Ajanta Caves

Aurangabad (230 kilometers northeast of Mumbai) is a city of about 1.2 million people that serves as a convenient jumping off point for visiting Ajanta and Ellora Caves, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Named after Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the city of Aurangabad is speckled with beautiful and legendary monuments, a legacy of the Mughals, who reigned from here in 1653. From the marvellous Bibi-qa-Maqbara, a replica of the world-famous Taj Mahal, to the formidable Daulatabad Fort, Aurangabad is steeped in history that is evident in its glorious ancient structures.

In the late 17th century, Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughal emperors established the capital of the Mughal here so he could run his campaign to conquer the Deccan Plateau. His city had a wall with 53 gates. In recent years, Aurangabad has partaken in Maharashtra’s economic boom more as an industrial center than a technology center. Bajaj, India’s leading maker of motorcycles and motor scooters, has a large factory here.

Aurangabad has typical chaotic old town areas flanked by middle class neighborhoods with health clubs and cafes. Sites worth visiting city include the 12 Aurangbad Caves, which date to between the A.D. 3rd and 11th centuries; Bibi Ka Maqbara, a mausoleum built in 1660 that looks like a miniature Taj Mahal; and Panchakki, a historic water mill which uses an underground water supply to turn large grinding stones. The History Museum of Marathwada University contains exhibits of materials from the Satavahana dynasty.

Getting There: By Air: Aurangabad is well-connected to all the major cities like Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai and Udaipur. By Road: Aurangabad is well-connected by rail to all major cities in the country. By Train: Aurangabad is connected with good roads to major cities in the country.

Shopping in Aurangabad

A wide range of regional handicrafts makes Aurangabad a shopper’s haven. One can buy unique styles and crafts like Himroo shawls that have an extra layer of loose silk weft, which makes them so soft that they almost feel like silk. Some popular Himroo items that you can buy are shawls, pillowcases, jackets, bed sheets, coats and curtains. A Paithani sari is a treat if you're in Aurangabad. A luxurious weave, it has the distinction of looking exactly the same on both sides, including the border and the pallu.

The time taken to create a sari is about a month or two and involves careful coordination of hand, foot and eye. While one color thread is used length-wise, another color is used width-wise. This step enables the sari to reflect light off it and display a beautiful color play. In fact, it appears as it the sari is almost changing its color. A unique handmade paper that is manufactured in the village of Kaghzipura is also a must-buy. This art of paper-making is said to be about 700 years old, dating back to the times of Muhammad Tughalaq, the Sultan of Delhi. Another attraction is bidriware and one can buy many articles like plates, bowls, vases, ashtrays, jewelry etc., which are made with gold and silver thread inlaid in copper.

The locals have patronised the Himroo factory for about a century and a half and visit to this regional landmark will certainly make it obvious why that is so. Himroo is traditionally a weaving technique indigenous to Persia. Now, the Himroo Factory showroom is one of the best places in the city for blouses, coats, cloaks, Paithani saris, handloom shawls, bedcovers and furnishings created in the indigenous style.

Bibi Ka Maqbara

Bibi Ka Maqbara (three kilometers north of Aurangabad) is the burial place of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s wife, Dilras Banu Begum (popularly known as Bibi). She was given the title of Rabia-ud-Durrani (“Modern Day” Rabia). The title refers to the memory of Rabia Basra, who was an Iraqi aristocratic woman, well known for her generosity and kind-heartedness.

Bibi Ka Maqbara was built by Aurangzeb’s son, Azam Shah, in 1678. Made in the memory of his mother, the monument is very similar in design to the iconic Taj Mahal, and is popularly known as the Taj of the Deccan. It is one of the few grandiose Mughal monuments in the Deccan because of Aurangzeb’s long-term association, as the governor, with the region. The chief architect of this monument was Ustad-Ata-Ullah, a Persian. Such was its renown that it has been mentioned in the work of French travel writer, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, who gives a lot of details about the initial stages of its construction. According to inscriptions, the cost of the construction of this grand monument was INR 665,283.

The mausoleum is flanked by spacious Mughal gardens with axial ponds, fountains, water channels, broad pathways and pavilions. The gardens at Bibi ka Maqbara are designed in the Char-Bagh pattern, the signature style of most Mughal gardens. These are gardens with a four-fold plot that have a large enclosure with essentially four geometric gardens in it. The monument has four minarets, about 72 feet high, and the raised plinth is surrounded by an octagonal lattice-screen of white marble. The tomb itself is surrounded by octagonal screens of marble lattice work. There are a lot of marble plates and screens that adorn the mausoleum and have repeated patterns of lotus medallions, rosettes and floral patterns.

