Way back in 1819, a party of British army officers on a tiger hunt in the forest of western Deccan, suddenly spotted their prey, on the far side of a loop in the Waghora river. High up on the horseshoe- shaped cliff, the hunting party saw the tiger, silhouetted against the carved façade of a cave.
On investigating, the officers discovered a series of carved caves, each more dramatic than the other. Hewn painstakingly as monsoon retreats or varshavasas for Buddhist monks, the cave complex was continuously lived in from 200 BC to about AD650. There are thirty caves, including some unfinished ones. Of the Ajanta caves, five are chaityas or prayer halls and the rest are viharas or monasteries.
Hinayana and Mahayana
The Ajanta caves resolve themselves into two phases, separated from each other by a good four hundred years. These architectural phases coincide with the two schools of Buddhist thought, the older Hinayana school where the Buddha was represented only in symbols like the stupa, a set of footprints or a throne, and the later Mahayana sect which did not shy away from giving the Lord a human form.
Among the more prominent Hinayana caves are those numbered 9, 10 (both chaityas), 8, 12, 13 and 15 (all viharas). The sculpted figures in these caves are dressed and coiffed in a manner reminiscent of the stupas at Sanchi and Barhut, indicating that they date back to the first or second century BC.
The Mahayana monasteries include 1, 2, 16 and 17, while the chaityas are in caves 19 and 26. The caves, incidentally, are not numbered chronologically but in terms of access from the entrance. A terrqaced path of modern construction connects the caves, but in ancients times, each cave was accessed from the riverfront by individual staircases.
The sculptures and paintings in the caves detail the Buddha’s life as well as the lives of the Buddha in his previous births, as related in the allegorical Jataka tales. You will also find in the caves a sort of illuminated history of the times – court scenes, street scenes, cameos of domestic life and even animal and bird studies come alive on these unlit walls.
The caves including the unfinished ones are thirty in number, of which five are chaitya-grihas and the rest are sangharamas or viharas. After centuries of oblivion, these caves were discovered in AD 1819. They fall into two distinct phases with a break of nearly four centuries between them. All the caves of the earlier phase date between 2nd century BC-AD.
The caves of the second phase were excavated during the supremacy of the Vakatakas and Guptas. According to inscriptions, Varahadeva, the minister of the Vakataka king, Harishena (c. 475-500 AD), dedicated Cave 16 to the Buddhist sangha while Cave 17 was the gift of the prince, a feudatory.
An inscription records that- Buddha image in Cave 4 was the gift of some Abhayanandi who hailed from Mathura. A few paintings which survive on the walls of Caves 9 and 10 go back to the 2nd century BC-AD. The second group of the paintings started in about the fifth century AD and continued for the next two centuries as, noticeable in later caves. The themes are intensely religious in tone and centre round Buddha, Bodhisattvas, incidents from the life of Buddha and the Jatakas. The paintings are executed on a ground of mud-plaster in the tempera technique.