Case Study | Ajanta and Ellora Caves

Rock-cut cave architecture occupies a very important place in the Indian Art tradition. From the humble beginnings at the Barabar Caves, they evolve into spectacular caves at Ajanta and Ellora. Both these caves have been accorded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Table summing up the contrasting features are as follows

Ajanta Caves Ellora/ Elura/Verul Lena Caves
Location Near Aurangabad district of Maharashtra North West of Aurangabad district of Maharashtra
Timeline Constructed between 2nd Century BC to 6th Century AD Constructed between 6th Century AD to 10th Century AD
Number of caves 30 caves with one incomplete so sometimes considered 29.

4 chaityas and rest viharas.

100 caves with 34 open for public. Caves dedicated to Hinduism are more followed by Buddhist caves.

Cave 10 is the only Chaitya while rest are viharas.

Religions Entirely Buddhism Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism
Patronage Satavahanas, Vakatakas and Chalukyas Rashtrakutas, Kalachuris, Chalukyas and the Yadavas
Chronology of Construction 2nd-1st Century BC – Hinayana Phase

5th – 6th Century AD – Mahayana Phase

550 – 600 AD – Hindu Phase

600 – 730 AD – Buddhist Phase

730 – 950 AD – Hindu and Jain Phase

Major attraction Paintings, architecture and sculptures Architecture and sculptures.

Especially the Kailashnath temple.


Ajanta Caves

Ajanta caves are a series of 30 Buddhist caves located in Aurangabad district, Maharashtra. This site is declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It encompasses both Theravada (Hinayana) and Mahayana Buddhist traditions. The Ajanta caves preserve some of the best masterpieces of Buddhist art in India.



  1. History of Ajanta Caves

The earliest Ajanta caves were carved in the 2nd Century BC out of horse-shoe shaped cliff along the Waghora River. They were used by Buddhist monks as prayer halls (chaitya grihas) and monasteries (viharas) for about nine centuries.

Out of the 30 excavated caves, five (cave no. 9, 10, 19, 26, and 29) are chaitya grihas (prayer halls) and the rest are viharas (monasteries).

In date and style, these caves can be divided into two broad phases.

Phase I (2nd Century to 1st Century BCE) – The earliest excavations were done by the Satavahanas and belong to the Hinayana (Theravada) phase of Buddhism. The object of worship is a stupa here. Caves 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15A belong to this era.

Phase II (5th Century AD to 6th Century AD) – These excavations are a major contribution of the Vakatakas and Chalukyas and belong to Mahayana phase of Buddhism.



Study under the two phases

  1. Phase I/ Satavahana Phase Throughout his life Buddha was against the idea of sculpting and painting images of him. Hence, this phase depicts the Lord via symbols.

Of these, caves 9 and 10 are stupa containing worship halls of chaitya-griha form, and caves 12, 13, and 15A are viharas.

Cave 9 : This apsidal chaitya griha is datable to second century B.C. and belongs to the Hinayana phase of Buddhism. It is a large liturgical hall, with monolithic stone stupa carved from a living rock.

CAVE 9 – Worship Hall with a stupa but no idols

Cave 10 –

The cave consists of a central hall and a rock stupa around which a circumambulatory path is provided.

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CAVE 10 – Worship Hall with a stupa and circumambulatory path

  1. Phase 2 / Vakataka Phase – The second phase was of greater artistic activity at Ajanta during the rule of the Vakataka dynasty. King Harishena is credited to have been at the forefront of the development cycle.

Major difference from Phase I is the depiction of Buddha as a result of the spread of Mahayana Buddhism which believes in revering the Master through images and idols.

Caves – Caves 19, 26, and 29 are chaitya-grihas, the rest viharas.

CAVE 19 :

This chaitya griha is datable to fifth century A.D. The stupa is carved with a standing image of Buddha. This cave is known for its sculptural grandeur of the facade. The hall has painted depictions of Buddha in various postures. Cave 19 is first example of a chaitya wholly in stone.

The stunning variety of panel and bracket decoration in this cave includes images of Buddha, mounted riders, flying celestials, lion heads in the panels at intervals and vegetation.

Image result for cave 19 ajanta standing buddha

Standing Buddha in the interior cave covered with drapery, topped by a majestic three tiered umbrella in front of a stupa.

Besides the richly carved interior, the exterior walls of the caves of later phase are well sculptured and ornamented.

Image result for naga consort ajanta


CAVE 26 –

This chaityagriha is quite similar to Cave 19, but of a larger dimension and more elaborately and exquisitely provided with sculpted figures.