Aurangabad Caves

Aurangabad Caves (just north of Bibi Ka Maqbara, four kilometers north of Aurangabad) is a set of 12 Buddhist caves dating from the 3rd century. Almost hidden between lush hills, they were not found by Westerners until the mid 19th century.From these are rock-cut caves are spectacular views of the city of Aurangabad and Bibi ka Maqbara.

Caves 3 and 7 are said to be the most interesting. Caves1 and 3 belong to the later Mahayana period. In terms of the floor plan, the pillar layout and the detailing are similar to Caves 21 and 24 at Ajanta. The western group consists of Caves 1 to 5, while the eastern group consists of Caves 6 to 10. Cave 4 is a chaitya, which is the only one of its kind to have been excavated during the later Satavahana period. Cave 6 is inscribed with figures of decked up women. The idols are in a good state and give the visitor a great idea of the aesthetic of the period. The cave also contains a Buddha idol and a Ganesha idol. Female sculptures of bejewelled women abound in Cave 7 and the style indicates a growing influence of Tantric Buddhism.

. Most of these caves are viharas, residential cells, with some having clear Tantric influences in the architecture and iconography. James Bird was the first one to give an account of Aurangabad Caves, in 1847, in his Historical Researches. Later, John Wilson and James Burgess gave detailed accounts of the caves as important historical monuments.

Soneri Mahal (in the hills of thay house Aurangabad Caves) is a palace by a Bundelkhand chief, who accompanied Mughal emperor Aurangzeb into the Deccan region. It was built between 1651 and 1653 and converted into a museum in 1979. Prominent exhibits include remnants from regional palaces, antiques, coins, ancient pottery, paintings, reliefs and sculptures found during local excavations.

Daulatabad Fort

Daulatabad Fort (14 kilometers from Aurangabad) is a remarkable structure built in 1187 with a deep moat and spiral passageway carved out of solid rock. Towering over the landscape on a 200-meter-high conical hill and spread over 95 hectare, the fort is the epitome of Deccan perseverance and strategic ingenuity. In its heydays, the fort was considered impenetrable, owing to a complicated series of defences around and inside it.

Mahakot, or the four distinct walls with 54 bastions surround the fort for a length of nearly 5 kilometers. The walls are about 6 to 9 feet thick and 18 to 27 feet high. Ammunition depots and granaries housed inside in the premises add to the thrill of exploring this historical stronghold. Another interesting feature is Hathi Haud, a gigantic water tank with a capacity of about 10,000 cubic meters. Today, the huge crater leaves one in awe of its size. You can also visit the Chand Minar, which stands at a height of 30 feet. The Tughlaq era royal bath, an elite structure, is a must-visit. It has massage chambers, provisions for hot baths and steam baths for which water was supplied through well-laid tanks, channels, pipes, ventilators etc.

Travelers should notice the remains of the moat, the fortified walls, the step wells, the court building, a unique temple dedicated to Bharat Mata, a hall of public audience, water cisterns and a rock-cut passage. A lower city complex consisting of main routes and by-lanes was also revealed through recent excavation.

Situated on the Aurangabad to Ellora road, the fort was built by king Bhillama V, a Yadava ruler, in 1187. The city was then known as Deogiri, or the abode of Gods. The grandiose fort was desired by a number of influential rulers throughout history because of its strategic importance. Muhammad Tughlaq, the ruler of Delhi, was so impressed by the fortress that he decided to move his court and capital there, renaming it Daulatabad, the city of wealth. The whole population of Delhi moved here en masse. Later, it passed on from the Bahmani rulers under Hasan Gangu to the Nizam Shahis of Ahmednagar. Even after this, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb laid a siege of four months before finally being able to capture it. It was then snatched away by the Marathas before being taken over by the Nizams of Hyderabad in 1724.

Near Aurangabad

Lonar Crater (near the town of Lonar, 100 kilometers east of Aurangabad) is among the five largest crater lakes in the world, and is about 2 kilometers wide and 150 meters deep. Formed nearly 50,000 years ago, the crater is oval in shape and the only natural impact crater in the world in basalt rock. Geologists believe that it was formed by the impact of a meteorite that weighed more than a million tons to have created such an impact.

The fallen debris from the time of the impact is still present around the rim of the crater. This is called the ejecta blanket and ranges over a kilometer. The lake within the crater is both saline and alkaline but the water becomes more and more alkaline as one goes towards the center. Low hills covered in forests surround the water body. Tourists can enjoy sighting several wildlife species like the peafowl, chinkara and gazelles in this area. The lake also hosts a number of migratory birds in the winters. The distinctive and vibrant color of the water is also due to the presence of algae and plankton species in the water . Moreover, the presence of certain minerals like microbreccias and glass spherules has lead scientists to draw parallels between the crater formation and geology of the moon.

