Hewn from the near-vertical sides of a horseshoe-shaped ravine, the caves at AJANTA occupy a site worthy of the spectacular ancient art they contain. Less than two centuries ago, this remote spot was known only to local tribespeople; the shadowy entrances to its abandoned stone chambers lay buried deep under a thick blanket of creepers and jungle.
The chance arrival in 1819 of a small detachment of East India Company troops, however, brought the caves’ obscurity to an abrupt end. Led to the top of the precipitous bluff that overlooks the gorge by a young “half-wild” scout, the tiger-hunters spied what has now been identified as the facade of Cave 10 protruding through the foliage.
The British soldiers had made one of the most sensational archeological finds of all time. Further exploration revealed a total of 28 colonnaded caves chiselled out of the chocolate-brown and grey basalt cliffs lining the River Waghora. More remarkable still were the immaculately preserved paintings writhing over their interior surfaces. For, in addition to the rows of stone Buddhas and other sculpture enshrined within them, Ajanta’s excavations are adorned with a swirling profusion of murals, depicting everything from battlefields to sailing ships, city streets and teeming animal-filled forests to snow-capped mountains. Even if you aren’t wholly familiar with the narratives they portray, it’s easy to see why these paintings are regarded as the finest surviving gallery of art from any of the world’s ancient civilizations.
Located close enough to the major trans-Deccan trade routes to ensure a steady supply of alms, yet far enough from civilization to preserve the peace and tranquility necessary for meditation and prayer, Ajanta was an ideal location for the region’s itinerant Buddhist monks to found their first permanent monasteries. Donative inscriptions indicate that its earliest cave excavations took place in the second century BC.
In its heyday, Ajanta sheltered more than two hundred monks, as well as a sizeable community of painters, sculptors and labourers employed in excavating and decorating the cells and sanctuaries. Sometime in the seventh century, however, the site was abandoned – whether because of the growing popularity of nearby Ellora, or the threat posed by the resurgence of Hinduism, no one knows. By the eighth century, the complex lay deserted and forgotten, overlooked even by the Muslim iconoclasts who wrought such damage to the area’s other sacred sites during the medieval era.