The chaitya griha consists of a hall, side aisles (pradikshana) and a rock-cut stupa front by an image of seated Buddha. The facade, the inner pillars, the triforium (between pillars and roof arch), aisles side walls are extensively carved with images and decorative designs.

Image result for cave 26 ajanta


The most striking and prominent image is that of Mahaparinirvana of Buddha on the right aisle wall and the assault of Mara during Buddha’s penance adorns the same wall.

Image result for cave 26 ajanta Temptation by Mara
Temptation by Mara

  • Mara in Buddhism is a demon who tempted Gautam Buddha by trying to seduce him with the vision of beautiful women who, in various legends, are often said to be Mara’s daughters.

Image result for cave 26 ajanta Parinirvana


  • In Buddhism, the term parinirvana is commonly used to refer to nirvana-after-death, which occurs upon the death of the body of someone who has attained nirvana during his or her lifetime.
  • This sculpture is also known as the reclining Buddha.

The artists of Ajanta have given us an insight into a time we know little about, through the illustrations of these two stories. Through this visual window, we know more about the attire the kings donned at the time, their general facial features (which are strikingly central Asian), the arms they carried and more.

Transition over ages

Image result for cave 9 ajanta stupa


The above shows how transition occurred with time and evolution of Mahayana sect which worships Buddha in form of idols and images.


Ajanta Paintings are finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art. According to UNESCO, these are masterpieces of Buddhist religious art that influenced Indian Art. These masterpieces at Ajanta were executed more or less in two phases. The paintings at Ajanta are not frescoes but murals.

What are murals?

Murals are paintings done on already dried surfaces.

How are murals different from frescoes?

Fresco is a technique of painting executed upon freshly laid lime plaster. The wet plaster binds the paint to the plaster itself hence the color pigments get absorbed in the wall.
In case of Murals color is mixed with some adhesive and is applied on the dry surface.

Vishnodarottar Purana written in the Post Gupta Period describes how the paintings were made in the ancient times. All the painting experiments suggest this book was followed.

Study under the two phases –

  1. Phase I – These paintings belong to the Hinayana era (200 BC- 1 BC). Depiction of Buddha has been done via symbolism. Paintings of this era have mostly been lost.

CAVE 9 –

Of all paintings of this era very few have survived. These are –

  1. Frieze Of Animals And Herdsmen
  2. Naga Worshippers
  3. Giant Horseshoe Window
  4. Phase II – The second phase departs from the earlier one with the introduction of new pattern in layout as well as the centrality of Buddha image due to Mahayana influence, both in sculpture as well as in paintings

The main theme of the paintings is the depiction of various Jataka stories, different incidents associated with the life of Buddha, and the contemporary events of social life.

The ceiling decoration invariably consists of decorative patterns, geometrical as well as floral.

CAVE 1 – This cave has one of the most elaborately carved facades with scenes carved from the life of the Buddha as well as a number of decorative motifs.

It contains the famed paintings of Bodhisvattas Padmapani and Vajrapani along with a seated figure of Buddha in dharma chakra parivartana mudra in the sanctum.

The Buddha in the shrine room is seen through the aisle and vestibule in dharmachakraparivartana mudra with Bodhisvattas Padmapani and Vajrapani on either sides.

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Scene from Shibi Jataka

  • King Shibi who offered his own flesh to save a pigeon.

CAVE 2 –

F:\UPSC\Civils_Culture_Module\Images\CAVE-2 Mahadevi _ Buddha birth.png

Mahadevi gives birth to Buddha


CAVE 17 – Cave 17 is a Mahayana Vihara. It is full of the finest paintings.

Few important among these are –

Macintosh HD:Users:rohitpande:Downloads:Buddha visist his son at Ajanta Caves.jpg


Buddha returns from enlightenment to his own home to beg from his wife Yashodhara, while his son Rahula looks astonished.

Related image

A flying Apsara to worship the Buddha

Image result for vessantara jataka cave 17

Vessantara Jataka

  • A prince is trying to cheer his distressed wife who is upset over the news of his impending banishment (Vessantara Jataka)

Image result for cave 17 matriposhaka jataka

MATRIPOSHAKA JATAKA STORY – The story of a Bodhisattva elephant who had blind parents. In this story, the Bodhisattva elephant chooses to take care of his blind parents readily giving away palatial comforts.

CAVE 10 – Though this cave majorly belongs to the Hinayana phase, the cave was worked upon in the Mahayana era too. This is explained by presence of Buddha’s images and idols that belong to the later era.



CAVE 16 –

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The Dying Princess

The story tells how Nanda who was passionately in love with this girl was tricked away from her by the Buddha and carried up to heaven.

Overwhelmed by the beauty of the Apsaras, Nanda forgot his earthly love and consented to enter the Buddhist order as a shortcut to heaven.