Shani Shingnapur (75 kilometers southwest of Aurangabad) is a village that hosts a unique religious experience. The presiding deity of the village is Sri Shaneshwara or Lord Shanidev, said to be the personification of planet Saturn. Interestingly, the idol, which is said to be self-manifested, is placed on a simple platform rather than an elaborate temple and devotees can perform the religious rituals themselves. Days dedicated to the god like Saturdays and Amavasyas (no moon) are celebrated with special pomp. The god is believed to be the arbiter of bad luck and hence his worship is a way of appeasing him so that his influence does not bring bad luck to the worshippers. Another interesting fact about this village is that the villagers’ belief in Lord Shani is so strong that they do not have door frames or locks. They believe that no crime can occur here when the lord is their guardian. Even shops are left unlocked.

Gandhi Teerth (in Jain Hills, Jalgaon, 150 kilometers north of Aurangabad) is a 65,000 square feet complex that comprises research centers and museums centerd on the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Flanked by a mango orchard and many serene walkways, the complex has been beautifully landscaped. The sprawling gardens are spread across 300 acre and offer a great escape from the hustle-bustle of the city. Guests can also find rooms at a residential complex within the premise. The institution is home to a thematic, state-of-the-art ‘Gandhi ji ki Khoj’ museum. It includes various interactive multimedia presentations for visitors who can gain a lot of insight into the Indian Independence struggle as well as information about the philosophical beliefs and life of the Father of the Nation. The Gandhi Teerth is also home to the GIRI, or the Gandhi International Research Institute. This is the academic arm of the institute, which is responsible for awarding degrees, certificates and facilitating world-class research in Gandhi studies. Gandhi Teerth, Jain Hills, Shirsoli Rd, Jalgaon, Maharashtra 425001, India, WHV4+V3 Jalgaon, Maharashtra, India,

Paithan Sari Weaving Town

Paithan (40 kilometers south of Aurangabad) has played host to a number of important dynasties, movements and aesthetic cultures. It is also the birthplace of Sri Nimbarka, the founder of the Nimbarka Sampradaya tradition of Vaishnavism. The city was also home to Sant Eknath Maharaj, whose samadhi is located here. Devotees flock to the city during the Paithan Yatra, also known as Nath Shashthi. Paithan is important as a Digambar Jain Atishay Kshetra. A beautiful black-colored sand idol of the 20th Jain Tirthankar, Bhagwan Munisuvratnath, is installed in a temple here.

Paithan, Maharashtra (19.4800° N, 75.3800° E) is one of the Saree Weaving Clusters of India that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Paithanis comprise pure gold threads and yarns of silk spun in the 2000-year old traditional method. This form of weaving was developed in Paithan (Aurangabad district), historically called Pratishthana. The city was the capital of the Satavahanas of ancient India that ruled from 2nd century B.C. to A.D. 2nd century. Paithan, at one time, was visited by Greek traders, between 400 and 200 B.C., during the Satavahana era, for the Paithani weaves. In the distant past, Romans imported this Golden Woven Fabric in exchange for gold of equal weight. The weaver’s houses have the largest room dedicated for weaving. In this the weavers work side by side to produce a sari. The open spaces also witness some spill over of the weaving practices. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

Yeola Sari Weaving Town

Yeola, Maharashtra (100 kilometers west of Aurangabad, 20.0420° N, 74.4890° E) is one of the Saree Weaving Clusters of India that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “This art form soon spread to the other places in Maharashtra namely Yeola, Pune, Malegaon and Nashik. One can even see motifs from Ajanta cave paintings. The art of Paithani survived under changing rulers. In fact it flourished under Aurangzeb. After decline of Mughal influence, the Peshwas' of Pune once again took Paithani under their wings by settling weavers in Yeola, a small town near Shirdi in Nasik district, now with approximately 1200 weavers. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“Craftsmanship means more than technical virtuosity. It is not only a profound understanding of materials, and of the tools with which materials are fashioned, but most importantly it involves a genuine pride which drives an individual to craft and weave as well as can be done, beyond what is required, beyond economic considerations of reward. An excellent example of such craftsmanship is sari weaving in India. The sari is undoubtedly distinguishable as the Indian woman’s traditional attire and is essentially a valuable Indian contribution to the world’s cultural heritage and diversity. Rooted in history and maintaining continuity as a contemporary garment, the sari survives as a living traditional clothing. Traced to the Vedic civilization, evolving with cross-cultural influences of trade, confluences of techniques and patterns, the sari still has innovations in its production processes. As an unstitched garment for women, it has no parallels in terms of versatility, richness of color, texture, and variety of weaving techniques using different kinds of yarn, including cotton, silk, gold and silver thread.

“However, the craftsmanship is not only limited to the final product i.e. the sari but also in the space in which they are produced. The houses of craftsmen are example of vernacular architecture, where the architecture has evolved over a large span of time. The Plan of a weaver’s house developed from the livelihood needs of the inhabitants. Built from local materials and available technology, they aptly cater to the needs of the craftsmen. This pan-India serial comprises of sites from five Indian states: Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. It focuses on the tangible elements of sari weaving clusters irrespective of the popularity of the sari.”


