Ajanta and Ellora Caves – The Essential Guide
It has been more than a year since I posted on the blog, so I thought I should remedy that. And what better way to start than with one of my most recent trips. In January this year, I visited Aurangabad and obviously went to Ajanta and Ellora Caves. My last trip to these UNESCO World Heritage Sites was many (many) years ago, when I was still in school, so I was excited to revisit. Here’s everything you need to know if you’re planning a trip.
While they are often clubbed together, Ajanta and Ellora Caves are two separate sites more than 100km apart. There are 29 Buddhist caves at Ajanta dating to between the 2nd century BC and 6th century AD.
These include both monasteries (chaityas) and worship-halls (viharas). They are adorned with rock-cut sculptures and paintings that represent some of the finest examples of ancient Indian art.
Cave 1 is the most beautifully decorated and contains many of the iconic Ajanta artworks like the Padmapani mural (top right). Amongst the oldest in the complex, cave 10 contains a massive prayer hall with rows of octagonal pillars on either side and a stupa at the end. Caves 16 and 17 have some of the best-preserved and well-known paintings of all the Ajanta caves, depicting elaborate narratives from the Jataka tales.
One of my favourites is Cave 26, which has intricate sculptures including that of the reclining Buddha (below) and the legend of “Temptations by Mara”.
Unlike Ajanta, Ellora comprises Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain religious centres spread over 34 caves dating between the 6th and 11th centuries AD. Of these, cave 16 is the most spectacular, featuring the Kailasa temple. This chariot-shaped monument dedicated to Shiva is the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world.
Apparently, 10 generations of artisans worked on it and it took more than 200 years to complete over many reigns of the Rastrakuta kings. It has all the main temple elements such as gateway, main shrine, nandi shrine, etc. It is richly carved with niches, pilasters, windows, and corniches. One of the highlights are the friezes on the plinth that illustrate the two great epics — Ramayana and Mahabharata.
You will need at least two hours to explore the entire temple, and believe me, it’s worth it! I would also recommend climbing up a pathway that skirts the cave for an aerial view of the temple. You will get a better idea of its sheer size and grandeur (see below).
Other than cave 16, you should also check out two Buddhist caves. Cave 5 has a uniquely designed hall with a pair of parallel refectory benches in the centre and a Buddha statue in the rear. Cave 10 has a cathedral-like stupa hall and a 15-foot statue of Buddha seated in a preaching pose.
The Jain caves (nos. 30-34) are some distance away and we skipped them as we had to return to the city.
How to visit Ajanta and Ellora Caves
Ajanta Caves are located 100km north of Aurangabad and take almost 3 hours to reach (road conditions are variable). They are open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., daily except Mondays. Entry ticket is Rs. 40 per person (foreigners pay Rs. 600 pp). While you can explore the caves on your own, I recommend hiring a guide to get a complete overview and hear interesting stories. Government-licensed guides are available at the entrance and their fee is Rs. 1,800 for a group of up to five people. Ellora Caves are located 30km northwest of Aurangabad and take about an hour to reach. They are open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. (sunrise to sunset), daily except Tuesdays. Entry ticket and guide fee are the same as Ajanta Caves.
While you should definitely visit both Ajanta and Ellora Caves, if you’re pressed for time, you may want to pick just one site. So, how do you decide? It really depends on your interest. Ajanta Caves have some of the most outstanding ancient paintings while Ellora Caves are known for their extraordinary architecture. Ellora caves are closer to Aurangabad and more accessible (parts of them are also wheelchair accessible), but they are also more crowded. On the other hand, Ajanta caves have a stunning horseshoe-shaped setting overlooking the Waghora River. Note that videography is not allowed inside Ajanta caves but there’s no such restriction at Ellora (photography without flash is permitted at both sites).
Where to eat
Since both the caves are a day trip from Aurangabad, you will need to grab lunch nearby. There’s an MTDC canteen of sorts at Ajanta but I’d suggest you head to Hotel Ajanta Green (also run by MTDC), which is located a couple of kilometres from the caves. Near Ellora caves, your best bet is the restaurant Kailasa, which is just outside the cave complex.
When to visit
November to March is the best time to visit the caves when it is (relatively) cool and dry. The summer months can be scorching and also crowded because of school holidays. The caves are open during the monsoon but I would imagine the paths would be slippery, particularly at Ajanta where you have to climb up and down some steep rock-cut stairs. However, our guide said that the rains make the setting quite spectacular with greenery and waterfalls (the pic on the left was taken in Jan 2023).
How to travel to Aurangabad
Aurangabad is well-connected by air but we decided to take the train from Mumbai. The Jalna Jan Shatabdi Express is quite convenient and gets from Mumbai (CSMT) to Aurangabad in slightly over 6 hours. The ticket price doesn’t include meals but you can buy food on board or order via IRCTC’s e-catering service, which is what we did. Choose from one of the listed restaurants (at any station along the route) and have food delivered to your seat. On both legs of our journey, we received generously portioned food that was well-packed and tasty.
Where to stay in Aurangabad
There are several hotels in the city, but since I was travelling with family (and we were staying for four nights), we opted for an apartment. We found this lovely two-bedroom apartment on Booking.com, which was clean, well-appointed, and reasonably priced. Its location was also quite convenient, just over 3km from the railway station (and under 1okm from the airport).
Have you visited Ajanta and Ellora Caves? If not, I hope this post inspires you to go soon!