1.Ajanta Caves : Itinerary of Maharajas’ Express
In all, total 30 excavations were hewn out of rock which also include an unfinished one. Out of these, five (cave no. 9, 10, 19, 26, and 29) are chaityagrihas and the rest are viharas. In date and style also, these caves can be divided into two broad groups. The earliest excavations belong to the Hinayana phase of Buddhism of which similar examples could also be seen at Bhaja, Kondane, Pitalkhora, Nasik, etc. In total, 5 caves at Ajanta belong to this phase, viz., 9 & 10 which are chaityagrihas and 8, 12, 13, & 15A which are viharas. These caves are datable to the pre-Christian era, the earliest among them being Cave 10 dating from the second century B.C. The object of worship is a stupa here and these caves exhibit the imitation of wooden construction to the extent that the rafters and beams are also sculpted even though they are non-functional.
The world famous paintings at Ajanta also fall into two broad phases. The earliest is noticed in the form of fragmentary specimens in cave nos. 9 & 10, which are datable to second century B.C. The headgear and other ornaments of the images in these paintings resemble the bas-relief sculpture of Sanchi and Bharhut.
The second phase of paintings started around 5th – 6th centuries A.D. and continued for the next two centuries. The specimen of these exemplary paintings of Vakataka period could be noticed in cave nos. 1, 2, 16 and 17. The variation in style and execution in these paintings also are noticed, mainly due to different authors of them. A decline in the execution is also noticed in some paintings as indicated by some rigid, mechanical and lifeless figures of Buddha in some later period paintings. The main theme of the paintings is the depiction of various Jataka stories, different incidents associated with the life of Buddha, and the contemporary events and social life also.
Cave 1: Has the well known Bodhisattva Padmapani which is a wonderful portrayal of tender compassion. A gentle figure holding a lotus delicately in one hand. In the same cave is the golden figure of Avalokiteswara, elaborately adorned. The women, nymphs, princess and attendants are elegant and beautifully attired. Here also is a lively panel of dancing girls and musicians
Cave 2: There is a detailed panel of Queen Maya’s dream, of the white elephant which was interpreted by royal astrologers to mean the birth of an illustrious son. The row upon row of Buddhas, can be seen in this cave
Cave 16: An elegant Vihara with an inscription that mentions the king and his minister who had the cave built. Here a towering Buddha sits preaching. He is flanked by attendants with fly whisks.
Cave 17: There is a flying apsara in a fashionable embroidered turban and splendid jewellery.
Cave 19: The arched chapel window set in an elegantly simple facade, is repeated in an elaborate frontage with its complete Chaitya and a slender votive stupa enclosing a standing Buddha at the far end. Of particular note is a sculpture of a seated Nagaraja with his consort and female attendant.
Cave 26: The sculpture is elaborate and beautiful though the painted frescoes are incomplete.
It is worth walking away from the caves in order to look back on to the horseshoe gorge. The ingenuous water cistern system can be seen which must have provided water for the monks and their visitors. Ajanta was on the ancient trade route leading to the coast so there must have been considerable activity and many visitors. Nobody really knows what life was like in those times and visitors can interpret the past as they wish, which is perhaps yet another secret charm of Ajanta.