From Visitor to a Pilgrim: The Transformative World of Ajanta and Ellora Caves

Part of the geological heritage of the Indian Peninsula, the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot hosts several rock-cut caves carved from Volcanic Basalt Rocks. Of them are the World Heritage Sites of the Ajanta – Buddhist (BC 200 to CE 650 in the Sahyadri Hills) and the Ellora – Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Caves (CE 600 to 1000 in the Charanandri Hills) in the Aurangabad District of the State of Maharashtra illustrate the universal and Indian celebration of human creativity and ingenuity. Either site requires a whole day to enable visitors to immerse in a transformative journey of hearing, seeing, and feeling paintings, sculptures, architecture, and carvings manifesting philosophical and artistic movements, design, and techniques. The essence of Ajanta and Ellora sites against natural landscapes are magnificent historical records celebrating human genius backed by strategically organised patronage.


During the monsoon, the Ajanta and Ellora sites are adorned by waterfalls and lush green vegetation contrasting with the black volcanic rocks. The caves served as rain shelters in the four months of monsoons for spiritual mendicants, traders’ guilds, and ordinary people. References to patrons in various site inscriptions testify to strategic investments to create large site projects. The caves represent philosophical and functional metaphors; in several ancient Indian texts, they are spaces of spiritual retreat, and the locations become even more energised in the presence of water and forests for expressing metaphysical and artistic processes.

The sites were strategically located along ancient West-East and north-south trade routes connecting to the Arabian Sea. Two mural Tempera paintings in the Ajanta Caves that art historians identify as people possibly traders from outside India. In one painting, there are fair-coloured men, and in the other, men wearing blue socks.

The Ajanta Story

The art in the Ajanta Caves, especially the mural paintings and even sculptures such as the image of the dying Buddha (Cave 26), inspired Buddhist art in Southeast Asia and beyond in terms of style, themes, and iconographic representation.

There are two ways to access the caves. Ideally, the more exciting route is going to the viewpoint where the visitor will get a complete view of the caves in tandem with their setting, which includes the picturesque forest area and the Waghora River. From this place, in 1819, a British Army hunting party re-discovered caves hidden for centuries. The management has made a pathway down near the ticket counter. The other option is driving to the formal parking, taking a battery bus, arriving at the ticket counter, and then climbing or taking a palanquin to the caves.

The caves are not numbered according to their chronological dates. However, the journey from Cave 1 to Cave 26 takes the visitor to relive the Buddhist world just as the patrons, merchants, devoted pilgrims, courtiers, and artisans engaged with the dream world of caves cut into the volcanic hills centuries ago. While the Chiatyas – prayer halls have stupas and assembly halls, the residential shelters have statues of Buddha and other Buddhist deities in antechambers. On the side of the caves are residential cells. Scholars believe that mural paintings adorned several caves; although most are unfortunately gone, the remaining ones are extraordinary. The unfinished caves, such as Cave 4, explain the internal geological formation of the layers of frozen flowing lava, and one can appreciate human virtuosity in creating the Ajanta site. The visual arts comprising tempera mural paintings, sculptures and architecture are replete with themes related to Buddha’s life, stories from his previous life called the Jataka tales, Buddhist statues and even architecture such as the wooden façade of the ceiling of cave 10.

Art of Ajanta: While the Ajanta artisan used chisels and hammers relentlessly dug into the rocky hills, another set painted and sculpted the dark interiors. Scholars suggest that artisans used the direction of sunlight and reflectors to work in dark spaces. The Ajanta paintings, representing examples of one of the earliest Indian traditions, are made of locally available natural mineral colours except for the blue Lapez, which came from Afghanistan or further West /Central Asia. The flowing dark outlines, shadings with dots or lines, and illustrious techniques of three-dimensional effect combine to communicate the Buddhist world, lifestyles, fashion, and drama of human emotions. The ceilings painted with lively natural elements incorporate magical animals and fascinating human stories. There is also in Cave 1 the painted white elephant (cave 1) adopted as the symbol of the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.

Figurative paintings, such as the iconic contemplating Padmapani Buddha (Cave 1), represent symbols of universal processes, drawing the audience to pause and reflect. The image has Buddha as Siddhartha, the prince, and above him, there is a peacock and musicians, indicating the immense attraction for the world of sensory pleasure. On the right side, near the face, is the jumping monkey (the flighty human mind). Siddhartha’s elongated, dreamy, soulful eyes looking at the white lotus (rational mind) in hand expresses the ‘gale of stillness’ described by the art historian Stella Kramrisch, depicting the process of an inner journey of becoming Buddha.

The sculptural art of Ajanta draws the audience to go deeper into an experiential personalised journey. On one occasion, a group of monks from the Republic of Korea evoked the past chanting in the hall of Cave 19, followed by the visit to Cave 26, where the representation of the dying Buddha was all about the bliss of Nirvana.

Distance from Aurangabad – 100 kms; Travel time : 2 and half hrs
30 caves: 5 Chaityas   prayer halls and ceremonial centre and 25 Viharas – residential spaces.
Recommended visit – Caves 1,2, 4/5,9,10, 16, 17, 19, 26.

