Deep in the jungles of India, a man is hot on the tail of a wild tiger. Suddenly, he spots something strange in the cliffs high above him. So he climbs up to investigate… and discovers, amazingly, a secret that has lain hidden for hundreds of years.
This incredible scene took place in 1819. The protagonist was British cavalryman John Smith, and on that fateful day he was out hunting in what is now Aurangabad, a district of Maharashtra in western India. Close to the Waghora River, he noticed an opening in the rocks above.
Realizing that the cave looked man-made, Smith and his party scaled the rocks to take a closer look. Then he fashioned a flaming torch from grass to light his way and tentatively stepped inside.
Needless to say, Smith was in for a surprise when he entered the opening in the cliffs. Indeed, he found himself in a grand hall lined with columns, its walls decorated with paintings that were faded by age.
Exploring further, Smith discovered a bodhisattva – a carving of a Buddhist devotee at one of the stages of achieving nirvana. Inconceivably, but with typical colonial carelessness, he scratched his name on the body of the statue. He was, therefore, the first of many to leave his mark on what became known as the Ajanta Caves.
Located 280 miles to the east of Mumbai, the caves are thought to date back to the second century BC. They consist of 30 halls and feature religious structures hewn into the rock face up to 100 feet above the river below.
Experts believe that the caves were created over a period of many hundreds of years. Indeed, after the initial construction in the second century BC, work began on a second group of caves some time around the fifth century AD.
The structures here were built for Buddhist monks as a place in which to live and worship. There were, for example, caves allocated for different activities, such as sleeping and education, and many monks would have been trained at the facility. In fact, it is thought that at their peak the Ajanta Caves were home to several hundred men.
However, over time, Buddhism began to lose its grip on the region, and Hinduism rose to become the dominant religion once again. Consequently, the caves, with their Buddhist significance, were abandoned, and nature began to reclaim the site.
So, for more than 1,000 years, the Ajanta Caves remained buried in a remote corner of India as the world changed around them. Sadly, there was nobody to watch them fall into disrepair as the years passed – apart, that is, from a few local goat herders who used parts of the caves for shelter.
But all that changed with Smith and the discovery that he made in 1819. In fact, after that day the fame of the caves spread quickly throughout the world. Certainly, the stunning architecture of the caves and the exquisite artwork found within them soon established the area as an archaeological site of note.
In 1844, for instance, the Royal Asiatic Society commissioned Major Robert Gill to recreate some of the stunning paintings that lined the walls of the caves. His task was a difficult one: he had to slave away in intense heat while remaining vigilant to the threat not only from tigers, but also the hostile local Bhil people.
Despite such difficulties, however, Gill and his fellow adventurers discovered some incredible treasures that still draw visitors to the Ajanta Caves to this day. Suffice to say, then, that the caves, with their complex system of halls and cells, represent an incredible architectural feat.
Indeed, most of the caves are vihara halls, multi-purpose spaces once used for worship, sleeping and living. Each one consists of a central space featuring a Buddhist shrine, surrounded by smaller cells where the monks would go about their daily lives.
Interestingly, the first caves to be built were adorned with simple columns and painted with figures from Buddhist teachings. Later, during the second period of construction, more elaborate architecture and artwork appeared.
Meanwhile, throughout the caves, thousands of beautiful images recreate stories from the lives of Buddha. For example, men, women and animals are depicted in rich and detailed scenes, painted by skilled artists who studded their work with precious stones.
In what’s known as Cave One, an elaborate façade is covered in detailed carvings and reliefs. In others, meanwhile, mound-shaped shrines known as stupas create focal points. Additionally, Cave Two features a series of paintings depicting women in significant and powerful roles – leading some to suggest that a woman may have been responsible for funding at least part of the site.
Today, reaching the Ajanta Caves is less of an adventure than it was 200 years ago. Since then, of course, the ropes and ladders that Gill and his contemporaries were forced to climb have been replaced by a modern path, and the caves have firmly taken their place on the tourist map of western India.
Indeed, in 1983, the caves won recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, furthering their reputation as a unique and fascinating slice of history. Meanwhile, their location close to the famous Ellora Caves boosted their popularity, and by 2010 the site was attracting almost 400,000 visitors a year.
These days, then, a tour of the region isn’t complete without a visit to the Ajanta Caves. And despite the site’s popularity – so great that in 2013 a Mumbai designer launched four replica caves to ease overcrowding – the haunting magic of these vast structures carved into the rock so long ago endures.