Cambridge Underground 1984 pp 26-27

The Cave Temples of Ajanta and Ellora

India is not a land renowned for its sporting caves and pot-holes. In fact the large desolate basalt plains of the Deccan plateau can hardly be considered fruitful territory for speleologists. Nonetheless this area boasts some of the finest decorated cave temples in the World. The secret, of course, is that the temples were carved out of the reasonably soft volcanic rock of the region. Some of the temples are hardly caves, one of the finest is a complete building with walls and roof carved out of a cliff-side and a total floor area greater than that of the Parthenon in Athens. Most are of a more modest size and are tunnelled into the side of the hills. The two most famous sites are conveniently near each other close to the town of Aurangabad in Maharashtra state about 200 miles from Bombay. These are the Ellora caves which are decorated with fine sculptures and the Ajanta caves which are the more famous on account of the well preserved wall paintings.

India has a healthy tourist industry and one can get to the caves by tour or local bus from Aurangabad. Aurangabad is well connected by train and air to the rest of India because of the caves. They are certainly one of the sites any self respecting tourists would wish to include on their itinerary.

The caves at Ajanta were the first to be made, they are all Buddhist and date from about 200 BC to 650 AD. There are 29 caves in all, 24 monasteries or Viharas and 5 temples or Chaityas. The caves are cut into the sides of a steep river valley in a densely forested region. They were discovered purely by chance in 1819 by an English hunting party out after tigers. Typically they were very badly damaged after their discovery both by graffitists and the warm humid air which entered when they were opened. This is especially unfortunate because of the exceptionally beautiful wall paintings found inside some of the caves. However in the 1920s two leading Italian art restorers were brought over and after long an painstaking work some of the former glory was recaptured. Access to the caves is limited because of their fragility and lighting is dim and only on when tour parties are inside. Despite this the paintings are magnificent.

The caves were constructed by driving in a series of horizontal adits. These were then connected by cross passages thus leaving the roof supported on pillars of rock. These pillars were often carved, in fact all statues in the caves were carved from the rock in situ.

The caves at Ellora are more renowned for their carvings. Ellora also has a mixture of religions represented in its caves, there are 34 caves; 12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu and 5 Jam. The Buddhist caves are smaller and more subdued than their Ajanta counterparts. They were all built after the caves at Ajanta between 600 AD and 800 AD during a period of relative Buddhist decline. All but one are Viharas. The Hindu caves are the most famous at Ellora because of the profusion of wall carvings. They were built around 900 AD but the earliest were probably built when the later Buddhist caves were being finished because of similarities in decoration. All these caves are temples, the most famous being the enormous Kailassa temple. This is dedicated to Shiva and has been in practically continuous use since it was built. Over 200,000 tons of rock were removed and the whole edifice was carved from the top down so requiring no scaffolding. Finally, a few hundred metres away from the main site are the Jam caves. These are similar to the Buddhist caves in design but are covered in carvings of a very fine detail. The Jam caves were the last to be built on the site and date from 800 AD to 1000 AD.

India has other cave temples at various other sites, mostly in Maharashtra, but none of the others compare to the well preserved examples of Ellora and Ajanta. If a caver visits the sub-continent, he can visit these sites and at least claim to have been underground. As well as this benefit of being able to tick off another country the caves are well worth a visit on artistic merit alone.

Brian Derby

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