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The Fascinating Story Behind the Ancient Rock-Cut Ajanta Caves

More than 30 caves were cut into the bedrock in the distant past. Some of the caves are believed to be precisely oriented to the summer and winter solstices.

Starting around the second century BC, in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state of India, the ancients decided to create a series of rock-cut caves and monuments that would later be used as places of worship.

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Known collectively as the Ajanta Caves, there are 30 rock-cut chambers that constitute one of the most amazing monasteries and worship halls of different Buddhist traditions.

Carved into a 250 wall of rock, the mesmerizing caves were adorned in ancient times with paintings and rock-cut sculptures that are described as the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art, particularly expressive paintings that present emotion through gesture, pose and form.

Cave 19, Ajanta, a 5th-century chaitya hall. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Cave 19, Ajanta, a 5th-century chaitya hall. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Among other things, the caves which were built in two phases, present paintings depicting the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha.

Few of the surviving texts detailing the caves speak of how the chambers served as a monsoon retreat for monks, as well as a resting site for merchants and pilgrims traveling the region.

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The rock-cut monasteries remained hidden from the western world, covered in dense jungles until an officer from the British Army John Smith uncovered them by accident.

View of Cave 26, which is a Buddhist "Chaitya Griha" or prayer hall. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
View of Cave 26, which is a Buddhist “Chaitya Griha” or prayer hall. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Smith was in pursuit of a tiger across the jungle when he stumbled across a mysterious cave, with a small entrance through the vegetation.

What was initially thought to be only one cave, was later found to be a collection of 30 massive chambers, carved into the bedrock in the distant past.

Main hall with shrine, Cave 2. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.
Main hall with shrine, Cave 2. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

Each of the caves is unique in its way and is home to intricate and beautiful carvings, paintings, statues, massive Buddhist pillars, and intricately decorated walls.

Interestingly, there are some authors who have come forward with theories suggesting the Ajanta caves were not just rock-cut monasteries but astronomical observatories that align with the solstices and other cosmic events.

Furthermore, some authors have argued that the arrangement and design of the caves are not random, and follows a specific pattern.

They propose that certain dome-shaped caves contain Stupas with the Buddha carved in them, which are arranged in such a way as to be in line with solstices.

One, in particular, dubbed cave 19, is believed to be precisely oriented to the winter solstice. On that day, the sun goes through the opening on the top front of the cave illuminating the stupa located in the back of the cave.

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Cave number 26 is believed to be oriented to the summer solstice and on that particular day, the sun illuminates the stupa in this cave as well.

Scholars argue that for the ancients to build such precise monuments carved into the bedrock, they must have made use of extremely precise calculations and tools to orient the caves to the solstices as they did.