Buddhism Ajanta Caves
Akira Shimada
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0192


Ajaṇṭā is a Buddhist rock-cut cave site in Aurangabad District of Maharashtra State, western India. It was discovered in 1819 by British Army officers who were hunting tigers in the great gorge of the Waghora River. The caves are numbered thirty in total and are divided into two phases. The caves of the earlier phase include two large caityas or stupa shrines (caves 9 and 10) and four vihāras or residential caves (caves 8, 12, 14, 15 A). They are dated to the 1st century BCE/CE on the basis of the architectural features of the caves and paleography of votive inscriptions. The caves of the later phase include two finished caityas (caves 19 and 26), several large and fully decorated vihāras (e.g., caves 1, 2, 4, 16, 17) and some unfinished caves. They were created around the late 5th century as shown by votive inscriptions of ministers/ feudatories who served the king Hariṣeṇa of the Vākāṭaka dynasty. Ajaṇṭā is particularly famous for preserving a good number of early Buddhist paintings. Painted narrative friezes on the sidewalls of two early caityas (caves 9 and 10) are the oldest Buddhist narrative paintings in India. Walls and ceilings of the later caves, particularly caves 1, 2, 16, 17, were richly decorated with a variety of Buddha’s legends, Buddha, and Bodhisattva images and other motifs.

General Overviews

Although there are numerous art books on Ajaṇṭā paintings for general audiences with beautiful pictures, scholarly works that provide precise and comprehensive overviews of the site are rather limited. As for the detailed accounts on the architectural features of the caves, the early reports of Burgess 1879, Fergusson and Burgess 1880, and Burgess 1883 provide useful information. Spink 2007, which consists of the author’s multiple volumes on the site, further elaborated Burgess’s accounts of the caves based on his half-century study at the site. Ghosh 1967 provides a comprehensive scholarly overview on the architecture, sculpture, and paintings of Ajaṇṭā. For a more compact overview on the site, Mitra 1992 has had a good reputation for many years, although the chronology of the caves and identifications of the paintings in this book remains unchanged since its first edition in 1956. Huntington 1985 and Jamkhedkar 2013 address this problem and provide us with adequate and update information on the site, sculpture, and paintings on the basis of recent scholarship.

  • Burgess, James. Notes on the Bauddha Rock-temples of Ajanta, their Paintings and Sculptures, and On the Paintings of the Bagh Caves, Modern Bauddha Mythology, & c. Bombay: Government Central, 1879.

    One of the earliest scholarly accounts on Ajaṇṭā caves by a pioneering scholar of Indian archaeology. It includes fairly descriptive accounts of caves, paintings in each cave, and inscriptions. In addition to the text, the book also includes many drawings, elevation plans to show the location of the paintings, and some rubbings of the inscriptions.

  • Burgess, James. Report on the Buddhist Cave Temples and Their Inscriptions, Archaeological Survey of Western India. Vol. 4. London: Trübner, 1883.

    This volume was published as the supplementary volume to Fergusson and Burgess 1880. It includes a chapter (pp. 43–59) describing the architectural details of each cave in Ajaṇṭā with many plans and illustrations. Chapter 14 (pp. 116, 124–138) also lists twenty-four Ajaṇṭā inscriptions in caves 9, 10, 16, 20, 26 with transcripts and translations. A reprint was published by Indological Book House (Varanasi) in 1964.

  • Fergusson, James, and James Burgess. The Cave Temples of India. London: W. H. Allen, 1880.

    This first comprehensive volume on rock-cut temples in India spares three chapters for early or “Hīnayāna” caves, later or “Mahāyāna” caves and “the latest” caves (7th century CE) of Ajaṇṭā (pp. 280–346). Each chapter includes detailed description of the caves and the surviving wall paintings and inscriptions. A reprint was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

  • Ghosh, A., ed. Ajanta Murals. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 1967.

    Unlike numerous “art books” on Ajaṇṭā paintings with many plates, this ASI publication provides us with a comprehensive overview of the Ajaṇṭā site, sculpture, and paintings, such as the historical background of the site, early studies, and scientific analysis on the painting materials. Attached bibliography is also useful, as it lists early studies on Ajaṇṭā in the late 19th and early 20th century.

  • Huntington, Susan L., and John C. Huntington. The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. New York and Tokyo: Weather Hill, 1985.

    This comprehensive volume on the history of ancient Indian art has a chapter (chapter 12) on Buddhist Cave Architecture from the 5th through the 7th century CE. It provides a good overview on paintings, sculpture, and cave architecture of Ajaṇṭā but also on those of the related sites including Bāgh, Kanheri, Aurangabad, and Ellora. The attached bibliography is useful for grasping the recent scholarship on this subject.

  • Jamkhedkar, Arvind P. Ajanta. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    The most recent guidebook on Ajaṇṭā by a former director of the State Archaeology of Maharashtra. In addition to the descriptions of each cave (chapter 5), it nicely summarizes the main issues of the sites including the patronage, architectural development, date of the caves (c. 200 BCE–525 CE in his view) and identification of the paintings and sculpture by introducing the results of recent researches.

  • Mitra, Debala. Ajanta. 10th ed. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 1992.

    A compact and a widely available guidebook published by ASI. It provides the general but adequate information on the history of the caves and the major sculpture and paintings of each cave. Following the traditional chronology, it dates the late phase of the caves to between the late 5th and the 7th century CE and suggests the continuation of the site during the 8–9th centuries CE.

  • Spink, Walter. M. Ajanta: History and Development. Vol. 5, Cave by Cave. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2007.

    This volume, which constitutes a part of Spink’s five volumes on Ajanta, provides key features of pillars, door hinges, holes, plans of each cave so that they support his short chronology of the site (for his short chronology, see Spink 1967 and Spink 2005–2009, cited under Chronology of the Caves).

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