The Ajanta caves, numbered sequentially from east to west - 1 to 30, are located in a great arc cut by the curving course of River Waghora. The numbering bears no relation to the order in which the caves were excavated. These caves are not natural but are carved out of the rock itself and quite likely based upon structural prototypes that are now non-existent. Five of these thirty caves– 9, 10, 19, 26 and 29 are chaitya-grihas (sanctuary) and the rest are sanghramas or viharas (monastery).
Ajanta had two distinct periods of patronage. The Earlier Buddhist phase took place between approximately 100 BCE and 100 CE. The austere Caves 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15A / 30 were excavated as community efforts during that period. The broken Cave 8 was long considered an earlier Buddhist school excavation because of its primitive character but it was actually undertaken at the very start of the Vakataka phase, in fact it is possibly the earliest excavated vihara (monastery) in the whole of India. After the Early Buddhism period, the site lay dormant for three centuries but the situation dramatically changed in the mid-fifth century, when a renaissance took place under the aegis of emperor Harisena of the Vakataka dynasty, a group of powerful patrons – local rulers of the Ajanta region and the feudatories from nearby, Asmakas patronized development of a cave.
During the Vakataka’s resurgence activity, the early Buddhist caves were reutilized and refurbished in different ways. In contrast to the shared donations of Early Buddhist phases, during the Vakataka phase, each cave was the exclusive offering of a single important donor. From 462 CE on, activity burgeoned for half a decade and at least twenty Vakataka caves were started in that period. However by 468 CE the neighboring Asmakas were threatening the stability of the region with their territorial ambitions. As a result, Upendragupta, the local feudatory ruler, ordered work to be stopped on all caves except the royal caves. This was the period of Recession. The political situation worsened and by 472 CE work on these royal caves was abandoned too. War must have flared in the region at this point for the site’s patronage was now totally cut off for a few years in the early 470s. Apparently many artists migrated north to work on the contemporaneous Bagh caves during this period for that region was under the secure rule of Harisenas’s viceroy. This is the period of Hiatus. In 475 CE, the Asmakas became the feudatory lords of the region and the Asmaka phase begun. Ajanta’s new florescence was however short-lived. In 477 CE, with emperor Harisena’s death, political turbulence began. All ongoing excavation programs were abandoned during 478 CE when Harisena’s son Sarvasena III succeeded and the patrons focused on getting the main Buddha images completed and dedicated. During the period of disruption all old programs were abandoned and the Asmakas withdrew support to prepare for overthrowing the Vakatakas. For a brief period 479 - 80 CE, the monks still living at Ajanta took advantage of the disruption at the site by donating intrusive Buddhas to earn merit. This eruption of intrusive piety was also short-lived for the funds sustaining these modest offerings soon ran out and the last remaining artists moved away. Monks continued living in a few of the caves for a few years. After 480 CE, not a single image was ever made again at the site.
The site combines painting, sculpture and architecture and extends in time from early Buddhist aniconic phase through the later period. The paintings in the Ajanta caves are primarily Jatakamala scenes that describe the previous births of the Buddha. The compositions from these fables are not represented horizontally like a frieze, but show scenes spreading in all directions. The ceilings are also painted with decorative motifs. The rock-cut sculptures are also noteworthy. The Ajanta Caves were built in a period when both the Buddha and the Hindu gods were simultaneously revered in Indian culture.
Cave 1 is probably the grandest vihara (monastery) at the site and was sponsored by emperor Harsisena himself. Harisena started this cave in about 466 CE when all the best spaces along the scarp were already gone. This explains this cave’s low priority location, at the extreme eastern end of the site, where the nature of the scarp offered many problems. The facade and porch were completed by 475-76 CE and the hall and shrine by 476-77 CE. Harisena died suddenly in 477 CE and so his own cave was neither finished nor dedicated, nor even used for worship. Perhaps this is why the cave’s painted decoration doesn’t show a trace of soot from oil lamps or incense. The cave consists of a verandah, a hall, group of cells and a sanctuary. The facade is elaborately carved with relief sculptures and decorative carving.
