Aurangabad, the Central Maharashtra city said to be established by Mughal emperor Aurangazeb some four hundred years back, is known for many historical relics that bear testimony to the glorious Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim traditions of harmony and unity through the arts.
The Ajanata caves, lying hardly kilometers away from the city, are some such beauties of human creation that enrich our cultural heritage and continue to be the source of great interest and inspiration worldwide. The place is flocked by all sorts of tourists from all parts of the globe for the varied interests it holds for varied tastes.
Basically, the Ajanta caves are Buddhist cave monuments, roughly30 in number, built through a period of time starting as far back as 2nd century BC and continuing till about 500 AD. The caves contain many exquisite paintings and rock-cut sculptures that bring forth some of the finest specimens of Indian art, especially as expressed in the layers of emotions depicted in the pose and gesture of the creations.
According to UNESCO, which designates it as a World Heritage Site, these are masterpieces of Buddhist religious art that influenced the Indian art that followed. Caves 16, 17, 1 and 2 of Ajanta form the largest corpus of surviving ancient Indian wall-painting. These caves were covered by jungle until accidentally “discovered” and brought to Western attention in 1819 by a British officer Capt. John Smith on a tiger-hunting party. The caves are in the rocky northern wall of the U-shaped gorge of river Waghur. There are a number of waterfalls around the caves, which are audible during the monsoons, lending a romantic and mysterious touch to the atmosphere. The caves mainly served as a resting place for Buddhist monks, merchants and travelers in ancient India.
The caves were built during a time when both the Buddha and the Hindu gods were simultaneously worshipped and revered in India. According to many scholars, the royal Vakataka sponsors of the Ajanta Caves probably worshipped both Hindu and Buddhist gods. This is evidenced by inscriptions in which these rulers, who are otherwise known as Hindu devotees, made Buddhist dedications to the caves.
A terracotta plaque of Mahishasurmardini, also known as Durga, was also found in a burnt-brick vihara monastery facing the caves on the right bank of the Waghora river. This suggests that the deity was possibly under worship by the artisans.
The Ajanta caves are predominantly shrouded in darkness, as natural caves mostly are and should be. In fact, this lack of light or the play of light and shadow is crucial to the experience at Ajanta; it only intensifies the sense of the mysterious and heightens the enigmatic bearings of the paintings and sculptures. There may have been dim artificial lighting created by oil lamps in the past. But, even today, the majority of the caves remain almost completely dark. Luckily, without the help of artificial lighting, the caves remain in their original state and evoke the past in a more relatable way.
Though the caves can be visited all round the year, the summers are musty and sticky, which may not give the most pleasurable experience. However, every season lends its own colour and flavour to add to the beauty of the caves and winters and monsoons can be chosen for the richest of experience. Aurangaabd can be chosen as the base for the visit. The city has rail and air connectivity with Mumbai and several other cities and also has a range of hotels of all budgets to ensure a comfortable stay.