An Evening spent awestruck in the magnificent caves at Ajanta

We had just spent the morning spellbound at the beautiful Kailas temple at Ellora. Next on the agenda were the Ajanta caves, but before that we had to stop at the Grishneshwar temple which is very close to Ellora.

Grishneshwar is one of the 12 Jyotirlings in India ( Jyotirling = Radiant image / sign of Lord Shiva) & considered to be a super holy place. So the better half, who is a lot more religious than I am just had to visit it. We reached the temple and had to leave all our electronics outside ( It’s a safety measure which I just don’t understand!) so obviously I have no photos.

We stood in line and visited the holy shrine, which is much smaller in scale than the other Jyotirlings I have visited. ( Surprisingly I have visited a few!) We reached just at the time of the afternoon arti and had to wait for it to get over before we had our meeting with the Lord. The good part of the waiting was that we got generous quantities of delicious khichdi and sheera as prasad, so now we didn’t have to stop for lunch and could spend more time in Ajanta. (The Lord does listen to prayers sometimes!)

After eating the delicious temple provided lunch we drove the 100 odd kilometres to Ajanta. Here it is important to note that Google maps would have led us to a view point over the caves and not the caves themselves. Thankfully we relied on physical information from the locals and not the digital information and reached the parking lot outside the cave complex.

From the parking lot the only way to reach the caves is by a government shuttle bus which takes the tourists the last 4 kilometres to the caves. The bus journey was a bumpy ride accentuated by the rickety condition of the bus itself. Thankfully the ride wasn’t long and we got there in one piece.

We quickly bought tickets and climbed the steep steps to the level on the cliffside where the caves are located. The caves themselves, unlike Ellora are carved into the face of a single range of hills and are not very widely spread apart. This makes visiting more number of caves possible within a reasonable amount of time. The attraction here were the ancient paintings painted in the walls of the caves which make the caves look absolutely beautiful and full of life all these centuries later.

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Caves all along the face of the cliffs

The caves here are entirely Buddhist unlike Ellora which had Bramhinic and Jain caves in addition to the Buddhist caves. Many caves have a massive Buddha statue at the far end, others are what are called chaitya halls with a Stupa at the end.

I heard mutterings from people who complained that everything is the same in these caves, that complaint is simply laughable. Some of these caves are more than 2000 years old. Just the fact that they have lasted much longer than any modern building will last is a fact to admire. Also there are obviously variations, but they only exist for the people keen enough to see & admire them. Even if there were no variations, just the paintings inside the caves which are beautifully lit up with spotlights are enough to leave your jaw agape.

Once again I have to state that I am neither a historian nor an architect. In Ajanta I have to add that even though I have successfully given basic art exams, I don’t consider myself an art expert. So I will just take you on a photographic journey through the caves.

The first cave has the painting that every Indian has seen printed somewhere or the other. That is the painting of Bodhisattva Padmapani. It was instantly recognisable (Even though I had no idea it was called that!) and brought a sense to deja vu / nostalgia. Even though it is centuries old the art just pops out.

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Instantly recognisable painting of Bodhisattva Padmapani at Ajanta

This painting is just a small part of the art surrounding the huge statue of Buddha in the centre. Even though a lot of the paintings have been ravaged by time (they are still being ravaged by idiots who insist on using their  camera flashes on the delicate paintings!) the detail and the effort still shine through.

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Ancient painting and delicate carving surrounding the Buddha Statue in the centre
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The painting on the other side – largely peeled but the details still shine through
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The entrance of the caves with huge carved pillars

Just after visiting one cave I knew I was in for a treat as well as a challenge from the photography point of view. Even though the paintings are beautiful and the spotlights inside help, photographing the interiors of a dimly lit cave is not an easy task. It took me some time to get my settings right, but I got some pretty decent photos which bring a smile to my face. ( And no, I did not use the flash even once!)

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Cave after cave of beautiful carvings and eye popping paintings

 

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Even the side walls are painted with a high degree of detail
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Where there are no paintings there are huge beautifully carved statues
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But I like the painted ones the best – They have a life of their own!
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Such detail and such vibrant colours

If you can’t see the difference in these caves then you are really blind! The only constant is the statue of Buddha in the centre. And sometimes even that was different. Most statues are in Padmasana, whereas some can be seen seated on a throne – so intact even that was not constant!

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The Buddha in the centre -In Padmasana
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Buddha seated on a throne

Even the chaitra halls are each different. Some have painted pillars where others are beautifully carved from top to bottom. The tall stone arches, lining pillars on both sides and a beautifully carved stupa in the centre. Just made for good photography!

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A painted smaller Chaitya hall
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A larger and more elaborate carved chaitya hall in Ajanta 

Even the entrances to these massive chaitya halls are lovingly carved and have a huge window making them one of the better lit caves

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The beautifully carved entrance to a chaitya hall

We visited all the caves in Ajanta, even the ones which were incomplete, took lots of photos.  I even took my eye off the viewfinder and enjoyed the caves with my eyes for a change.

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One of the incomplete caves in Ajanta

We finally reached the last cave ( No 26 for the record) after 3 hours in the complex. It was almost closing time and we still had to get back to the bus stop for our bus back. But there was no way we could rush through the last one. It was one of the more beautifully lit chaitya halls with a majestic statue of a reclining Buddha on one side wall.

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A massive reclining buddha dominates the side wall of the last cave
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The beautifully lit Chaitya hall in Cave 26

After enjoying the cave well past the printed closing time we moved out and started our walk back to the bus stop. But not before we took a few photos of the entire series from the vantage point of the last cave.

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The entire cave series as seen from the last cave mouth

The road back weaves through a small patch of wood before the actual bus stop. I had noticed that the birds here especially the red vented bulbuls seemed particularly fearless, so I put on the 300mm. Sure enough in a minute or two I got a pair of bulbuls sitting pretty close.

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Fearless bulbuls of Ajanta

From then on the 300mm stayed on till we reached the bus stop and the setting sun provided good light for some decent photos.

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Rose ringed parakeet in the golden sunlight
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An inquisitive Robin
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A spotted dove in the beautiful evening light

The monkeys feasting on the blooming trees provided adequate entertainment till our bus back arrived.

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On the bus back I wondered what had taken so long for me to visit these absolute gems in my home state. But I guess its always better late then never! We drove to Jalgaon where we stayed the night with a close friend from my MBBS days before starting our journey back the next day.

Thanks to the better half we had finally seen the famous Ajanta – Ellora caves on a long sightseeing filled Sunday. That wraps it up for this series of posts documenting our time in these UNESCO world heritage sites.

Till next time.

Bye

 

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