Ellora: From Form to Formless

Ellora is a metaphor where man sought to find his soul by creating archaeological forms from the bold volcanic mountains. Patrons, worshippers, thousands of craftsmen, and labourers mapped from the rock spiritual journeys of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Unlike the compact display of the Ajanta caves and except for the visibility of monumental Kailash (Cave 16), the rest of the caves are spread across the mountainside, inviting visitors to venture into the silent darkness where they walk through unique designs of corridors and aligned pillar paths into the forms and into the mountain surrounded by sculptures communicating myths and where symbols replete with philosophical tenets lead to dark antechambers holding the central deity that forms the central energy consuming the visitor to retreat in the truth of their own silence.

Hinduism: Cave 16, named after the Kailash Mountain, the abode of Shiva in the Himalayas, forms the central attraction of the World Heritage site of Ellora and the largest monolith in the world created from top to bottom, removing tonnes of rock represents the magic of human ingenuity. The shape of a chariot in the centre and the rest of the architecture encapsulates the concept of Shiva, one of the three principal Gods in Hindu myths. The grand architecture compresses the central theme of the Hindu caves in Ellora. ‘Shiva’, scholars explain is the idea of the male-female energy – Shiva and his consort Parvati; He represents the importance of continuity of life and the idea of the death of all living beings as an essential element for life to go on. Like most Hindu Gods, Shiva also assumes his manifest form, illustrating his grandness in the various ‘lilas’ or divine plays displayed through sculpted mythological tales amidst friezes from the two epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. The visitor enters the cave and is introduced to the world of Shiva, beginning with sculptural representations of the practical world carved from within the mountain. The impressive stone sculpture of Gaj Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth in the company of elephants also represents material abundance.) Full-breasted, the female goddess sits atop a pool of water filled with lotus leaves with dew drops and other water beings she represents, along with a sculpture of kuber (God of wealth), the importance of resources essential for such a massive project.

The visitor moves forward in the clockwise path, first facing the three river goddesses, each symbolising the goals of human life to attain fulfilment. Ganga represents man’s aspiration to refine himself, Yamuna indicates commitment as bhakti (devotion), and Saraswati is the quest for knowledge. Turning and walking up through the rock-cut corridors, the visitor performs a circumambulation and confronts drama and movement in stone on the theme of Shiva. Below, panels from the epic Mahabharat depict Krishna communicating the theory of Karma from his lecture ( Gita) on the battlefield of the Mahabharat, and rows of elephants stand to celebrate an amalgamation of the temporal and philosophical ideas of power.

Stepping down from the corridor, the visitor moves towards the centre in the form of a chariot, where below is Shiva in this evolutionary form of Yogeshwar, the supreme Yogi who will be transformed into his formless state in the sanctum above. The visitor, too, is changing as a pilgrim; he climbs up into the dark passage. The ceiling has a Shiva as the cosmic dancer, the drum sound is heard internally, and finally, the pilgrim reaches the formless Shiva, where the male-female energies collapse into the axis-mundi called the Shivalinga. The visitor in the dark cave experiences the lighted echo of truth.  The journey outside allows the pilgrim to climb up the hills from where he witnesses his empowerment of the top of the Kailash in the form of four lions arranged in the circle of life, and below the ultimate wonder of the expanse of the wonder in architecture.

The sculptures and the themes of Shiva in the Kailash temple are repeated in other Hindu caves.

Examples from the Buddhist World: Visitors walk along a road where Cave 12 ‘Teen Tal’ – a three-storey monastery where rows of impressive statues of Boddhisatva ( enlightened souls who assist others to fulfil themselves or attain Buddhahood). The visitor walks along the perfected corridor that turns, presenting the next level of rising energy in the form of Tara  – the female Boddhisatva who assists in navigating spiritual evolution, and finally, the dark sanctum with a mandala on the ceiling depicting revolving energies and the unity of being in the image of the Buddha.

The passage of immersing oneself in the spiritual process through Buddhist art culminates in the chaitya -prayer hall Vishwakarma Cave 10. More evolved in architecture than Ajanta Cave 19, the cave is spectacular in its representation of the ribbed ceiling imitating wooden frames, and the shape lends itself to striking modes of echoed acoustics, making the experience a heritage.

Jain Caves: Located on the Northern side of the site, the five caves (30-34) represent the last phase of Ellora›s artistic and religious impulses. The Indra Sabha assembly hall (Cave 32) displays a cohesive narrative of Tirthankars (ultimate teachers who attained freedom from the birth cycle), myths, and symbols in sculptures, architecture, and paintings. The elaborate pillars of the Jain caves organised sequentially reflect the thematic coordinated scheme of joy, abundance and fertility with the statues of Matang Yaksha (Guardian of wealth) and paintings of flying celestial couples.

The Transformed Pilgrim: On the one hand, the organised spaces filled with the mythical and symbolic world of the Gods draw the visitors into a dynamic world inside the caves embedded in the immovable mountain. On the other hand, the visitor transforms into a pilgrim as he is drawn into the dark sanctums with the main deity filled with silence and stillness and a sense of timelessness!

Distance from Aurangabad – 30 kms; Travel time: 1 hr. 34 caves – Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain (6th – 10th  CE)
Recommended visit: Hindu – Caves 16, 21, 29. Buddhist – Cave 12, 10. Jain – 30-34 (interconnected)


Navina Jafa is a renowned curator and scholar on Cultural Heritage & Tourism, and a most accomplished classical dancer. She is a prolific writer and regular contributor to art discussions.



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