Probably two of the most fascinating man-made wonders I have seen until now lie in the interior of the Indian state of Maharashtra, where the two UNESCO World Heritage sites of Ajanta Ellora Caves hold numerous rock-cut caves with beautiful elaborate sculptures and art work. Both sites are truly special and their history goes as far back as the second century BC. It is usually referred to them as a tandem but by no means is one dispensable if the other has already been visited. Different religions throughout a wide time-span are represented on the caves´ decoration motifs. There were varying purposes of construction (monasteries, prayer halls and monsoon shrines). Chronologically, the Ajanta Caves existed before the Ellora ones, which expansion continued until much later in time.
The 30 caves placed along a horseshoe-shape along the Waghora river gorge can be divided into 3 groups: the Hinayana phase of Buddhism (2nd to 1st century BC), the Mahayana Period (5th to 6th century AD) and a later stage during the 7th century AD. Not all caves are equally preserved and some artistic work shines more upon the visitors eyes. This is the case for Cave 1 and 2 for example. Pay particular attention to the painted murals on the walls and ceilings, displaying scenes from the Buddha´s life and Jatakas Tales (stories on the Buddha´s previous lives).
There are 34 caves placed along a 2-km long area categorized into three different groups according to their religion: Buddhist, Hindu and Jain. The first group, the Buddhist caves, dates to the time of Ajanta´s declining popularity between the 7th and 8th centuries AD. The second group, the Hindu Caves, show the heyday of Ellora between the 7th and 9th centuries AD. The third group is composed of the Jain Caves built between the 6th and 11th century. As it is expected, the varying complexity of the caves´interiors and architectural style corresponds to the different religious periods. If you don´t have time to see all the caves open to the public, I recommend seeing at least one or two caves of each style to appreciate the three styles.
Considering the caves location in the interior of Maharashtra, the easiest way to get to them is by car from the city of Aurangabad. This is the largest town in the surroundings of the caves, which makes for a good trip base as it has decent hotel infrastructure. You can get to Aurangabad from Bombay by car (6.5 hour-ride), by bus (I don’t have information on the bus services) by train (7-8 hours) or by flight (1hr). If you decide to make your way by a means other than by private car or an organized tour, you should organize how to get to the caves from Aurangabad (if you are overnighting here) as there are no car rentals in this city. Keep in mind that Ajanta is about 100 Km away from Aurangabad (around 2 hours by car) and about the same distance/time from Ellora caves, which are much closer to Aurangabad (approx. 1 hour by car).
HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND IN AJANTA AND ELLORA CAVES?
The two cave complexes need to be visited in different days as they are far apart and also opening times and daylight play a constraint. Two complete days in the area are sufficient for the visit. My recommendation is to get to Aurangabad the evening before visiting the caves so as to start the visit early int he morning. This way you will avoid the heat and the crowd. If this is not possible, you can reach Ajanta Caves directly from Bombay (or where you are coming from) as long as you make it for at least mid-day for a decent visit of the site. After visiting the second cave complex, you can head back home. I recommend visiting Ajanta Caves first and then Ellora Caves so as to get a better understanding of history.
OTHER TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP TO AJANTA AND ELLORA CAVES…
This is an outdoor visit with very few shade areas with the exception of the times spent inside the caves. Light loose clothes and a hat are a highly advisable as you will be walking for the entire visit of Ajanta Caves and the majority of time at Ellora Caves also. Keep in mind that for most of the Ajanta Caves visit and a few places at Ellora Caves, you will need to take your shoes off to proceed inside, so carrying a pair of socks is handy if you don´t want to be bare-feet. But be prepared for walking, going up and down stairs!
There are “ok” toilet facilities at the entrance and restaurant at Ajanta Caves. At Ellora Caves, there is one located along the road leading to the further away caves and also at the entrance.
To make the most out of your visit, take a tourist guide with you for both complexes, or at least for Ajanta caves. There are enough informative panels along the caves at Ellora but not at Ajanta.