Jalna (40 kilometers east of Aurangabad) is a popular spiritual site that invites people across faiths to visit various shrines and temples here. It is said to be the birthplace of Sant Ramdas Swami, who, according to Hindu mythology, shares his birth timing with Lord Rama. During Nav Navami, a festival is organised here that draws visitors from all over the region. Jalna is situated on the banks of River Kundalika. A fort and a citadel standing to the east are particular highlights. The citadel, today, is home to a number of municipal offices and the fort is also worth a visit. It is quadrangular in shape and has semi-circular bastions at the corners.

Guru Ganesh Tapodham (in Jalna) is a prominent pilgrimage place for Jains. It is also known as Karnatak Kesari. The Jain Trust Shri Vardhaman Sthankwasi Jain Shravak Sangh, is responsible for the running of Tapodham. It also runs several other institutions like a school, library and gaushala. The gaushala is one of the largest in the Marathwada region. An annual fair held here, attracts a large number of tourists and devotees from across the country.

Sri Ganesha Temple (25 kilometers from Jalna) is noted for its celebrations during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Another attraction is Anandi Swami Temple, built by Mahadji Shinde, a Maratha warrior. It is believed to be about 250 years old and hosts a grand annual fair on the eve of Ashadi Ekadashi. Matsyodari Devi Temple (20 kilometers from Jalna) is situated on a hill that resembles a matsya or a fish, lies 21 kilometers from the city of Jalna. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Matsyadevi, and both the name of the goddess and the city have been derived from the aforementioned hill. Believed to be one of the oldest temples in the region, the Matsyodari Devi Temple hosts a popular fair held every Navratra (a nine-day holy festival) around October. Local legend believes that the town of Ambad was founded by Rishi Ambad, who was at some time a Hindu king who ran away from his governance responsibilities and hid in one of the caves in this hill to relinquish this world of attachments.

Jamb Samartha Temple (40 kilometers south of Jalna) was built in memory of Sant Ramdas, the younger son of Suryajipant Thosar Kulkarni and Ranubai. It is widely believed that he was born at the exact time of the birth of Lord Rama. His actual name was Narayan. Every Ram Navami, a popular annual fair is held at the Rama temple situated in Sant Ramdas Swami’s home. The temple was built by the donation received from Mother Queen Holkar of Indore in the memory and honour of Shri Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar. There are boarding facilities available for those who want to have an immersive experience. It is said that Sant Ramdas Swami was born at Jamb Samartha, which is situated in the Ghansavangi tahsil of Jalna district.

Ellora Caves

Ellora (two kilometers east of the town of Ellora,32 kilometers northwest of Aurangabad) is a sickle-shaped hill known for its temples and monasteries and natural caves enlarged with chisels and hammers. Created between A.D. 550 and 1000, Ellora is considered one of the finest examples of rock-cut architecture. Unlike Ajanta, the carvings here are unconventional, freely departing from austerity of early Indian art. There are clear indications of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain influences. Of the 34 caves, 12 are Buddhist, 17 Hindu and 5 Jain, and date back to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, about 1,500 years ago. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and are now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

According to UNESCO: “The Ellora Caves not only bear witness to three great religions (Buddhism, Brahminism and Jainism) but they also illustrate the spirit of tolerance, characteristic of ancient India, which permitted these three religions to establish their sanctuaries and their communities in a single place, which thus served to reinforce its universal value. The caves, with their uninterrupted sequence of from 600 to 1,000 monuments, bring to life again the civilization of ancient India. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

“There are 34 caves (13 Buddhist, 16 Hindu and 5 Jain caves). They come in two types viharas (monasteries) and chaityas (halls of worship) and appear to have been made from the top down by monks who cut away the basalt and chiseled out entrances, columns and chambers and then created sculptures on the walls and ceiling. Some contain friezes. The caves face west. which means that visiting them in the afternoon offers the best light.

“These 34 monasteries and temples, extending over more than 2 kilometers, were dug side by side in the wall of a high basalt cliff... brings the civilization of ancient India to life. Not only is the Ellora complex a unique artistic creation and a technological exploit but, with its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India. This rupestral ensemble constitute one of the most beautiful expressions of the art of the Indian Middle Ages; they are noteworthy as three major Indian religions have laid joint claim to the caves peacefully since they were created. These breathtaking caves are definitely worth visiting for their remarkable reliefs, sculptures and architecture. It is not, like that of Ajanta, the expression of a single belief; rather it is the product of the three principal religions of ancient India.

