha. A flight of stairs leads one to the rock cut front court, with pillared porticos on either side. A vaulted roof covers the hall, and one can observe ribs that have been carved into it, to imitate wooden beams.
Cave Sixteen: also known as the Kailasa temple, this structure was built around the idea of Mount Kailasa, the abode of Lord Krishna. Although it gives the impression of a multi storey temple structure, it was, remarkable as it is, carved from a single rock. In its early splendor, the structure was covered in white plaster, to further the resemblance or depiction of the snow covered Mount Kailasa. A pyramidal structure, it houses profound structures of the bull Nandi, the Lingam, among other highly intricate and difficult art work featuring other deities and erotic male and female figures. It is speculated that this structure took a full century to be completed.
Cave Thirty Two: also goes by the name Indra Sabha. It is a double storey structure with a shrine in its court and an intricately carved lotus on its ceiling. It is possible that the structure got its name owing to the misinterpretation of the sculpture of Matanga, a yaksha, as the deity Indra.
Places of interest near Ajanta and Ellora:
Pitalkhora: located roughly 115 km away from the Ajanta caves and around 50 km away from the Ellora caves, Pitalkhora also features some Buddhist caves on the Satmala hills, which are believed to be from the 2nd and 1st century BCE.
Aurangabad: Aurangabad itself has a very rich history, and is the home of several noteworthy monuments such as Bibi ka Maqbara and the Daulatabad fort, among others. It is 28 km away from the Ellora caves site, and 102 km away from the Ajanta caves.
Nagpur: located approximately 490 km from the Ellora caves site and 450 km from the Ajanta caves, Nagpur is home to Deekshabhoomi, the monument devoted to Buddhism where B.R Ambedkar, along with 3,80,000 followers converted to Buddhism. The structure also features a stupa which draws its inspiration from the Sanchi stupa.
Airways : the closest airport is Aurangabad, at a distance of 37 km from the site of the Ellora caves, and approximately 100 km from the Ajanta. The Aurangabad airport is fairly well connected to the rest of the country and its major airports.
Railways : the closest railway station is located at Aurangabad, at a distance of roughly 30 km from the Ellora site and 102 from the Ajanta caves. However, while travelling to the Ajanta cave, the railway station at Jalgaon may prove to be a more prudent choice, being only 55 km away and fairly well connected to the Aurangabad station as well.
Roadways : there is a well connected network of decent roads which facilitates both interstate and intrastate travel with relative ease. There are major highways linking the sites to other major cities nearby, and buses are available at many places.