In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party was heading through thick jungle near Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, western India, when the tiger they were tracking disappeared into a deep ravine. Leading the hunters was Captain John Smith, a young cavalry officer from Madras. Beckoning his friends to follow, he tracked the animal down a semi-circular scarp of steep basalt, and hopped across the rocky bed of the Wagora river, then made his way up through the bushes at the far side of the amphitheater of cliffs. Halfway up, Smith stopped in his tracks. The footprints led straight past an opening in the rock face. But the cavity was clearly not a natural cave or a river-cut grotto. Instead, despite the long grass, the all-encroaching creepers and thorny undergrowth, Smith was looking at a manmade facade cut straight into the rockface. The jagged slope had been painstakingly carved away into a perfect portico. It was clearly a work of great sophistication. Equally clearly, it had been abandoned for centuries.
Ajanta Caves, Buddhist rock-cut cave temples, and monasteries, located near Ajanta village, north-central Maharashtra state, western India, are celebrated for their wall paintings. The temples are hollowed out of granite cliffs on the inner side of a 70-foot (20-meter) ravine in the Wagurna River valley 65 miles (105 km) northeast of Aurangabad, at a site of great scenic beauty.
The Ajanta Caves constitute ancient monasteries and worship-halls of different Buddhist traditions carved into a 75-metre (246 ft) wall of rock. The caves also present paintings depicting the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha, pictorial tales from Aryasura’s Jatakamala, and rock-cut sculptures of Buddhist deities. Textual records suggest that these caves served as a monsoon retreat for monks, as well as a resting site for merchants and pilgrims in ancient India. While vivid colours and mural wall-painting were abundant in Indian history as evidenced by historical records, Caves 16, 17, 1 and 2 of Ajanta form the largest corpus of surviving ancient Indian wall-painting.
The Ajanta Caves are mentioned in the memoirs of several medieval-era Chinese Buddhist travellers to India and by a Mughal-era official of Akbar era in the early 17th century. They were covered by jungle until accidentally “discovered” and brought to Western attention in 1819 by a colonial British officer Captain John Smith on a tiger-hunting party. The caves are in the rocky northern wall of the U-shaped gorge of the river Waghur, in the Deccan plateau. Within the gorge are a number of waterfalls, audible from outside the caves when the river is high.