“Progressing from south to north along the cliff, one discovers successively the twelve caves of the Buddhist group, which appear to be the oldest (between c. 600 and 800) and comprise monasteries and a single large temple (cave 10); then the caves of the Brahmin group (c. 600 to 900) which are no doubt the best known of Ellora with the 'Cavern of the Ten Avatars' (cave 15) and especially the Kailasha Temple (cave 16), an enormous complex, most likely undertaken during the reign of Krishna I (757-83); and, finally, the Jain group (caves 30-34) whose sanctuaries were created by the sect of the Digambara towards 800-1000, The Jain caves, the last to be excavated, drew their inspiration from the art already existing at Ellora: cave 32 recalls by certain of its dispositions the Kailasha Temple.”

Buddhist Caves and Jain Caves at Ellora

Carved between the 6th and 7th century, the Buddhist caves are mostly viharas or monasteries. Some of these include shrines carved with images of Lord Buddha and bodhisattvas. Cave 5 is considered the most important. It consists of a long hall with two benches longer than 18 meters in the center. This cave was probably where group recitations of Buddhist sutras took place. The intricately carved Cave 10, popularly known as Vishvakarma (the architect of gods), contains a huge Buddha image in front of the stupa. It also features a rock-cut balcony. Caves 11 and 12, are known as Don Taal and Teen Taal respectively, and are quite striking. They are three-storeyed and beautifully showcase esoteric monastic Buddhist architecture.

According to UNESCO: The Buddhist Caves were excavated between the 5th and the 7th centuries, when the Mahayana sects were flourishing in the region; among these cave 5 is the largest. Cave 10 is a chaitya hall and is popularly known as 'Visvakarma'. It has a highly ornamental facade provided with a gallery and in the chaitya hall there is a beautiful image of Buddha set on a stupa. The historical value of cave 12 or Tin Tala lies in the fact that human hands built a three-storeyed building from rock with such painstaking skill that even the floors and the ceiling are smooth and levelled. Tin Tala cave is a monastery-cum-chapel, with cells. It dates to the Rashtrakuta period in the mid-8th century.” [Source: UNESCO]

The Jain Caves number 30 to 34. Cave 32 or the Indra Sabha, though unfinished, is the most spectacular here. The upper storey of the cave is one of the largest and the most elaborate with beautiful pillars, large sculptural panels and paintings on its ceiling. Among all the Ellora caves, the Jain caves have the largest number of wall paintings on extant ceilings.

Hindu Caves at Ellorca

Excavated during the rule of the Kalachuri, Chalukya and Rashtrakuta rulers, the Hindu caves are home to numerous noteworthy sculptures and contain traces of plaster suggesting that the sculptures were painted. Cave 16, known as the Kailasa, is the piece de resistance. A monolithic rock-cut structure, it looks like a multi-storeyed temple complex. The spectacular courtyard houses two life-size elephant statues as well as two victory pillars. The side walls are decorated with sculpted panels. Prominent caves include 14, 15, 16, 21 and 29. Cave 14 contains sculptural panels adorned with Hindu deities. Cave 21, or the Rameshwar cave, is adorned with images of Ganga and Yamuna. Cave 29, locally famous as Sita ki Nahani, is unique in elevation and plan which resembles the great cave at Elephanta. It has a number of impressive statues as well.

The process of making these beautiful articles is a complicated one and the elementary material used in an alloy of zinc and copper in the ratio 16:1. Then, artistic patterns are etched on this alloy. The process involves eight stages. First, moulding is done, which is followed by smoothing with a file.

Chiselling and engraving are done thereafter. The most amazing step is the inlaying of silver, which is followed by smoothing, buffing and then oxidising the product by ammonium chloride and soil. The chemicals in this soil are believed to give a lustrous black color to the products. The main articles that you can buy here include vases, goblets, candle holders, jewelry boxes, wine decanters and hookahs.

Kailasa Temple at Ellora

Kailasa (Cave 16) is regarded as the finest cave at Ellorca. A monolithic rock-cut structure, it looks like a multi-storeyed temple complex. According to UNESCO: The Kailasa temple at Ellora is one the world's largest monoliths. Some 85,000 cubic meters of solid rock was scooped out by hand to create a gateway, pavilion, courtyard, assembly hall, vestibule, sanctum and tower. The creators of Kailasa ingeniously used the mountain itself to make the effigy of a divine mountain. A mountain-carved-out-of-mountain, Kailasa was constructed by first cutting a trench into the mountain to isolate a mass of rock 8 meters (26 feet) long, 47 meters (154 feet) wide, and 30.5 (100 feet) high.

There is a three-storied hostel for monks. Each room has a carved stone bed, with a stone pillow, and a niche for a reading lamp. Each floor has a room for an attendant and a rectangular space that served as a notice board. There is picnic spot next a waterfall. By working from the top of the mass down, the rock cutters avoided the need for scaffolding. The product of two hundred years of labor was a worthy replica of Shiva's Paradise, Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas."