Every inch of the cave was originally painted including the pillars and the sculptures but much of the painting has peeled off. Its iconographic program is focused upon themes connected with kingship. For instance, carvings of the hunt, battles and erotic dalliance adorn the rich facade and the carvings emphasize royal virtue. The cave contains some of the masterpieces of painting. The two most famous are the paintings of protective bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani on either side of the entrance to the shrine. Besides this, it depicts Sibi, Samkhapala, Mahajanaka, Maha-ummagga, Champeyya Jatakas and the scene depicting Temptation of Mara.
Cave 2 was started just before Cave 1 in the mid-460s CE and Emperor Harisena of Vakataka dynasty was the patron of the cave. Work on it broke off when Asmakas started threatening the region in 468 CE. Although, Cave 2 was started as a simple monastic dormitory, without any thought of a shrine, by 466 CE making the excavation a residence for the Buddha along with the monks had become customary. This new requirement of adding a shrine to what was originally intended as a mere dormitory continued in Cave 2 for the next year or two, until work on the cave was suddenly cut off by the local conflict in around 472 CE.
Although Cave 2 was roughed out early, all of the more elaborate work on it was done after 475 CE and is representative of Ajanta’s lavish late mode. There is an emphasis of the iconographic program upon virtuous or powerful women that might suggest a queenly patronage. The facades of the chapels at each end of the veranda are carved with figures of the Naga kings and their attendants, the portly Ganas. Twelve elaborately carved pillars support the roof. There are ten cells off four corridors at the front and rear. While the seated Buddha in dharmacakrapravartana mudra (wheel turning gesture) is enshrined in the sanctum, the side sub-shrines contain two Yaksha figures (popularly known as Sankhanidhi and Padmanidhi) to the left and Hariti and her consort Pancika to the right. The sidewalls are painted with countless Buddha’s in various attitudes.
Cave 3 is an incomplete vihara (monastery) that was started in 477 CE and of which only the preliminary excavation of the pillared verandah was completed. It was probably commissioned by a patron from the Vakataka period. This cave was excavated in a stretch of rock up above the earlier Caves 2 and 4 that must have still been available at the time. In the same year, Harisena died and work on the cave had to be abandoned and only a rough entrance for the hall had been excavated by then. Cave 3 has a low ceiling probably because it was economical and would at the same time take best advantage of the cooling effect of the surrounding mountain mass.
Cave 4 is the largest vihara (monastery) at Ajanta, planned on a large scale but never finished. It was sponsored by Mathura, one of the inaugurators of Ajanta’s renaissance in the early 460s. Between 469 and 474 CE, when the cave had been abandoned, a part of the hall ceiling collapsed due to a geological flaw and architectural adjustments to the cave had to be made. The patron, Mathura must have hurriedly finished and then inscribed his huge Buddha image by mid-478 CE. During this period the Vakataka patronage of the site ended due to the Asmaka aggression shortly after Harisena’s death. The cave’s old-fashioned porch colonnade reflects its early beginnings although the decoration of the main door is very elaborate. The excavation of the porch walls or the planned painting program was never fully finished even in the excavation’s post-475 phase.
The lintel is decorated with seated Buddhas and ganas, while the topmost band has five chaitya window motifs where three of them contain Buddha images. At the upper corners of the door frame are the bracket figures of sardulas (vyala motif) with riders. To the right of the door is a rectangular panel carved with the figure of standing Avalokitesvara at the center with worshippers praying to him for deliverance from the Eight Great Perils. The Bodhisattva holds in his jata-mukuta a Dhyani Buddha in dharma-chakra-pravartana (teaching) and not in the appropriate dhyana (meditation) attitude. Thus the iconographical canons had not yet crystalized into rigid forms. In the two top corner of the panel are two seated Buddhas, with a third one above within a chaitya window. There is a panel with a carved Buddha in teaching attitude on the other side of the door. The main Buddha image has Vajrapani, with crown and vajra, is on the right, while Avalokitesvara, with his jata headdress, his lotus, and antelope skin, is on the left. The patron however was unable to get the colossal main image finished and dedicated.
Cave 5 and the two storied Cave 6, like most of the Vakataka caves, were begun in the early 460s and remained unfinished when Harisena died (478 CE). The identity of the patron cannot ascertained. In this cave the richly carved doorway that displays female figures standing on makaras projecting beyond the general alignment is noteworthy.