What are the Ajanta Caves?

Brendan McGuigan

The Ajanta Caves are a collection of caves adorned with religious art, found in India. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and have been since 1983. They are found in Maharashtra, not far from the village of Ajintha.

The Ajanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site in India.
The Ajanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site in India.

There are thirty Ajanta Caves in total, and each are identified by a number. Five of the caves served as prayer halls, or chitya grihas, while the rest were monasteries, or viharas. The caves were carved out of the rock by hand, beginning sometime in the 2nd century BCE and continuing through the 5th century. The caves are carved in a horseshoe shape around the Wagura river, with a walkway offering access to them all.

The Ajanta Caves are known for their paintings of various incarnations of Buddha.
The Ajanta Caves are known for their paintings of various incarnations of Buddha.

The Ajanta Caves are best known for their remarkable cave paintings, depicting many different stories from the Buddhist tradition. Many of the paintings illustrate Gotama Buddha, while others tell stories from the Buddha’s other incarnations, drawn from the Jatakas tales. The style of art is distinctly separated by the two eras when the caves were worked on. The earlier style, of the Hinayana period, dates from the 2nd century BCE, while the later art goes from about the 2nd century AD on through the 5th century.

These caves appear to have been abandoned sometime after the 6th century. They then lay dormant for many centuries, unknown to the world at large. In the early-19th century, a group of British soldiers hunting tigers spotted the entrance to a cave, and they went down to investigate, discovering the Ajanta Caves. The government was informed of their discovery, and archaeologists descended on the area. The caves have since been restored somewhat, and opened to the public.

There are a number of particularly notable sites within the Ajanta Caves, from both the Theravada period, in which overt images of Buddha were passed over in favor of symbolic images, and the Mahayana period, in which the Bodhisattvas, Buddha, Taras, and dwarapalas are all represented visually.

Cave 1 is the most famous monastery within the Ajanta Caves, with its incredibly ornate murals. The murals depict various Bodhisattvas, and scenes from the life of the Buddha. There is also a large statue of the Buddha in this cave, preaching. Cave 2 is also very popular, with the high point being an ornate mandala covering the ceiling and looking almost like a piece of hanging silk.

Cave 9 is one of the chitya grihas, or prayer halls, of the Ajanta Caves. It has beautiful windows in arches that let natural light filter in through the rock. This cave is minimally adorned, as it is one of the older caves, from the Theravada period. Cave 10, just next door, is another prayer hall, and although not as visually stimulating as Cave 9, this cave does have the distinction of being the oldest of the caves.

Caves 16 and 17 are excellent examples of the storytelling murals of the Mahayana period. They show various stories of Buddha and of Buddhists who came after him. Intricate carvings and details cover every inch of these caves, include the entryways.

Cave 26 is a chitya grihas from the Mahayana period, with an enormous carving of the Reclining Buddha as he is dying. He is surrounded by mourners, and above him are rejoicing deities.

The Ajanta Caves are easily accessible, and although there is a great deal to see, most people find that a half day is more than enough to take in the general atmosphere of the place. Many visitors find that the best way to visit them is in reverse order, beginning with the highest-numbered cave, and ending at the immense murals of Cave 1.

An Indian prince is believed to be the first teacher of Buddhism.
An Indian prince is believed to be the first teacher of Buddhism.

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Discussion Comments


The Ajanta caves are close to Ellora which is an ancient Buddhist city. I believe there are caves there also. Most people who go to see Ellora, will also go to see Ajanta caves. So you can plan a day for both sites.


I don't know which of the Ajanta caves it is, but I read that there is a Buddha monument in one of them that is really unique. It is said that light reflects on the face of the monument in different directions throughout the day. Depending on the direction of the light, the Buddha can look happy or sad.

That sounds really amazing. I want to go there just to see this one monument.


It doesn't take long to go through the caves. But if you are really interested in art, I think it will take you a bit longer because the art is really interesting and intricate. I especially loved cave 17.

There were several different stories being told about Buddha in this cave. The art started from the entrance and all the way around. We were told that two artists worked on it, each on one side. You could tell that there were some differences between the two walls, even though the style and everything was the same.

I personally wanted to spend hours looking through the art but my group wanted to move on. I would also recommend visiting with a local guide that can give you information about the art and history there.

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