In the remote Indian wilderness, miles from the small town of Ajanta, ancient man-made caves sit nearly 250 feet above a valley stream. It is the type of wondrous destination Westerners would expect to see in an adventurous Indiana Jones movie.
Far from fictional however, the mysterious Ajanta Caves are a sacred complex of temple halls, former Buddhist monasteries, and a large collection of devotional sculpture and murals. Aligned in a horseshoe row of 30 caves, the excavations occurred separately over centuries that span the Satvahana and Gupta periods in India from second century B.C. to sixth century A.D.
This sacred Buddhist site showcases the tremendous skill and craftsmanship utilized centuries and millennia ago. Walls and columns divide the spaces and provide support while, in some of the caves, mock rafters and beams mimic wood construction for aesthetic purpose alone.
Innumerable sculpted figures of Buddhas and celestial beings can be found throughout the entire complex. In select caves, detailed murals cover the walls and even ceiling. When these incredible spaces became habitable, monks retreated in the viharas (Buddhist monastery), congregated in the chaitya-grihas (temple halls) and meditated in isolation at the feet of one of the many powerful sculptures of Buddha. Stone steps, now lost to time, once provided workers and monks a way to access water from the stream below.
The “discovery” of the caves by an officer of the British army in 1819 quickly made them a popular destination for wealthy Victorian adventurers to brave the Indian jungles. Fast forward two hundred years and the Ajanta Caves are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by multitudes of people from around the world. Electric lights now add aesthetically dramatic impact to the caves. The once private and religious place has become a tourist destination for all who make the journey; living proof that all things are subject to impermanence and the mysterious dance of the sacred and mundane.