Sitting in the shape of a horseshoe (or a UFO as your imagination takes you) and surrounded by a forest of light green trees, the Ajanta Caves has etched itself in history and travel as an important and jaw-dropping place of magnificent architecture, story-telling paintings of the old times, and genius engineering that was done as far back as the 2nd century.
At a time when machines or advanced equipment never existed, sculptors and artists (whose names we don’t know) carved dozens of cave temples and monasteries from gigantic rocks by just using a hammer and chisel. But this wonder was lost to the world in between towering jungle trees until John Smith ventured into Cave 10 while hunting a tiger in 1819. His signature can be found there still.
The total caves in Ajanta round off to 30 and all of them can be visited today. This Ajanta Caves travel guide tells you why the place is a must-visit, how to get there and what caves shouldn’t be missed.
Difference Between Ajanta and Ellora Caves
While a lot of people mistake Ajanta and Ellora for one, the two couldn’t be any more different. From temples, mythical legends, location, and landscapes, they both are two different areas going in two different directions.
Ajanta Caves Location
The two are also in separate locations. Ajanta is a 3-hour drive from Aurangabad, Maharashtra while Ellora is only 35 minutes away.
The landscape of Ajanta and Ellora
Architectural-wise, Ajanta is situated on a steep mountain top in a horse-shoe shape. Since the caves are etched onto the straight, steep side of the mountain, visitors have to climb up several steps to each cave and several steps down to the next. This goes on from Cave 1 to Cave 26 and climbing the stairs is the only way you can walk back and forth to explore the caves. So make sure you are quite used to walking and climbing or your legs are bound to give out and kill you by the time you reach Cave 10.
Ellora is quite different in this aspect. Even when it sits on a mountain top, it’s situated on a straight path so there is more straight, normal walking than climbing and you can omit the stairs if you are not curious to explore some of the caves.
Another aspect that distinguishes both caves in terms of art is that Ajanta is full of paintings of Buddhism and the life of the kings as it took place in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, while Ellora is known for its architecture, especially for its famed Kailash Temple.
Ajanta is also only built for Buddhism complete with meditation rooms and prayer halls while Ellora has deities and mythical importance to Hinduism and Jainism.
How to Reach Ajanta Caves: Forest Hiking Path
Jurassic Park meets Indiana Jones in this hiking adventure.
That said, there are two ways to reach the caves. One is by bus, where a tourist bus costing Rs.20 per person takes you straight to Cave 1 or a hiking path through the forest for adventure lovers. This hiking path allows you to draw in the magnificent sight of Ajanta as you get closer and where you will also get a good view of its famous 9-step waterfall.
For this path, inform your driver that you want to hike through the forest and he will take you to the viewpoint that offers a phenomenal scene of Ajanta sitting tucked between a never-ending stretch of the jungle.
The hiking also starts at this viewpoint with a set of broad stairs starting your descent down the mountain and to the caves.
These steps are easy to cover for hikers as they are flat. Once the stairs are done, the path opens to clear land lined with quartz rocks, and you are met with a closer view of the caves.
This path also gives you a stunning view of the 9-step waterfall where water drops into the pools like it’s measured.
Stay amazed at the epic scenery of Ajanta coming closer while you keep walking and eventually leading you down another set of similar stairs that takes you to a long bridge that connects directly to the entrance to Cave 9 at Ajanta.
From this point start towards your left leading to 10, 11, 12, and onto Cave 26 and then walk back to Cave 1. This way, you’ll be able to cover most of the important caves without exhaustion creeping up on you.
Must-Visit Caves with Extraordinary Architecture
While all caves are worth the visit in Ajanta, Caves 1, 2, 10, 16, 17, 19, and 26 should not be missed. These caves are where you will see the epitome of art, mathematical precision, and science mixed with creativity.
Incredible floral wall arts, celestial statues, life-like forms of giant Buddhas in different positions, and mudras decorate and adorn every wall of the caves. While it might seem almost impossible to list every unique aspect of the caves, here are some examples of what visual treats they hold.
