Ajanta: Rock-cut Temples of India, part 1
2,500 years ago, Siddhartha, a Hindu Prince, was born in Nepal. Dismayed to discover suffering, he tried to make sense of the world. After many excesses, and deprivations, and trials of character, he achieved the insight of the middle way whereby he freed himself from extremes and was able to see and be with clarity. Many followers sought his teachings and the one who was Siddhartha came to be called Gautama Buddha.
400 years after the time of Gautama his teaching has spread across the northern half of India. Then, as today, monks who follow this way practice meditation and reverent prayer as a discipline. At the northern edge of the Deccan Plateau, in the state that is today called Maharashtra, some followers of the Buddha came to rocky cliffs high up in isolated hills. There, in the solid basalt and granite of the cliff faces, they envision great halls where the distractions of the world cannot enter and prayers echo off of cool rock. With only the meanest of implements, they begin work, knowing it will fall to successor generations of monks to fully complete this vision. Local kings and princes sent many workmen, but the monks themselves – or so I believe – must have aided the construction. Surely this must have been another kind of meditation for them, as they wielded tools in silence, a single monk perhaps removing only a few feet of stone in an entire lifetime. Caves would be built here for five centuries to come, only to be forgotten for a 1,000 years or more …
Standing here in the 21st century, this is how the story of the Ajanta Caves seems to me. There are many examples of rock-cut or cave temples in India; back in January, our family visited the Karla Caves. Ajanta and Ellora (to be described in a separate post), in the district of Aurangabad, about 250 kms from Pune, are the preeminent examples of this rock-cut architecture. When Morgan had a 1-week school break we decided to use some of that time to view these ancient places. (The trip itself I shall have to post about as well.)
At the main compound of Ajanta there is a ticket booth, restaurant, a few shops, basic facilities. To reach the actual caves, there is a bit of a trek up stairs:
In addition to the many hawkers and supposed guides offering their goods and services, you can hire a sedan chair and bearers to carry you up. It is probably best for all involved that I declined to engage such a chair.
It takes perhaps 10 mins walk to reach the first cave. Here is the view when you reach the top:
There are 26 caves in all at Ajanta. The cliff describes a horseshoe shape with the oldest caves being at the middle of the horseshoe and newer caves to the right and left. The caves are of two types. The first type is a vihara prayer hall, where monks lived and prayed daily:
These halls are 30 or more meters across, 8 meters or more high, and surrounded by pillars; cut into the the walls are cells where monks would sleep. At the end of the hall is a shrine to Buddha:
These photos are so dark because flash photography is forbid in many of the caves. This is because these caves are painted, either to adorn the carvings or to present scenes important to Buddhist lore:
As Morgan in the foreground helpfully illustrates, the stupa is about 15-20 feet high.
This photo is cave 10, one of the oldest caves at Ajanta. Comparing older and newer caves you can see how stupas became more elaborate:
These are from, going left to right, cave 9, cave 10, cave 19 and cave 26. 9 and 10 were constructed approx. 100 BCE to 100 CE; 19 and 26 date from the 5th century CE.
All the open space you see here was created by human activity; these are not natural caves that were somehow enlarged, but bodies of solid rock where these large chambers were created. Cave 24 is an unfinished cave where you can see the process:
The workers would start the excavation at the ceiling, working down. Pillars were left in rough outline to be finished later. The actual removal of stone was accomplished by a combination of hammer/chisel, drill and a method of forcing dry wood fibers into cracks which were then wetted – the expansion of the fibers would crack the stone.
For me, Ajanta was a very affecting place. The early caves have a simplicity – even with their rich paintings – that is very humbling to contemplate. The later caves display more ornamentation, but still all is in devotion to Buddha:
We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.
To visit these caves is to perceive at one time the suffering of their creation, but also the profound devotion of their achievement. The thoughts of those long-ago people and, as Buddha taught, what those people must have been, are there to be seen and touched at Ajanta.
UPDATE: All our Ajanta photos are on Flickr, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34062702@N06/sets/72157633098728717/