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 19 is Upendragupta’s “perfumed hall” that commenced in 470s. It was conceived originally as the devotional focus of the site. The exquisite facade of this chaitya-griha (monastery) with its pillared portico and projected cornice is dominated by chaitya window in the facade. This apsidal cave is divided into a nave, an apse, and aisles by colonnade of seventeen pillars. At the center of the apse stands a stupa and an umbrella wholly in stones reaching almost to the roof of the cave. The roof of the aisles has been painted chiefly with ornamental flower scrolls.
Cave 19’s motifs served as models for much later work but before the hall could be put into worship, the victorious Asmakas took over the region, broke a path through its forward court cells in order to more easily reach their own rival Cave 26, and forbade this cave’s use. Later on, in mid 478–480 CE, during the disruption of authority over the site following Harisena’s death, the eager donors covered Cave 19’s court extensions with intrusive votive images. For instance, the famous cobra king (Nagaraja) at the left would originally have been paired with another ancient divinity at the right; but since Upendragupta’s program was never completed, an intrusive seated Buddha, his seat planted on the ground in a characteristically late way, was placed there instead.
Cave 20 is a richly colonnaded vihara or monastery on which work started in 470CE. The pilaster at the left end of the verandah contains a fragmentary inscription recording the gift of the mandapa by one Upendra. This cave had to be hastily dedicated and then abandoned because of the Asmaka takeover in the early 470’s. It has a difficult history since, more than Upendragupta’s other caves, it suffered from cutbacks during the Recession. As a result, parts of Cave 20’s main Buddha image had to be expediently completed with mud plaster just before work on the cave broke off in 471 CE. This vihara presents a new feature in its antechamber advancing into the hall. The pillars and pilasters of the verandah, while resembling those of Cave 1, have bracket figures of graceful sala-bhanjikas on each side of the capitals. The roof of the verandah has imitation beams and rafters. The design of the lintel of the door with two arches, in the firm of elephant’s trunk issuing from the mouths of makaras (sea creatures in Hindu mythology) is again an innovation. The capitals of the pillars’ antechamber support an entablature carved in panels with seven Buddhas accompanied by attendants. The hall has no pillars, and some of the cells are somewhat unfinished. Most of the paintings have disappeared.
Cave 21 is a vihara or monastery that was probably inaugurated around 465-466 CE with the cutting back of its court area. It consists of a pillared verandah whose pillars are now cemented replacements, a pillared hall with 12 cells, antechamber, a sanctum flanked by two cells. There is an image of a Buddha in preaching attitude in the sanctum. Cave 21 was relatively simple at its inception but it incorporated new ideas and forms as it went along and by 477 CE when it was nearing completion, it represented the Vakataka vihara in a much elaborated form. It took advantage of the many stylistic and technological changes that occurred in the meantime particularly in the royal caves like Cave1, 17, 19 and 20.
It’s fine carved decoration, dating from the period of Asmaka domination starting in 475 CE, was still underway when Harisena died, and was never finished. It was possibly later undertaken by Monk Buddhabhadra, a friend of Bhavviraja, a minister of the king of Asmaka. There are also traces of painting of a panel depicting Buddha preaching a congregation. Cave 21 also has spacious cistern that was never finished.
The tiny Cave 22 was started at a later date – probably not until 477 CE – directly above Caves 21 and 23 and high enough not to break into the porch cells of the larger caves below. Cave 22 took advantage of such still available space at a time when feasible new locations were a rarity. It consists of an astylar hall with four unfinished cells, sanctum sanctorum and a narrow verandah. There is an image of Buddha seated in pralamba-padasana (European chair pose) with feet resting on a lotus carved on the back wall of the shrine. This cave was still very incomplete when Emperor Harisena died, after which it was probably abandoned since it was quite incomplete and of relatively inconsequential size. Its cells were barely penetrated and the shrine had not even begun when it was given up.
During the Period of Disruption in 479 - 480 CE when the Asmakas who were planning to overthrow the Vakatakas withdrew resources from building activity at the site. The abandoned cave was taken over by a dozen different new devotees, who filled the unfinished shrine antechamber and the rear wall with carved and painted intrusions, many of which have brief dedicatory inscriptions, mostly referring to monastic donors. The main central image of Buddha was not painted until the intrusions along its right frame were carved probably in 480 CE. Other intrusions are of varied assortment, for instance, there is a painted composition that shows the Eight Buddhas theme and the accompanying inscriptions give the names of the seven past Buddhas and of the future Maitreya. Another cave – Cave 22A was also started in the still available rock just below Cave 22, however it was recently filled up with cement.
Cave 23 is almost similar on plan and in dimensions to Cave 21 but was started after it in 479-80 CE. It was initially undertaken by a Vakataka patron followed by Monk Buddhabhadra. It shows developed features in its porch, particularly its fine “T-shaped” doorway, decorated windows and naga and yaksa friezes over the decorated complexes at the porch ends. However, after Harisena’s death in 477 CE, there was no time to complete its main image and the cave was never dedicated. For this reason, despite its many available and well-prepared surfaces, it has no intrusions. The shrine, antechamber and side-cells with pillared porches of this vihara remain incomplete.
Cave 24 is an incomplete monastery and second largest excavation at Ajanta that started in 466 CE. It was taken up by A Vakataka patron followed by Monk Buddhabhadra. Cave 24 provides an example of an excavation in progress, following the precedents of Caves 21 and 23. Its porch was nearly completed, but its vast and orderly interior, upon which many workers labored for some three years between 475 and 477 CE, is still largely uncut. The cave remained incomplete at the time of Harisena’s death in 477 CE and was ultimately abandoned. On plan the cave consists of open courtyard and verandah flanked by double cell pillared hall with unfinished cell and sanctum sanctorum. The perished pillars of the verandah have been reconstructed. The sanctum houses a seated Buddha in pralamba-padasana (European chair pose) with attendants and flying figures.