Cave 2 – Mandalas and Murals
Adorned with circle decorations known as mandalas, this cave is full of ceiling decor and traditional as well as ancient mural wall paintings depicting early royal life and the Buddhism lifestyle. A giant Buddha sits at the center with green light and a vast space welcoming visitors.
Cave 11 – A Mechanism for Light
The caves were built at a time when the only source of light was the sun. So how did monks and believers make their way around the cave in the dark? The answer is water.
Cave 11 shows one of the mechanisms the sculptors made to make use of natural light to brighten the dark rooms. In this cave, in front of the Budha statue is a rectangle space built an inch or two lower than the rest of the floor. A thin dry canal connects to it. In the olden days, this canal would help flow in water which then reflects the sunlight that rises right in front of the cave door, thus lighting up the entire room with brightness, as explained by Prakash, the cave guard.
Cave 21 – Musical Pillars, Necklaces, and Genius Paintings
Unlike the rest of the caves in Ajanta, Cave 21 is the only cave that is designed with musical pillars. Towards the corner of the cave, two pillars stand tall in the dark. When you tap them a little hard, they produce a sound akin to a drum with both pillars having different notes (drum sounds).
The walls of the cave also have an awe-worthy art where real necklace beads are pushed into the cave walls around the paintings of the women’s necks. This can only be seen if you shine a torchlight at them.
Likewise, on one side of the cave’s ceilings, blue flowers have adorned the roof. These blue paints were imported from Persia, according to the cave guard, and thousands of years later their color is still vibrant in the darkness.
A painting of a lady also sits on the ceiling with a jaw-dropping illusion. When you stand on the right and look up, the painting looks toward you and when you move to the left, the lady’s head direction seems to have moved to the left.
Cave 26 – Sleeping Buddha and Incredible Wall Sculptures
Sitting at the end of the mountain and flooding the pictures on the internet is Ajanta’s most famous cave – Cave 26. This is also the cave with the least bit of crowd as tourists are too tired to climb the steps to make their way towards this end.
Cave 26 has a glorious stupa, ceiling and pillar architecture, and stunning wall sculpture work on both sides of the room. A long Sleeping Buddha (whose said to have been in his final moments before attaining Nirvana) is etched onto the wall.
There is no doubt that Ajanta caves will remain forever as one of the world’s wonders with structures that were built before science was even learned. The caves are nothing short of a marvel, an almost seemingly impossible feat in the ancient world and a mystery that will stay unsolved till the ends of time. It’s worth every penny and second of your visit and should be on top of every traveler’s list.
Things to take note of while visiting Ajanta Caves:
Be careful of monkeys. The forest and some parts outside the caves are habitats of monkeys. Do not provoke these creatures, get too close or eat in front of them. They will either steal the food or react in an unpleasant manner.
Bring a torch light. While the caves do have spotlights fixed in certain areas, most of it is dark. A strong LED torchlight is needed to see the paintings and sculptures properly.
Carry some bottles of water. Carry a couple of water bottles. You will definitely need it. Ajanta also has drinking stations where you can refill the bottles.
Bring a quick bite snack like biscuits. Ajanta is full of staircases that you need to climb from one cave to the other. And it takes around 3 hours to cover the caves. If you are the type that needs edibles for energy, bring a snack for a quick bite to replenish your energy.
Take a guide. If you plan to hike through the forest to the cave then getting a guide would be for the better. They will tell you a short history, point at all the important aspects, and stop at viewpoints for jaw-dropping visuals.
Timings. Elora is closed on Tuesday while Ajanta is closed on Monday. Plan your trip accordingly.
Break your journey. A lot of tourists make the mistake of planning to walk Ajanta and Elora in one day. Even with a good pair of legs, this is bound to make your trip painful. Ajanta’s continuous set of stairs will leave your muscles sore. So plan to visit Elora the next day or day after depending on your health type. The caves are also far away from each other (read above) and planning it on two different days will give you enough time to explore them thoroughly.