The Buddhist cave temples near Ajanta in India were cut out of the cliffs above the Waghora River between the second century B.C. and sixth century A.D.

Buddhist masterpieces lay hidden for centuries inside these Indian caves

Cut from a sheer cliff face nearly a thousand years ago, India's Ajanta Caves are home to sacred Buddhist spaces adorned with vibrant works of ancient art.

Carved in time

The Buddhist cave temples near Ajanta in India were cut out of the cliffs above the Waghora River between the second century B.C. and sixth century A.D. Filled with Buddhist-themed paintings and reliefs, they have been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983.
Album/Robert Harding/Alex Robinson

Along a horseshoe-shaped cliff above the Waghora River in central India, a cadre of British soldiers set out in 1819 hoping to bag a tiger. Their hunting party stumbled upon something surprising: a network of man-made caves ingeniously and dramatically cut into the rock. The beauty of the stonework was just a hint to what awaited inside those stone halls.

The interiors of the caves, home to bats and familiar to local tribes but otherwise unknown to the rest of the world for roughly 14 centuries, revealed a singularly astonishing collection of religious art. The immense murals, rock-cut sculptures, shrines (stupas), monasteries, prayer halls, and inscriptions created over centuries exemplify masterpieces of early Buddhist art and the creative achievements of classical India under the influential Gupta dynasty. And yet, surprisingly, only a few local residents knew of their majestic splendor.

About 66 million years ago, a hundred thousand or more years before the so-called Chicxulub impact (the asteroid collision credited with the extinction of the dinosaurs), one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history began flooding India’s Deccan Plateau with roughly 135,000 cubic miles of lava. When the dust settled and the lava cooled, the entire region was covered in a layer of igneous basalt.

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