History of Ajanta Caves

History of Ajanta Caves

The Ajanta Caves, situated along the Wangorah River in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district, stand as a testament to India’s rich cultural and artistic heritage. Discovered by chance in 1819 by British officer John Smith during a hunting expedition, these rock-cut cave temples have since been at the forefront of archaeological and historical research, offering a glimpse into the evolution of Buddhism, artistic expression, and the socio-political landscape of ancient India.

History of Ajanta Caves

Discovery and Colonial Era

The accidental discovery of Cave No. 10 by John Smith marked the beginning of the Ajanta Caves’ journey into historical prominence. The locals were already aware of their existence, and within a few decades, the caves became renowned for their exotic setting, impressive architecture, and unique paintings. The colonial era witnessed significant initiatives to study and preserve these cultural treasures.

William Erskine’s paper in 1822 contributed to early documentation, and in 1848, the Royal Asiatic Society established the “Bombay Cave Temple Commission” to clear, tidy, and record the rock-cut sites in the Bombay Presidency. This commission, with John Wilson as president, laid the groundwork for the later establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1861. During this period, the Ajanta Caves were in the princely state of Hyderabad.

Efforts to copy the paintings were undertaken, and in 1861, the ASI was formed, becoming the nucleus for further exploration and preservation. However, the caves faced challenges during the colonial era, including vandalism and neglect, exemplified by an incident where John Smith deliberately damaged an image on the wall by scratching his name and date over a painting of a bodhisattva.

The Ajanta Caves: An Architectural Marvel

The Ajanta Caves, numbering 30 in total, are arranged in a horseshoe-shaped pattern, intricately carved into the rock face. The caves consist of chaitya-grihas (prayer halls) and viharas (monastic dwellings), showcasing different architectural styles and serving as a canvas for some of the finest ancient Indian art.

Construction Phases

The caves are broadly divided into two construction phases, each revealing distinct characteristics and influences.

First Period Caves (Satavahana)

The earliest caves, including 9, 10, 12, 13, and 15A, are attributed to the Satavahana period, dating from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. The murals in these caves depict stories from the Jatakas, illustrating a strong influence of Hinayana or Theravada Buddhism. Scholars, including Walter Spink, debate the construction period, with estimates ranging from 100 BCE to 100 CE. Caves 9 and 10 emphasize the stupa structure, while 12, 13, and 15A follow the vihāra style. Despite a period of dormancy after construction, these caves were frequented by Buddhist pilgrims, as documented by Chinese pilgrim Faxian around 400 CE.

Second Period Caves (Vākāṭaka)

The second phase, dating to the 5th century, witnessed construction under the patronage of Hindu Emperor Harishena of the Vākāṭaka dynasty. Caves 1-8, 11, and 14-29 fall under this period, reflecting the theistic Mahāyāna tradition of Buddhism. Walter M. Spink’s studies argue for a brief construction period from 460 to 480 CE, challenging earlier beliefs in a broader timeframe. These caves showcase elaborate sculptures and paintings, with some refurbishing of the earlier caves. The period corresponds to India’s golden age, with the Gupta Empire in decline and the Vākāṭakas emerging as a powerful dynasty.

Iconography and Artistic Expression

The Ajanta Caves are renowned for their exceptional paintings, sculptures, and frescoes, providing insights into the religious, social, and artistic milieu of ancient India.

Paintings and Frescoes

The paintings in the Ajanta Caves, some dating to the Satavahana period and others to the Gupta period and beyond, are characterized by elaborate detailing and vibrant colors. Notable examples include depictions of Jataka Tales in Cave 1 and splendid ceiling paintings, such as one portraying an elephant running surrounded by flowers, chosen as the logo of India’s Department of Tourism. The artistic expressions evolve across the caves, reflecting the transition from Hinayana to Mahayana Buddhism.

Efforts in Deciphering, Restoration, and Preservation

Over the years, various experts dedicated themselves to deciphering, restoring, and preserving the paintings of the Ajanta Caves. Major Gill, John Griffith, Lady Herringham, Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar, Mukul Dey, and Ghulam Yazdani are among those who played pivotal roles in these efforts. Despite these endeavors, the delicate paintings faced degradation due to neglect.

Post-Independence Initiatives

Post-independence, the state government of Maharashtra took proactive measures to enhance tourism and conservation. In the early 1920s, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, appointed individuals to restore the artwork, converted the site into a museum, and built a road for tourists. However, these efforts faced challenges and led to early mismanagement, hastening the deterioration of the site.

The modern Visitor Center, established to manage the increasing number of tourists, boasts amenities and ASI-operated buses that transport visitors to the caves at regular intervals. Despite ongoing challenges, the Ajanta Caves were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983.

Ajanta Caves in Contemporary Times

In contemporary times, the Ajanta Caves remain a popular tourist destination, attracting visitors from around the world. Alongside the Ellora Caves, they represent a cultural and historical treasure in Maharashtra. However, the popularity of the site has led to challenges, especially concerning the preservation of the delicate paintings.

In 2012, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation announced plans to add complete replicas of caves 1, 2, 16, and 17 at the ASI visitor center entrance. This initiative aimed to reduce crowding in the original caves and provide visitors with a better visual understanding of the paintings, often dimly lit and challenging to perceive within the caves.


The Ajanta Caves stand as a testament to the artistic brilliance and cultural richness of ancient India. From their accidental discovery in the early 19th century to their recognition as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the caves have undergone a journey of exploration, preservation, and appreciation. The architectural marvels, intricate paintings, and historical significance make the Ajanta Caves a timeless treasure that continues to captivate the imagination of archaeologists, historians, and tourists alike. As efforts persist to balance conservation with the increasing demand for tourism, the Ajanta Caves remain an enduring symbol of India’s past, inviting exploration and discovery for generations to come.