The Brahmin caves are mostly Saivite. Kailasa (cave 16) is a remarkable example of rock-cut temples in India on account of its striking proportion; elaborate workmanship architectural content and sculptural ornamentation. It is said that cave 16 have been started by the Rashtrakuta king, Krishna I, and it is dedicated to Shiva and named after his mountain home in the Himalaya, the snow-peak Kailasa. The whole temple consists of a shrine with lingam at the rear of the hall with Dravidian sikhara, a flat-roofed mandapa supported by sixteen pillars, a separate porch for Nandi surrounded by an open court entered through a low gopura. The grand sculpture of Ravana attempting to lift Mount Kailasa, the abode of Siva, with his full might is a landmark in Indian art. The Jain Caves are massive, well-proportioned, decorated and mark the last phase of the activity at Ellora. [Source: UNESCO]

Pitalkhora Caves

Pithaaikhora Caves (75 kilometers north Aurangabad) are the oldest Buddhist Caves in India. Located on Chandora Hill, these 14 rock-cut Buddhist caves that back to the 2nd century B.C.. These basalt rock caves are among the earliest examples of rock-cut architecture in the country, and invite visitors from all over the region. While four of the caves are chaityas or prayer halls, the rest are viharas or residential cells.

All the caves are from the Hinayana period, and boast paintings that belong to the Mahayana period (6th century). One crosses a beautiful waterfall, right next to the caves, to reach the complex with unique statues of Yaksha figures, soldiers, elephants, a deteriorated Gaja Lakshmi icon and an ancient rain harvesting system of rain water. Cave 3 is believed to be the main chaitya, in which original complete pillars are decorated with painting fragments in the Ajanta style. There are a number of beautiful images of Lord Buddha in a seated and a standing pose.

The cave viharas have been constructed following the traditional plan with a hall in the center and small residential cells along three walls. Cave 4 is an exquisitely carved vihara, adorned with pillars and lattice windows. The elaborate entrance, flanked by two dwarapalas (sentinels), draped in costumes reminiscent of Shaka influence, is especially beautiful. Water flowing through a channel behind the adjacent wall, is sprinkled through the five hoods of a carved cobra statue. Another impressive arrangement includes a series of nine elephants with an almost life-size horse in profile with a male figure - a ‘chauri’ bearer. Most of the sculptures found are part of the exhibition in the National Museum, New Delhi.

Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Caves Buddha from the AD 3rd to 4th centuries

Ajanta Caves (100 kilometers northeast of Ellora, 104 kilometers from Aurangabad and 52 kilometers from Jalgaon Railway Station) is a monastic site housing the richest collection of early Indian painting in a set of 32 man-made caves overlooking a wide horseshoe-shaped gorge. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1983, the caves features hundred of paintings and murals made between 200 B.C. and A.D. 650, which are considered to be some of the finest Indian painting and the most important Buddhist art in the world. The first phase of construction was in thr first century B.C. to the A.D. 2nd century; the second phase was produced in the A.D. the fifth and sixth centuries.

The caves are divided into two chronological phases, the early Buddhist caves (2nd century B.C. to A.D. 1st century) and the Mahayana caves (A.D. 5th century). Since Ajanta is located on the ancient trade route of Dakshinapatha, the early phase of Ajanta was funded mostly by traders. The second phase received patronage from the Vakatakas. Stories of these donors are inscribed and painted. The narrative murals about Lord Buddha, Avadana stories of Bodhisattva, Jataka stories and panels based on Mahayana themes from Vipulya Sutras are extremely interesting. The monasteries were in operation until 8th century but were lost and forgotten until 1819.

According to UNESCO: “The first Buddhist cave monuments at Ajanta date from the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. During the Gupta period (5th and 6th centuries A.D.), many more richly decorated caves were added to the original group. The paintings and sculptures of Ajanta, considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art, have had a considerable artistic influence. The style of Ajanta has exerted a considerable influence in India and elsewhere, extending, in particular, to Java. With its two groups of monuments corresponding to two important moments in Indian history, the Ajanta cave ensemble bears exceptional testimony to the evolution of Indian art, as well as to the determining role of the Buddhist community, intellectual and religious foyers, schools and reception centers in the India of the Gupta and their immediate successors." [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

The caves were formed through the erosive action of nearby rivers and enlarged with chisels and hammers by Buddhist monks into residences, temples and schools. Each cave is adorned with statuary. Many contain wall paintings that record episodes in Buddha's life and major Buddhist events. The paintings are mostly frescoes made on a layer of plaster rather than directly on the cave wall. The caves are also home to India's largest Buddha statue. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the caves every year. Some of the caves are open to visitors. Most are closed to help in their preservation.

