Home to several massive forts, palaces and a number of temples spread across the country, India is also known for its historic caves. Most of the caves are maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India and are easily accessible by road. Among the many iconic caves in India, some are natural caves while some have been amazingly hand-carved. So, here is the list of the top 5 caves in India that you can not afford to miss.
1. Ajanta & Ellora Caves, Maharashtra
Ajanta & Ellora Caves are the most renowned caves in India. The caves are located in the Aurangabad District of Maharashtra state.
Ajanta caves are located approximately 100 km from the main city of Aurangabad. One has to drive for 2 to 2.5 hours each way to visit Ajanta Caves. The duration required to see Ajanta caves is approximately 2-3 hours. The private vehicles are allowed only till the baseline where one has to park the vehicle. The further 4 km distance towards the cave is done by shared government shuttle buses that depart every 20 minutes. The Caves consist of 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date back to the 2nd century BCE. Since 1983, the Ajanta Caves have been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Cave number 1, 4, 17, 19, 24 and 26 are famous for Buddhist sculptures. Cave number 16 is famous for the storytelling paintings which are still well preserved. The sculptures and paintings of Ajanta, are considered to be the masterpieces of Buddhist religious art. Ajanta Caves are closed every Monday.
Ellora Caves are also listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The Caves are located approximately 30 km from Aurangabad main city. Ellora Caves are much bigger than Ajanta Caves and it takes approximately 4 hours for the visit. Ellora Caves are famous for its Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples. These temples and monuments were carved from the local cliff rock in the 6th to 8th century CE. There are 34 caves, out of which 12 are Buddhist, 17 Hindu and 5 Jain. Cave number 16 at Ellora, is popularly known as Kailash Temple which is carved from a single monolithic structure. See the Lord Ganesh Idol and Goddess Sarasvati Idol beautifully carved at the entrance of the temple. As you explore Ellora caves, you will be amazed to be surrounded by beautiful rock cut sculptures around you and huge carved rock-cut elephants in the premises. Experience the folklores of Ramayana through the engraved walls at the temple. Ellora Caves are closed every Tuesday.
2. Elephanta Caves, Maharashtra
Elephanta Caves are located on Elephanta Island near Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra. One has to take a sharing 1-hour ferry ride which departs from Gateway of India, a popular tourist destination in Mumbai. During the ride enjoy the seagulls flying by and accompanying you throughout the ferry ride. On reaching the island, hop on to a Toy Train to further reach the caves. Beware of the monkeys at the entry gate. One has to climb around 120 steps and along the way you may also enjoy some shopping, as the markets are located on both the sides of the steps. Elephanta Caves were listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1987. The caves are 1400 years old and made by cutting a single mountain. See the monolithic 20 feet statue of Lord Shiva, the sculptures that depict the various stages in Lord Shiva’s life, and the idols in the eastern and western shrines. The best time to visit Elephanta Caves is from October to March. The last ferry from the caves back to Mumbai shore leaves at 5:30PM. One should avoid peak monsoon season (June to August) as ferry boat schedules could get interrupted due to the rough seas and heavy rain. Elephanta Caves are closed every Monday.
3. Badami Caves, Karnataka
Located in the Bagalkot district of North Karnataka in India, Badami Caves are a complex of 4 Hindu cave temples, representing the rock-cut architecture of the Chalukyan dynasty which were excavated around 400CE. The nearest airport to reach Badami Caves is Hubli Airport. One has to drive around 110 km to reach from airport to caves. The cave temples are located near the serene Agasthya Lake, which adds to the spellbound beauty of the caves. Among the 4 Hindu cave temples, cave 1 is dedicated to Lord Shiva. In this cave, you can see the Natraja dance sculpture with 18 arms, 9 on each side, that portrays around 81 dance mudras of Bharatanatyam (Indian Classical Dance form). Cave 2 is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The cave comprises an open porch and a pillared hall. In this cave see the beautiful Vamana-Trivikrama sculpture (Lord Vishnu’s Avatar) and get to know the story and history behind the art. Cave 3 is the largest of all caves and is the most beautiful with admiring sculptures. Cave 4 comprises Jain temples and is the smallest. Explore the fine red sandstone art as you unfold the history and walk through all these 4 caves.
4. Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, Odisha
Hills of Udayagiri and Khandagiri are located in the outskirts of the city Bhubaneshwar in the state of Orissa (Eastern India). Formerly called Cuttack caves, these caves are partly natural and partly artificial caves with a religious importance. There are 32 caves that have survived till date and are unique among the Jain rock-cut shelters. It is believed that most of these caves were carved out as residential blocks for Jain monks during the sovereignty of King Kharavela. The chambers in the caves were resting places for the monks especially during monsoon season.
The name Udayagiri means Hill of Sunrise. The Archaeological Survey of India is in charge of the Udaygiri caves. See the Hathi Gumpha (Elephant Cave), the Rani Gumpha (Queen’s Cave), the Ganesh Gumpha, and the Vyaghara Gumpha (Tiger Cave) at Udayagiri. One can also see the historic inscription of king Kharavela inside the Hathi Gumpha. The Rani Gumpha is a double storey structure with beautiful carvings and is the most impressive and largest cave among others. There are 18 caves at Udayagiri hills.
Khandagiri hills is located adjoining Udayagiri hills and it has 15 caves. One has to climb a few steps to reach Khandagiri hills. The must visit at Khandari caves is cave number 3 “Ananta Gumpha”. The interesting features in this cave is the Gaja-Lakshmi sculpture where you can see Goddess Lakshmi with elephants in the Lotus Lake carved on the arch of the door.
The carvings at Udayagiri and Khandagiri are among very few ancient Jain rock cut caves and are still intact.
5. Mawsmai Caves, Meghalaya
Mawsmai Caves are located 57 km away from Shillong and around 6 km from Cherapunjee. These caves are formed out of limestones and are the most popular historical caves in Meghalaya. Mawsmai caves are the longest caves in Meghalaya with around 250 meters of length. However only 150 meters is open for tourists. With the spacious opening of the caves entrance, it narrows down as you proceed further and you have to bend and squeeze yourself to explore the caves till the end. Explore the details of rock formation and see how the gleaming lights inside the caves meet the limestone to create countless hues and patterns. The cave is also famous for its fossils and the stalagmites and stalactites are well developed in these caves. So, when you plan your tour to eastern India, don’t forget to take this crazy adventurous walk through the Mawsmai caves.
Jay Kajaria is Founder of Bespoke India Holidays. Bespoke India Holidays is an award-winning company that specialises in creating luxury trips to India and the subcontinent.