Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day 85, Ajanta Caves, Indian UNESCO site

Hmm, I have such a well informed bunch of travelling companions....everybody guessed that we are going to the Ajanta Caves, a series of 29 Buddhist cave temples in Ajanta, India,

Our tour guide today is my dear Mama, Rajesh. (

Did you know that some of these caves date from the 2nd century BC??

They are carved out of a horseshoe-shaped cliff along the Waghora River.

We are now standing on this viewing platform across the river......WOW! it affords such an excellent view of the entire Ajanta site.

The natural beauty of the area makes it clear why the monks chose the site for their spiritual pursuits. Absolutely stunning!!

It seems like the caves were used by Buddhist monks as prayer halls (chaitya grihas) and monasteries (viharas) for about nine centuries, then abruptly abandoned. They fell into oblivion until they were rediscovered in 1819.

Encompassing both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the Ajanta caves preserve some of the best masterpieces of Buddhist art in let's check them out guys...

The caves are numbered from east to west, 1 through 29.

The earlier Theravada tradition depicts the Buddha only in symbolic form such as a throne or footprints. The Mahayana Caves, feature colorful murals and statues depicting the life (and former lives) of the Buddha and various Bodhisattvas. The caves also depict scenes from everyday life and many include inscriptions indicating a prince or noble who gifted the cave to the monks.

We are going to explore the Ajanta Caves in reverse numerical order, so we will not have to join the masses of people moving from cave to cave....I hate crowds...and everybody starts at Cave we won't!

The Ajanta Caves depict the stories of Buddhism spanning from the period from 200 B.C. to
650 A.D. and the most amazing thing is that these 29 caves were built by Buddhist monks using simple tools like hammer & chisel!!

Cave 26 – A Mahayana prayer hall (chaitya).

The highlight is a large carved statue of the reclining Buddha, representing his moment of death.

Below him, his followers mourn his passing; above, celestial beings rejoice.

Oh my word....Wow!!

This cave also contains a stupa with an image of the Buddha in a pavilion.

Just look at the detail in the carvings and murals......absolutely awesome!

Cave 19

Cave 17 – A Mahayana monastery covered with many well-preserved wall paintings.

Maidens and celestial musicians are on the ceiling, and Buddhas, celestial guardians, goddesses, lotus petals and scroll work adorn the doorway.

One mural in Cave 17 shows Prince Simhala's encounter with the man-eating ogresses of Sri Lanka, where he'd been shipwrecked. Another shows the king of gods flying amidst clouds with his entourage of celestial nymphs (apsaras) and musicians. The panel above the doorway depicting the seven Manushi Buddhas (Buddhas in human form) together with the Maitreya or future Buddha, seated under their respective Bodhi trees.

Cave 16 – A Mahayana monastery featuring a beautiful painting of the princess Sundari fainting after learning that her husband (the Buddha's half-brother, Nanda) was going to become a monk.

Cave 15, 13, 12 – Theravada monastery caves.

Cave 11

Cave 10 – This Theravada prayer hall, thought to be the oldest cave temple at Ajanta, dates back to the 2nd century BC.

Cave 9
– One of the earliest prayer hall caves, notable for its arched windows that let softly diffused sunlight in the cave. This Theravada cave also features a large stupa.

Cave 8 – Theravada monastery cave.

Cave 6

Cave 4 – Incomplete, but the largest of the Ajanta monasteries.

Cave 2 – The fa├žade of this Mahayana monastery cave shows the kings of Naga and their entourage. Inside, a glorious mandala dominates the ceiling, held by demons and decorated with birds, flowers, fruits and abstract designs. The ceiling gives the effect of a cloth canopy, right down to the sag in the middle.

Cave 1 – The most popular of the monastery caves at Ajanta. Every inch of the cave was originally painted, though much has worn away over the centuries. The doorway to the antechamber is flanked by murals of two great bodhisattvas.

On the right, holding a thunderbolt, is Avalokitesvara (or Vajrapani), the most important bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. On the left, holding a water lily, is the bodhisattva Padmapani.

The sidewalls of Cave 1's antechamber show two scenes from the Buddha's life: his temptation by Mara just before his enlightenment and the miracle of Sravasti, where the Buddha multiplied himself into thousand images.

Above the left porch of Cave 1 are friezes of the Three Signs (a sick man, an old man, and a corpse) that the Buddha saw on his fateful journey outside the palace that led him to become a monk.

In the sanctum is a colossal sculpture of the Buddha in the preaching pose. Murals on the walls of the main hall depict numerous Jataka Tales, stories of the previous lives of Gautama Buddha.

WOW!! This is truly an amazing site....Yes, Marti, like the magnificent ruins of Petra, 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, whereas the Caves of Ajanta were purposely built as shrines and temples by devoted Buddhists, and they continue to be a sacred site today....and are definitely more extensive than Petra.

The Ajanta caves and the treasures they house are a landmark in the overall development of Buddhism as such and deservedly a UNESCO world heritage site!.. .

Of course we have to do some souvenir shopping....

My dear Mama ( has suggested that we shop for the following...and insisted that we bargain with the vendors:

local, traditional and ethnic - Paithani, Himroo & Mushroo weaves; Indian Khaadi clothing; hand made artifacts and curios made in rural India and traditional Bidri Pottery.

Thanks Mama. We have certainly enjoyed this tour....

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