The caves were rediscovered in 1819 by British soldiers hunting tigers in the area. Most people reach it from Aurangabad, a provincial city east of Mumbai. Its lies in an area of cotton fields, soil black and cattle with tinkling bells and horns painted in bright blues and reds, The caves are located in a gorge above the Waghora River.

Ajanta Caves Layout and Architecture

The rock-hewn caves at Ajanta are either chaityas (shrine), chapels or prayer halls, or viharas (monasteries) or residential cells. Caves 19, 26 and 29 are chaityas of the Mahayana period and all the other caves are viharas. Tom O’Neill wrote in National Geographic: “More than two dozen man-made caves perforate the sweep of a dark basaltic rock face, their facades unexpectedly grand with pillars and statuary, reminiscent of the sculpted tombs and temples in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. The lavishness of the Ajanta complex reflects its royal patronage; most of the cave temples were carved during the reign of a king named Harishena, who ruled a large swath of central India in the mid-fifth century A.D." [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, January 2008]

reconstruction of an Ajanta painting

According to UNESCO: “The caves are cut into the volcanic lava of the Deccan in the forest ravines of the Sahyadri Hills and are set in beautiful sylvan surroundings. These magnificent caves containing carvings that depict the life of Buddha, and their carvings and sculptures are considered to be the beginning of classical Indian art. The 29 caves were excavated beginning around 200 BC, but they were abandoned in AD 650 in favor of Ellora. Five of the caves were temples and 24 were monasteries, thought to have been occupied by some 200 monks and artisans. The Ajanta Caves were gradually forgotten until their 'rediscovery' by a British tiger-hunting party in 1819. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website ]

The Ajanta site comprises thirty caves cut into the side of a cliff which rises above a meander in the Waghora River. Today the caves are reached by a road which runs along a terrace mid-way up the cliff, but each cave was once linked by a stairway to the edge of the water. This is a Buddhist community, comprising five sanctuaries or Chaitya-grihas (caves 9, 10, 19, 26 and 29) and monastic complex sangharamas or viharas. A first group of caves was created in the 2nd century BC: the chaitya-grihas open into the rock wall by doorways surmounted by a horse-shoe shaped bay. The ground plan is a basilical one: piers separate the principal nave from the side aisles which join in the apsis to permit the ritual circumambulation behind the (commemorative monument). This rupestral architecture scrupulously reproduces the forms and elements visible in wooden constructions.

A second group of caves was created at a later date, the 5th and 6th centuries AD, during the Gupta and post-Gupta periods. These caves were excavated during the supremacy of the Vakatakas and Guptas. According to inscriptions, Varahadeva, the minister of the Vakataka king, Harishena (c. AD 475-500), dedicated Cave 16 to the Buddhist sangha while Cave 17 was the gift of the prince, a feudatory. An inscription records that the Buddha image in Cave 4 was the gift of some Abhayanandi who hailed from Mathura.

The earlier architectural formulas were re-employed but treated in an infinitely richer and more ample manner. The decoration attained, at this time, an unequalled splendour: the statuary is numerous (it was already permissible to represent Buddha as a human; these representations are found both on the facades and in the interior). Finally, the wall painting, profuse and sensitive, constitutes, no doubt, the most striking artistic achievement of Ajanta.

Under the impulse of the Gupta dynasty, Indian art in effect reached its apogee. The Ajanta Caves are generally decorated with painted or sculpted figures of supple form and classic balance with which the name of the dynasty has remained synonymous. The refined lightness of the decoration, the balance of the compositions, the marvellous beauty of the feminine figures place the paintings of Ajanta among the major achievements of the Gupta and post-Gupta style and confer on them the ranking of a masterpiece of universal pictorial art.

Ajanta Caves Paintings

Ajanta displays the Gandhara and Mathura schools of art from the Kushana period; the Sarnath school of art from the Gupta period; and the Amaravati school of art from the late Satavahana and Ikshvaku periods. Caves 9 and 10 are chaityas, which contain the earliest known remnants of paintings in India.

"Longing for Sexual Intercourse"

The paintings are mostly frescoes and murals made using a tempura technique on a layer of plaster rather than directly on the cave wall. The cave paintings were made by applying mud plaster in two coats on the rock walls. The first was used to fill in the pores of the rough rocks. The plaster for this layer was made of rice husks and other organic materials mixed with mud and covered by sieved gypsum. The second coat was lime plaster that could be painted on. The outlines of the paintings were made with red ocher and filled in with brown, deep red and black. The pigments came mostly from local minerals, many local volcanic rocks, with the exception of bright blues which came from lapiz lazuli from Afghanistan.

The painting at Ajanta Caves offer insight into the clothing, body ornamentation and court life of the period in which they were painted. Apsara are outfit with jewels, fine clothes and scarves and turbans in rich colors and details. Ajanta painters, according to National Geographic, excelled at depicting small details and capturing inner tranquility and outer beauty, one of the distinguishing features of the finest Indian art. It is clear, for example, when a king's hair was wet.

