Ajanya & Ellora, Maharashtra
The Indian state of Maharastra is home to some of the oldest sacred sites in India, especially in the Buddhist tradition. Among the best known and most visited of these are the cave temples that can be found at Ajanta and Ellora. Between these two locations, approximately sixty miles from each other, are over sixty of the worlds most magnificent rock-carved temples. Built between the 2nd century BC and the 8th century AD, these unparalleled temples date from before the arrival of Islam and represent a golden age of Buddhist (and to a lesser extent Hindu) architecture and culture. Both locations are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Sometime around the 3rd or 2nd centuries BC, a group of Buddhists believed to be monks established a settlement at what is now Ajanta in Maharastra. This first wave of settlers, which is referred to as the Satavahana period, constructed five cave-temples which served as monastic retreats as well as educational facilities. It is possible that the site was later abandoned for a few hundred years between dynasties.
Another wave of settlers, either additions to older residents or new residents entirely, began expanding the site sometime in the 5th century. This group, known as the Vakataka period, constructed another two dozen cave temples, including some of the largest and most elaborate. It is uncertain how long the site remained occupied, but within a few centuries Ajanta is believed to have been abandoned.
Around the same time that Ajanta was on the wane, a new community of cave builders was growing up in nearby Ellora. There, not only did Buddhists construct cave temples, but also Hindus and Jains. Collectively they constructed 34 temples, many just as magnificent as those at Ajanta. Unlike Ajanta, the Ellora site was never completely abandoned, and has been regularly visited throughout its history.
In 1819, a British expedition came across the Ajanta cave temples. As the story goes, this was completely by accident, but considered one of the greatest archaeological finds in India’s history. Ajanta, along with Ellora, instantly became one of India’s most famous sites and a popular destination for adventure explorers during the colonial era. Today they are among the most popular attractions in India outside of the major cities.
The Ajanta Site consists of 29 rock-cut temples and monasteries, all Buddhist. The oldest is believed to be cave 10, the largest though unfinished is cave 4. The most popular caves are cave 26, with its famous reclining Buddha statue, and cave 1. All of the temples boast some of India’s oldest and best preserved pre-Islamic religious artwork and paintings.
The Ellora Site is home to 12 Buddhist caves, 17 Hindu caves and 5 Jain caves. The most popular of the Buddhist sites is cave 10 with a popular carving of the Buddha giving instruction. Arguably the most popular site in Ellora is the Kailasanatha Temple in cave 16, which is actually a Hindu temple. Carved from a single rock, it is one of the largest rock-carved structures in the world.
The Ellora and Ajanta cave sites are both located in the north-central part of the state of Maharastra, north of the city of Aurangabad, 150 miles and 200 miles east of Mumbai, respectively. Ellora is the more accessible and more visited of the two, though both locations are considered to be equally spectacular. Both sites are open year-round Tuesdays through Sundays (hours may vary by cave). Not all caves may be accessible at any given time. As of this writing the cost of admission was not available. Web: www.maharashtratourism.gov.in (official tourism website of Maharashtra).
There are few other places that rival Ajanta and Ellora in cave temple construction, but there are also the Aurangabad Caves, a series of twelve more Buddhist temples. These are much more accessible to the city of Aurangabad, but not quite as magnificent. Other cave temple complexes are the Cave Temples of Elephanta Island off the coast of Mumbai, and the Pataleshwar Cave Temples in Pune. Immediately next to the caves in Ellora is the Grishneshwar Temple, one of the twelve Jyotirlinga shrines of Shiva, as well as the Kailasnatha Temple.