One name that immediately pops up whenever rock-cut architecture is discussed is Ajanta and Ellora Caves of Aurangabad. Entailing the finest story of rock-cut architecture, these caves are a treat for architectural enthusiasts and budding designers. The caves reflect the significance of craftsmanship, attention to detail, and correct technique to craft a splendid piece of art.
The Ajanta Caves date back to the 2nd Century BCE to about 480 CE enclosing around 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India. The caves are graced with paintings and rock-cut sculptures which are considered the finest example of Ancient Indian art that reflects emotions through pose, gesture, and form.
The Ellora Caves are one of the largest examples of rock-cut Hindu Temple cave complexes in the world and date back to 600-1000 CE. The Basalt Cliff in Charanandari Hills is excavated forming around 100 caves on the site with cage 16 featuring the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world – Kailasa temple.
Tale of Ajanta Caves
Ajanta caves are believed to have been made in two different phases. The first phase was during the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century and the second phase was executed after several centuries from 400 to 650 CE. The caves consist of 36 identifiable foundations, a few of which were discovered after the original numbering of caves. These caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and a protected monument has been taken care of by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Ajanta Caves are witnessed as a masterwork of Buddhist Religious art and constitute monasteries and worship halls carved into a 75-meter wall of rock to perform different Buddhist traditions. The caves showcase the paintings depicting the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha, rock-cut sculptures of Buddhist deities, and pictorial tales from Aryasura’s Jatakamala. The use of the caves in ancient India as per the textual records is to provide a monsoon retreat for the monks and serve as a resting space for merchants and pilgrims.
The caves designated as 16, 17, 1, and 2 of Ajanta form the largest corpus of surviving ancient Indian wall paintings. The caves are built in the Deccan Plateau in the rocky Northern wall of the U-Shaped gorge of the river Wagner. From outside the caves, the waterfalls in the gorge are audible when the river is high. The Ajanta caves are carved out from the flood basalt rock of a cliff which is a part of the Deccan traps.
The horizontal layering of the rocks and variation in quality made the artists execute their carving methods and plans in place. The sculpture artists were made to both excavate the rocks and carve the pillars, roofs, and idols with utmost intricacy. A Grand gateway to the site is built at the apex of the Gorge’s horseshoe between caves 15 and 16. It is approached from the river and is decorated with a Naga deity and elephants on both sides.
The majority of the caves are Vihara halls constructed on symmetrical square plans with attached small square dormitory cells cut into the walls. The caves carved in the second phase are called monasteries wherein a shrine or sanctuary is planned at the rear side of the cave and a Buddha statue takes over in the center. The pillars and walls have details of reliefs and deities. The interior of the Viharas is defined by square columns with rectangular long aisles on each side forming something similar to a cloister. 80% of the Ajanta caves are designated as viharas. The caves had facilities for storing grains and food for monks and visitors and collecting donations.
Tale of Ellora Caves
The Ellora caves are excavated from the Basalt cliffs in the Charanandri hills which make up 100 caves at the site, out of which 34 are open to the public. The variety of caves is 17 Hindu caves, 5 Jain caves, and 12 Buddhist caves with these groups symbolic of different deities and mythologies prevalent in the 1st millennium CE.
The construction of Hindu and Buddhist caves dates back to the era of the Rashtrakuta dynasty and many Jain caves were under construction during the Yadava dynasty. The royals, traders, and other wealthy people provided funding for the construction of monuments. The site is located on an ancient South Asian trade route that made the Ellora caves an important commercial center in the Deccan region. The caves and temples also served best as a rest stop for pilgrims.
The Ellora caves are believed to have been found in the 9th and 10th centuries by the Buddhist monks. Ellora is also referred to as Verul or Elura which is a short form of Elloorpuram. The inscriptions of these names are found as Baroda inscriptions of 812 CE which translates to the greatness of this edifice where the referred edifice is the Kailasa temple. These caves occupy a flat region of western ghats and are located 100 km West of Ajanta Caves.