History behind Ajanta and Ellora Caves

by | Travel & Event |

History behind Ajanta and Ellora Caves

Photograph by Ganesh Gorai

History of India dates back to the time when the earliest civilizations started emerging. All of these kingdoms, civilizations, cultures and the native people have together contributed to shaping the heritage treasure trove of India. These consist of palaces, forts, huge imposing buildings and also caves. Talking about caves, the most famous ones in India are the Ajanta and Ellora caves.


The Ellora Caves and the Ajanta Caves are near Aurangabad in Maharashtra, India.


Ajanta and Ellora caves attract over the thousands of tourist per year because of his painting and well-carved sculptures architecture. It is the best combination of ancient art and engineering. Ajanta and Ellora cave has an ancient paranomic view of India. you can also consider Ellora as a queen of Sahyadri hills. The atmosphere of caves is surrounded by forest which keeps caves refreshing and pleasant. This place has the beautiful architecture which is showable to all age of groups.


The Ajanta Caves are mentioned in the memoirs of several medieval-era Chinese Buddhist travelers to India and by a Mughal-era official of Akbar era in the early 17th century. They were covered by jungle until accidentally "discovered" and brought to Western attention in 1819 by a colonial British officer Captain John Smith on a tiger-hunting party. The Ajanta Caves are located on the side of a rocky cliff that is on the north side of a U-shaped gorge on the small river Waghur, in the Deccan plateau. Further round the gorge are a number of waterfalls, which, when the river is high, are audible from outside the caves.

They are entirely Buddhist and date from about 200 BC to approximately 650 AD. It is of interest to note that the Chinese Buddhist travelers, Hiuen Tsang, and Fa Hien, refer to Ajanta in accounts of their travels.

Ajanta has a total 29 caves representing Buddhist tradition. Painting of caves is purely showing about Buddha and some Hindu, Jain God. Entire cave was built in the 2nd century. Also, the main attraction of Buddha caves is the longest Buddha Statue in the cave.

Ajanta and Ellora Caves

Photograph by Igor Dymov

Of the 29 excavations, four are chaitya halls (all differing in design) and the rest are viharas. The decorative motifs differ with the age of the excavations.

All the painting and crafting of caves was done in between 2-6 century. The art of painting is based on Buddha’s life and the story of converting monk from the king.

Today, the Ellora Caves, along with the nearby Ajanta Caves, are a major tourist attraction in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra and a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India.

Ellora is one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monuments, and artwork, dating from the 600-1000 CE period. Cave 16, in particular, features the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world, the Kailasha temple, a chariot shaped monument dedicated to Shiva.

There are over 100 caves at the site, all excavated from the basalt cliffs in the Charanandri Hills, 34 of which are open to the public. These consist of 12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu, and 5 Jain caves, with each group representing deities and mythologies that were prevalent in the 1st millennium CE, as well as monasteries of each respective religion.

All of the Ellora monuments were built during Hindu dynasties such as the Rashtrakuta dynasty, which constructed part of the Hindu & Buddhist caves, and the Yadava dynasty, which constructed a number of the Jain caves.

Ellora, also called Verul or Elura, is the short form of the ancient name Elapura. The older form of the name has been found in ancient references such as the Baroda inscription of 812 CE.

The Ajanta style is also found in the Ellora Caves and other sites such as the Elephanta Caves, Aurangabad Caves, Shiv Leni Caves and the cave temples of Karnataka.

The Caves are generally agreed to have been made in two distinct periods, the first belonging to the 2nd century BCE to 1st century CE, and a second period that followed several centuries later.

Ellora Caves

Photograph by Alexander Mazurkevich

It is believed that several Buddhist monks spent a significant amount of time at the Ajanta caves during the monsoons as they were forbidden from traveling during that particular period of the year. This was the time when the monks put their creativity and time to use and painted the walls of the caves.

It was soon studied that there were over 30 caves in the cave complex out of which one part of the complex was developed during the Satavahana period and the other was done during the Vakataka period. After closely studying several of these artifacts, historians and archaeologists speculated a connection between the Vakataka dynasty that ruled the region to the Gupta dynasty of North India!

During the first phase of construction, the sanctuaries known as the Chaitya-grihas were built in the canyons of the Waghora River. Caves 9, 10, 12 and 15 A were built in the first phase during the Satavahana dynasty.

And the second period of construction was carried out during the rule of Emperor Harishena of the Vakataka dynasty. Close to 20 cave temples were simultaneously built which resemble the modern day monasteries with a sanctum in the rear end of the structure.

Towards the end of the reign of Harisena, these caves were abandoned and eventually forgotten through the centuries. The dense forests were partly to be blamed for camouflaging these caves.

Various incidents from the life of Gautam Buddha and the Jataka Tales are represented and recreated on the walls of these caves. Scenes from the royal court of the respective eras are also painted. Through his life, Buddha was against the idea of sculpting and painting images of him. He preached that life was a process through which one must overcome desire in order to attain salvation or nirvana.

However, after Buddha’s death, his followers who wanted to worship him decided to paint his images so that they had something to hold on to while spreading the faith and teachings of the Buddha.


The caves are hewn out of the volcanic basalt formation of Maharashtra, known as ‘Deccan Trap’, the term trap being of Scandinavian origin representing the step-like formation of the volcanic deposits. The rock formation, on weathering, has given rise to the appearance of terraces with flat summits.

The volcanic lava flowed during different periods, gave rise to extensive horizontal flows alternating with vesicular trap beds. The vesicular traps formed the upper portion of each of the massive trap beds. The different lava flows also gave rise to vertical as well as horizontal joints in the rock formation. Depending upon the nature and mineralogical content of the lava flow, the rock formations also varied in character and texture, giving rise to various qualities like coarse-grained, finely grained formations. The ancient builders at Ellora, like other places, particularly chose the fine-grained formations of the Deccan trap, ideal for sculpting and rock hewing. In addition to this, the ancient builders also traced the horizontal and vertical joints in the rock formation to minimize the labor and time during excavation and rock splitting.

Ajanta Caves

Photograph by Aleksandar Todorovic

The hills in which the caves are hewn forms part of the Sahyadri ranges of the Deccan and dated to the Cretaceous era of the Geological time scale (about 65 million years ago). The hills rise abruptly from the surrounding plains on the south and west, the western surface being extensively utilized for hewing the cave complexes. The hill also supports several streams, the prominent among them being the Elaganga, which drains into the Shiv, a stream of the Godavari river system. The Elaganga is in its full vigor during the monsoon.


The caves are excavated in the scarp of a large plateau, running in a north-south direction for nearly 2 km, the scarp being in the form of a semi-circle, the Buddhist group at the right arc on the south, while the Jaina group at the left arc on the north and the Brahmanical group at the center.

There is also celebrate the three-day international festival, the Ajanta Ellora festival celebrated in the city of Aurangabad. The festival organized every year between the months of November and March is truly a treat to the senses. Various artists will be seen performing in this prestigious festival. A mixture of cultural competitions for children, youth women, and senior citizens are also planned on this occasion.


A tourist can plan the visit of these caves according to the time available and depending upon the interest in ancient art. By visiting these caves, one can have a glimpse of the representative art of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Jainism.