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 13 is a small vihara (monastery) that belongs to first century CE. It must have provided accommodations for the monks who presumably would have conducted the rituals in the nearby early Buddhist chaitya halls, Caves 9 and 10. The front of this cave has perished. The hall has seven cells on three sides; each provided with two stone beds, one cell has raised stone pillows as well. The cells are so narrow that it is quite likely that they only served as dormitories (layanagriha). Cave 13, like the four other early Buddhist caves (Caves 9, 10 12, 15A), was refurbished in the Vakataka period; and the remaining traces of the notably “late” red plaster in the cells suggests that here, as in both of the other early Buddhist viharas, this was not done until 477 or later. There is no trace of the cave having ever been painted.
Cave 14 is a large Vakataka vihara (monastery) that started around 475 CE and was sponsored by an identified patron from the Vakataka period. It is located directly above the Cave 13, the early Buddhist cave, where space was still available late in the site’s development. It is reached through an incomplete cave by an ancient staircase. Cave 14 is one of the two more ambitious Vakataka undertakings (the other one being Cave 28) started after the Asmaka feudatories took over the site a few years before Harisena’s death in 477 CE. However since it was not begun until a year or before emperor Harisena died, its development was soon aborted. The cave’s cistern chamber was one of its first features completed. The decoration of the pillars of the verandah is unique in the whole Ajanta site. The top corners of the central doorway leading up to the hall are adorned with sala-bhanjikas with attendants.
Cave 15 was begun very early in the Vakataka phase - 463 CE. It was modeled directly on the simple astylar Early Buddhist Cave 12. Its cells, porch doorway, and even its Buddha image were well underway in 468 CE, but work on them was peremptorily interrupted by the Recession. Nearly a decade later all of these elements were reworked in a more up-to-date style. The Buddha image got rushed to completion in early 478 CE before Harisena’s death but the cave remained essentially unpainted and in fact little used.
The images on the left rear wall of the astylar hall, both once painted, are typical intrusions of 479 – 480 CE. There are eight cells on two sides of the hall. There are figures of Buddha in two panels on the back wall of the antechamber. The back wall of the shrine is carved with an image of Buddha seated on a simhasana. There are traces of painting on the roof of the antechamber and shrine.
Cave 16 is the largest vihara (monastery) of Ajanta and commenced in the 460s and was completed by Asmakas, the feudatories of the Vakatakas. The monastery with its colossal hall, ornate doors and windows, painted galleries, sculptures, ornamented pillars and a cistern was the gift of Varahadeva a minister of Emperor Harisena. Although, this vihara introduced the pillared hall to the site, it was started so early that it was soon regarded as old-fashioned. Nevertheless, the image and its chamber in the interior shrine for Buddha were carved in an innovative form. The Buddha image is shown seated in pralamba-padasana or English chair posture and the sanctum is devoid of an antechamber or a doorway.
Originally, the entire cave was painted but now very little of the painting now remain. Several interesting scenes Hasti, Maha-ummagga, Maha-sutasoma jataka tales are depicted. Other murals show the conversion of Nanda, miracle of Sravasti, Sujata's offering, Asita's visit, the dream of Maya, the Trapusha and Bhallika story, and the ploughing festival.
Cave 17 was started immediately after Cave 16 in the 460s. It is first of the cluster of excavations (Caves 17, 18, 19, 20, 29) sponsored by Upendragupta, the feudatory ruler of the Ajanta region. While he was a prime force in the site’s renaissance in the middle of fifth century, he may have spent too much wealth on religious pursuits, and not enough on the implements of war. In the 470s CE he suffered a defeat at the hands of the rival Asmakas and all work on his caves including Cave 17, came to a sudden halt.
The verandah of this cave has massive pillars in the front. The main hall has three entrances, and the central door is adorned with carvings. The twenty columns dividing the corridors on the four sides of the hall are lavishly carved and painted. Beside the two cells in the verandah, this cave contains sixteen cells and a cistern of water. The shrine contains a massive figure of Buddha in dharmachakra mudra or Teaching attitude that is flanked by the Boddhistava Padmapani on the right and Vajrapani on the left.
This cave has thirty major murals that are well preserved and include a huge and gigantic wheel representing the ‘Wheel of Life’, flying group of Celestials (Gandharvas and apsaras), a damsel wearing beautiful headgear, story of subjugation of Nalagiri (a wild elephant) by Buddha and Buddha preaching to a congregation all depicted in veranda. The Jatakas depicted inside the cave are Chhaddanta, Mahakapi, Hasti, Hamsa, Vessantara, Maha-Sutasoma, Sarabha-miga, Machchha, Matruposaka, Sama, Mahisa, Valahass, Sibi, Ruru, Nigrodhamiga and Simhalavadana. Buddha offering his begging bowl to his son Rahula is depicted to the right of the sanctum. Some scenes also incorporate themes from everyday society and culture such as a shipwreck, a princess applying makeup, lovers in scenes of dalliance, and a wine drinking scene of a couple with the woman and man amorously seated.
Cave 18 is an elaborate cistern chamber that also functions as a pillared passage linking Upendragupta’s Caves 17 and 19. It commenced in 463/464 CE and was sponsored by Upendragupta, the sub-king at Ajanta. This water-channel, probably served both of its adjacent caves - Caves 17 and 19. An inscription in Upendragupta’s Cave 17 on a wall shared that the cistern shares with the cave’s court honors it with a special reference to its always being “filled with sweet, light, clear, cold and copious water”.