Ajanta Caves

Like the magnificent ruins of Petra in the country of Jordan, the Ajanta Caves appear almost as a city carved right out of the rock. One of the differences is that the ruins of Petra do not appear to have originally been a sacred site, and it is certainly a secular tourist attraction today. By contrast, the Caves of Ajanta were purposely built as shrines and temples by devoted Buddhists, and they continue to be a sacred site today.

The Ajanta Caves are also far more extensive than Petra. There are 29 caves, and in many of them you will find an Ajanta Temple dedicated to one of more of the aspects of the Lord Buddha. They are not, however, as extensive as the 600 remaining Buddhist cave temples in Mogao, China that date from the fourth and fourteenth centuries AD. The older Caves of Ajanta date to the second century BC, and comprise both Mahayana (based both on the Buddha and other medicine Buddhas, with many rituals) and Theravda (based on the historical Gautauma Buddha, with few rituals) traditions.

Tourists who take Ajanta Cave tours also often visit the nearby Ellora Temples and Caves. As in the Ellora Caves, there are Ajanta cave paintings and sculptures that are masterpieces of Buddhist art. Used by Buddhist monks as monasteries (complete with residence halls), prayer halls, and temples for about nine centuries, they were mysteriously abandoned and lost until rediscovery in 1819 by English tiger hunters.

The Caves of Ajanta are numbered from east to west, and there is a fantastic viewpoint on the other side of the Waghora River with incredible views across to the entire horseshoe-shaped cliff in which they were carved. You can be dropped off here, hike down the footpath and up to the caves, and then be picked up in the parking lot after exploring them. This is a fairly difficult hike, and only for those in good shape. It brings you to a position to explore the caves in reverse numerical order. This allows you to avoid the crowds, as most people start with number 1, which is closest to the parking lot.

The oldest Ajanta Temple is cave number 10, and dates to the second century BC. Cave number 9 is noteworthy for the arched windows allowing subtle rays of sunlight into the cave. It also has a large stupa, a mound like structure protecting a relic of the Lord Buddha. You will find a large statue of the reclining Buddha in cave number 26. Cave number 17 is a Mahayana monastery that is covered with Ajanta cave paintings that are very well-preserved and feature musicians and maidens, goddesses and Buddhas, scrolls, and lotus petals. The largest Ajanta Temple is in cave number 4 that is also a monastery, although incomplete. Caves number 1 and 2 are the most popular, as they are closest to the parking lot.

The Ajanta Caves are located about 170 miles northeast of Mumbai (formerly, Bombay) and are also accessible from Aurangabad, where there is an airport. Flash photography is not allowed, but many of pf the temples have elaborately carved façades like the ruins at Petra. They are a bit more remote than the Ellora Temples and Caves, but well worth the extra effort. Like Bodhgaya and Varanasi, these caves comprise one of the most important sacred sites for Buddhists and are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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