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Ajanta Caves
General Information about Ajanta Caves

Location: Aurangabad, Maharastra
Country: India
Region: Asia-Pacific

Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India are rock-cut cave monuments dating from the second century BCE, containing paintings and sculpture considered to be masterpieces of both "Buddhist religious art" and "universal pictorial art". The caves are located just outside the village of Ajinṭhā in Aurangabad district in the Indian state of Maharashtra (N. lat. 20 deg. 30' by E. long. 75 deg. 40'). Since 1983, the Ajanta Caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A National Geographic edition reads, "The flow between faiths was such that for hundreds of years, almost all Buddhist temples, including the ones at Ajanta, were built under the rule and patronage of Hindu kings."

Locality

The caves are in a wooded and rugged horseshoe-shaped ravine about 3 km from the village of Ajantha. It is situated in the Aurangābād district of Maharashtra State in India (106 kilometers away from the city of Aurangabad). The nearest towns are Sillod (30 kilometers away), Jalgaon (60 kilometers away) and Bhusawal (70 kilometers away). Along the bottom of the ravine runs the river Waghur, a mountain stream. There are 29 caves (as officially numbered by the Archaeological Survey of India), excavated in the south side of the precipitous scarp made by the cutting of the ravine. They vary from 35 to 110 ft (34 m) in elevation above the bed of the stream.

The monastic complex of Ajanta consists of several viharas (monastic halls of residence) and chaitya-grihas (stupa monument halls) cut into the mountain scarp in two phases. The first phase is mistakenly called the Hinayana phase (referring to the Lesser Vehicle tradition of Buddhism, when the Buddha was revered symbolically). Actually, Hinayana a derogative term for Sthaviravada does not object to Buddha statues. At Ajanta, cave numbers 9, 10, 12, 13, and 15A (the last one was re-discovered in 1956, and is still not officially numbered) were excavated during this phase. These excavations have enshrined the Buddha in the form of the stupa, or mound.

The second phase of excavation at the site began after a lull of over three centuries. This phase is often inappropriately called the Mahayana phase (referring to the Greater Vehicle tradition of Buddhism, which is less strict and encourages direct cow depiction of the Buddha through paintings and carvings). Some prefer to call this phase the Vakataka phase after the ruling dynasty of the house of the Vakatakas of the Vatsagulma branch. The dating of the second phase has been debated among scholars. In recent years a consensus seems to be converging on 5th-century dates for all the Mahayana or Vakataka phase caves. According to Walter M. Spink, a leading Ajantologist, all the Mahayana excavations were carried out from 462 to 480 CE. The caves created during the Mahayana phase are the ones numbered 1-8, 11, and 14-29. Cave 8 was long thought to be a Hinayāna cave, however current research shows that it is in fact a Mahayana cave.

There were two chaitya-grihas excavated in the Hinayana phase that are caves 9 and 10. Caves 12, 13, and 15A of this phase are vihāras. There were three chaitya-grihas excavated in the Vakataka or Mahayana phase that are caves 19, 26, and 29. The last cave was abandoned soon after its beginning. The rest of the excavations are viharas: caves 1-3, 5-8, 11, 14-18, 20-25, and 27-28.

The viharas are of various sizes the maximum being about 52 feet (16 m). They are often square-shaped. Their excavation exhibits a great variety, some with simple facade, others ornate; some have a porch and others do not. The hall was an essential element of a viharas. In the Vakataka phase, early viharas were not intended to have shrines because they were purely meant to be halls of residence and congregation. Later, shrines were introduced in them in the back walls, which became a norm. The shrines were made to house the central object of reverence that is the image of the Buddha often seated in the dharmachakrapravartana mudra (the gesture of teaching). In the caves with latest features, we find subsidiary shrines added on the side walls, porch or the front-court. The facades of many vihāras are decorated with carvings, and walls and ceilings were often covered with paintings.

Changes in Buddhist thought in the 1st century BCE had made it possible for the Buddha to be deified and consequently the image of the Buddha as a focus of worship became popular, marking the arrival of the Mahāyāna (the Greater Vehicle) sect.

In the past, scholars divided the caves in three groups, but this is now discredited in light of fresh evidence and research. This theory of dating believed that the oldest group of caves dated from 200 BCE to CE 200, the second group belonged, approximately, to the 6th, and the third group to the 7th century.

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