The Enigmatic Caves of Ajanta

by EditorT

A statue of the Buddha sits inside the sanctum sanctorum of one of the most visited caves at Ajanta (Photographed by Vengolis)

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In the remote Indian wilderness, miles from the small town of Ajanta, ancient man-made caves sit nearly 250 feet above a valley stream. It’s the type of wondrous destination Westerners would expect to see in an adventurous Indiana Jones movie.

Far from fictional, however, the mysterious Ajanta Caves are a sacred complex of temple halls, former Buddhist monasteries, and a large collection of devotional sculptures and murals. Aligned in a horseshoe row of 30 caves, their excavations occurred separately over centuries that span the Satvahana and Gupta periods in India from the second century B.C. to the sixth century A.D.

This sacred Buddhist site showcases the tremendous skill and craftsmanship utilized centuries and millennia ago. Walls and columns divide the spaces and provide support, while, in some of the caves, mock rafters and beams mimic wood construction for aesthetic purposes alone.

Innumerable sculpted figures of Buddhas and celestial beings can be found throughout the entire complex. In select caves, detailed murals cover the walls and even the ceiling. When these incredible spaces became habitable, monks retreated in the viharas (Buddhist monasteries), congregated in the chaitya-grihas (temple halls), and meditated in isolation at the feet of one of the many powerful sculptures of Buddha. Stone steps, now lost to time, once provided workers and monks with a way to access water from the stream below.

The “discovery” of the caves by an officer of the British army in 1819 quickly made them a popular destination for wealthy Victorian adventurers to brave the Indian jungles. Fast forward 200 years and the Ajanta Caves are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by multitudes of people from around the world. Electric lights now add an aesthetically dramatic effect to the caves. The once private and religious place has become a tourist destination for all who make the journey; living proof that all things are subject to impermanence and the mysterious dance of the sacred and mundane.

Epoch Times Photo

Intricately carved stone columns line this chaitya-griha (temple hall) leading to a stupa (mound-like structure containing relics), where monks meditated before the central sculpture of Buddha in Ajanta Cave 26. Incredibly, this stupa was purposefully aligned for the summer solstice. (Dey Sandip/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Epoch Times Photo

The Ajanta Caves are an ancient complex carved out of cliffs that stand high above a stream in a secluded valley in India. Buddhist monks traveled to the caves for a place to shelter during the rainy season and spend time in meditative retreat. (Somon/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Epoch Times Photo

Surreal lights illuminate a shrine for Buddha in Cave 17. The shrine has an ornately carved door frame with sections that depict floral designs, various Buddha figures, and other decorative elements. Murals and ornate columns are also features of Cave 17. (Vyacheslav Argenberg/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Epoch Times Photo

The incredible façade of Ajanta Cave 19 is thought to have been sculpted in the fourth to sixth centuries, as it features many elements common to Gupta architecture around that time. Myriad sculptures of the Buddha and other Buddhist imagery make it a sacred entrance to a place of great spiritual significance. (Rajiv Desikan/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Epoch Times Photo

Cave 1 at Ajanta wasn’t the first built, as the name may imply. The caves started centrally and worked out to the left and right. From the fifth century B.C., Cave 1 has been known for its murals of episodes in Buddha’s life and his previous existence as a Bodhisattva. The intricate columns are among the finest and most minutely detailed in the whole complex. (Vengolis/ CC BY-SA 4.0) )

Epoch Times Photo

A beautifully sculpted porch area of Ajanta Cave 15 served as a vihara, or Buddhist monastery, where monks would live and practice their faith in small cells. (Haneesh K.M./CC BY-SA 4.0)

Epoch Times Photo

A large sculpture of a lying Buddha lines the wall of Ajanta Cave 26. It’s said to represent Buddha at the moment of death prior to attaining Nirvana. Below are small sculpted figures mourning his death, while celestial beings rejoice from above. (Vengolis/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Epoch Times Photo

In addition to central stupas, the chaityas of Ajanta Caves feature sculpted figural details on the capitals of columns, as well as above the columns on the triforium in one of Ajanta’s grand halls. (Vengolis/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Epoch Times Photo

One of the most recent and largest caves at Ajanta is Cave 4. The unfinished hall contains 28 pillars in a square with a wide-open central space that sits below an unfinished ceiling. This cave was a gift of a person named Mathura and seems to have been excavated at a much later date. (Vengolis/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Epoch Times Photo

The Ajanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site enjoyed by people from around the world to be preserved for future generations. (Supadhyayk/ CC BY-SA 4.0)


Jeff Perkin

Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at




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