The Buddhist and Hindu rock caves scattered throughout western India help us to chart artistic developments in ancient India, since most other buildings from that time were made of materials that have not survived. The caves at Ajanta also contain the earliest surviving group of paintings from ancient India (other than prehistoric evidence). We know from incomplete caves at Ajanta that masons and sculptors worked from top to bottom to excavate the caves and create architectural and sculptural forms.
There are two main types of cave structures at Ajanta. One is the square-shaped cave that contained cells where the monks resided. Over time, these became more elaborate and incorporated secondary shrines. The other main structure was the worship hall or shrine, called a chaitya. The early chaityahalls at Ajanta are carved into the rock in a bullet shape with a rounded end called an apse. The vaulted ribs at the top were carved to simulate wooden beams. At the centre of the apse was the stupa shape. The hall itself is lined with pillars, and behind the pillars and apse is an ambulatory passage, allowing the worshiper to walk around the stupas as a form of worship.
We know the chaitya represented here (cave 26) is a later development, because the rock-cut image of the seated Buddha appears, as if emerging out of the stupa (in the lower center part of the photograph). In contrast to the earlier caves, this cave is also much more elaborately decorated. This is important, because we know that Mahayana Buddhism was becoming more popular at this time, and with it, multiple images of the Buddha in human form, as well as images of supporting figures known as bodhisattvas, appear abundantly in Buddhist art. The Ajanta caves provide direct evidence of early Buddhist art, patronage, and architectural forms that would influence the spread of Buddhism and Buddhist imagery across Asia.