In time, he came to see the vanity of his purely physical aim and became a Buddhist but the Princess, his beloved, was cruelly left to her fate without any such consolation.

Decorative Pictures

Besides religious paintings there is another category of painting. These paintings are decorative and secular. They fill up all the available space on the ceilings, walls and vaults.

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  1. Ellora Caves

It one of the largest rock-hewn monastic-temple complexes in the entire world. There are 34 caves, structures are excavated out of the vertical face of the hills.



  1. Cave Architecture –

Out of these, there are 12 Mahayana Buddhist caves (caves 1-12), 17 Hindu caves (caves 13-29) and 5 caves of the Jain faith (caves 30-34). The Ellora Caves are not only a unique artistic creation but also with its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India.

  1. Buddhist Monuments [CAVE 1- 12]

Among these 12 caves only one is a prayer hall (chaitya griha) while others are monasteries.

Cave 5 is unique because it is designed as a hall with two parallel refectory benches in the centre with a Buddha statue in the rear. Cave 5 of Ellora and Cave 11 of the Kanheri caves are only two such Buddhist caves in India.

Vishvakarma Cave [CAVE 10]-

Image result for carpenter's cave ellora

Vishvakarma Cave – Seated Buddha in preaching position (vyakhyana mudra)

  • This is the only chaitya-griya in Ellora.
  • Also known as Carpenter’s Cave because the artistic finish gives the rock an appearance of wooden beams.
  • It follows the pattern of construction of Caves 19 and 26.


  1. Hindu Monuments [CAVE 13- 29]

The Kalachuris and the Rashtrakutas were major contributors.

Dhumar Lena [CAVE 29] –

These caves are dedicated to Lord Shiva. All these cave temples contain a rock cut linga-yoni within the core of the shrine, surrounded by a space for circumambulation (parikrama).

The Dashavatara [Cave 15] – This cave has many well carved sculptures. Lord Vishnu is depicted in his ten incarnations.

Other Important sculptures –

Vishnu at the Dashavatara Ellora temple.


Shiv Parvati Marriage

Image result for ellora Andhakasura


Other important panels are –

    • Gangadhara panel
    • Tripurantika of Shaktism tradition
    • Nandi in mandapa
    • Dancing Shiva

Kailashnath Temple [CAVE 16]

Ascribed to Krishna I, a Rashtrakuta ruler this temple was constructed around the middle 8th Century AD. This temple is world famous for being the largest single monolithic excavation in the world. The temple architecture shows traces of Pallava and Chalukya styles. This amalgamation is a result of influence of Virupaksha temple of Pattadakal (Chalukyan temple) and Kailasa temple of Kanchi (Pallave temple). Though it needs to be specified, Kailash temple is not an exact imitation of these temples.

The temple is chiefly a Shaivite temple although sculptures belonging to Vaishnavism are also found here.

The temple consists of four parts – the main shrine, the entrance gateway, an intermediate shrine for Nandi and mandapa surrounding the courtyard.

Image result

Kailashnath Temple

The Kailasa temple is an architectural marvel with it beautiful sculptures.

Important Sculptures –

Image result for kailashnath temple durga slaying mahishasura ellora

Goddess Durga slaying the Buffalo demon


Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa, the abode of Siva

Besides these, scenes of Ramayana are also depicted on the walls.

Other Hindu caves

Other notable Hindu caves are the Ravan ki Khai (Cave 14) and the Nilkantha (Cave 22) also have several sculptures. Cave 25 features Surya carved in its ceiling.

  1. Jain Monuments [CAVE 30- 34]-

These caves belong to Digambara sect. The emphasis in the Jain caves is the depiction of twenty four Jinas (spiritual conquerors who have gained liberation from the endless cycle of rebirths). Along with them yakshas, yakshis and human devotees are depicted.

The most remarkable Jain shrines are the Chhota Kailash (cave 30), the Indra Sabha (cave 32) and the Jagannath Sabha (cave 33).

Amongst its devotional carvings, the Jain Ellora caves offer some of the earliest Samavasarana images. Samavasarana is of special interest to Jains, as it is a hall where the Tirthankara preaches after attaining Kevala Jnana (liberating omniscience).

  1. Ellora Paintings –

Paintings from Ellora are not very significant. They too like Ajanta are murals and depict both religious and secular images. Important among these is an early painting of Vishnu and Lakshmi being borne out of a cloud by a Garuda.


The above study reveals how culture and tradition varied over a large span of time. They also reveal how historically Indian rulers were not only tolerant towards different religions but also patronized them. Lessons can be drawn from these times and implemented in contemporary times to defeat social unrest and intolerance.


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