The paintings are also known for their fluid yet formal lines, sweeping brush strokes, and subtle color gradations. Later painting feature bold color washes and shadowing and color used to highlight facial expressions and create a sense of depth. Ajanta murals belong to a tradition that influenced temple art across India and Southeast Asia for the next thousand years.

Subjects of the Ajanta Caves Paintings

Many caves contain wall paintings that record episodes in Buddha's life and major Buddhist events. including his previous earthly experiences and the Jataka tales. In a vivid scene from one the Buddha's past lives, King Mahajanaka, having renounced his worldly goods, takes a ritual bath before donning the robe of a monk. Among the best works are a 1,500-year-old work showing a princess getting the bad news that her husband has renounced his crown to covert to Buddhism. The Bodhisattva Padmapani is an expressive work of a male figure with large, soulful eyes and lotus flower in one hand. In this superb portrait, Padmapani, the Bearer of the Lotus, is regarded as a depiction of an ideal spiritual state.

In a mural in Cave 10, fifty elephants are painted in different poses. Another mural depicts a famous parable of a monkey covering the eyes of a water buffalo. The buffalo is Buddha from a pervious life. He puts up with the monkeys antics. The monkey then does the same thing a normal buffalo and is trampled to death.

Tom O’Neill wrote in National Geographic: “Most of the figures inhabit crowded, intricately composed murals that tell stories, called jatakas, from the many past lives of the Buddha. Others depict incidents from the life of the historical Buddha, an Indian prince who lived a thousand years earlier. The paintings serve as illustrated classics, fifth-century style, meant to awaken devotion and heighten spiritual awareness through the act of seeing. For most visitors today, the tales are arcane. Yet the sensation of watching the images emerge from the dark in all their grace and beauty links then and now. A vision of paradise never grows old. [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, January 2008]

Ajanta Caves Painting Style

Tom O’Neill wrote in National Geographic: “Enchantment has many faces, but few compare with one painted 1,500 years ago on a cave wall in India. To see it, the eyes must first adjust to darkness. Soon it becomes impossible to turn away. The figure is of a bare-chested man; he wears a tall crown and holds a delicate lotus flower in one hand. His torso is curved as if swaying to music only he hears. His face is tranquility itself, eyes half-closed, lips pursed in a faint smile, his whole being absorbed in the sweetest dream possible. [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, January 2008 */*]

“This face has radiated serenity since the fifth century, when Buddhist monks inhabited a set of remarkable hand-cut cave temples built for them at Ajanta in central India. The name of the beatific figure is Bodhisattva Padmapani, a Buddhist deity who represents infinite compassion. Appearing near the entrance of one of the shrines, Padmapani stands as guardian, offering a vision of peace to all who enter. “The painting is a mirror," whispered my guide, Indian photographer and filmmaker Benoy Behl. “It shows us the divine part of ourselves." */*

“Developments in sacred imagery fed the artistic blossoming at Ajanta. This was the era when the figure of the Buddha achieved an idealized, perfected human form. At first, artists had relied on symbols—footprints, a tree, an empty throne—to represent the historical Buddha. But followers wanted a more personal focus for their devotion. The likeness invented on the Indian subcontinent in the first centuries A.D. That this flowering took place simultaneously within both religions is not surprising. The essential tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism arose from similar ideas, best described in the Upanishads, a set of Hindu treatises set down in India largely between the eighth and fourth centuries B.C." */*

exterior of Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Caves Paintings Preservation

Because of the decline of Buddhism in India the caves were left unattended for centuries. Bats occupied many of the caves. Their excrement and associated bacteria has damaged many paintings and caused other problems. Soot from fires and insects eating the animal and vegetable glues have also taken their toll. But in some ways neglect has helped preserve the paintings. If the caves were constantly used it is likely that many of the paintings would be more damaged than they are now.

The walls were restored in 1920 by an Italian team that applied shellac and varnish over the paintings. Later the varnish changed color. There are also concerns that the varnish prevents moisture from evaporating. Researchers are now trying to figure out the best way to remove the shellac. Recent efforts to clean the surfaces have improved their condition. Some paintings are currently being restored. The restoration work involves delicately applying solvents on the painting to remove soot form fires and bat guano. The work is painstakingly slow: one square meter takes several months. Some restoration work is being done with the help of loans from Japan.

On some levels it is hard for visitors to appreciate the beauty of the paintings, which were made with crude paints and tools. Many of the best paintings are off limits to tourists. The colors and scenes of others, according to National Geographic, often appears flat, drained of vitality. The Archeological Survey of India bans the use off artificial light, fearing damage to the paintings. In Some caves light bulbs have been replaced with optic fibers to reduce heat, Humidity from visitors is a problem. There has been some discussion of installing an air conditioning system.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website (, India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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