Noted lyricist Javed Akhtar penned one of the famous songs – Afreen Afreen, sung by Late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In one of the stanzas he mentions, 'aisa dekha nahi khoobsoorat koi, jism jaise Ajanta ki moorat koi' (which translates to I have never seen anyone as beautiful as those sculptures of Ajanta.) I grew up listening to this song and always wondered as to why Ajanta was used as a simile.
Last month wanderlust hit me and all my doubts withered away on seeing the awe-inspiring sculptures and mural paintings of Ajanta caves. Located in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, these supremely aesthetic masterpieces were discovered in 1819 by Captain John Smith, a British soldier during one of his hunting expeditions.
There are 29 rock-cut caves, excavated in a horse–shoe shaped bend of rock surface overlooking a narrow stream known as Waghora. These caves were excavated in different periods (circa. 2nd century B.C. to 6th century A.D.) Out of these, five (cave no. 9, 10, 19, 26, and 29) are Chaitya-grihas (buddhist prayer halls that house a stupa) and the rest are Viharas (dwelling places). It's interesting to note that Buddha believed that 'nirvana' (the state of consciousness) can be attained through meditation. The caves belong to two phases of Buddhism - Hinyana (that flourished from 2nd Century BC to 1st Century AD) and Mahayana (5th Century Ad to 6th Century AD).
A trek up the hill takes you to cave no. 1 that offers you an exemplary visual delight. The walls and the ceilings of this cave are adorned with splendid murals of Jataka tales. Jataka tales are stories based on previous births of Gautam Buddha, in both human and animal form. Apart from this, the Bodhisattvas and Buddha are also painted on the walls. Bodhisattvas can be any species – elephant, monkey, snake, swan or a human being. A door inside this cave is flanked by two Bodhisattvas – Padampani and Vajrapani. One of the scenes shows a Persian ambassador in a cape and the headgear with a Persian style cup in his hand. These murals were made using natural dyes and colors and look as resplendent as ever.
Caves 2 to 8, 11 to 18 are monasteries with cells, halls and sanctum sanctorum. In caves 20 and 21 Buddha in preaching posture is housed in the sanctum. Cave 22 shows sculptural depiction of Buddha in different forms. Caves 23 to 25, 28 are incomplete monasteries. Cave 9 is a Chaitya-griha, that belongs to Hinyana phase, and exhibits wooden architectural styles. Cave 10 is the earliest Chaitya-griha, it's also said that this was the first cave noticed by Captain John Smith which ultimately led to the discovery of Ajanta caves. Cave 19, a Chaitya-griha, has painted depictions of Buddha in various postures.
In cave 26, an inscription found on the wall of the front verandah records the gift of this Chaitya-griha by a monk Buddhabhadra. The walls of the cloister are intricately carved with scenes of the Buddha's life and miracles, including the temptation by Mara, and the famous Mahaparinirvana, with disciples mourning the Buddha on his deathbed.
Caves 27 and 29 are a monastery and Chaitya-griha respectively, located at the highest level. It took me four hours to explore this world heritage site. This informative trek provided food to my brain and also helped me burn a lot of calories. Thus, to pacify my hunger pangs I had a sumptuous, yet economical meal at MTDC restaurant.
I am sure these astounding masterpieces will leave you spellbound. If you are curious about history and traveling enlivens you senses, then pack your bags, put on your trekking shoes and get ready to explore the grandeur of the past. These caves are about 400 kms from Mumbai, about 110kms from Aurangabad and about 30kms from Ellora. Aurangabad is well connected by rail and road. The nearest railway station is Jalgaon.
I would like to sum up by quoting Ibn Battuta – 'Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller'.