Not as well known as Ajanta yet also interest are the rock-cut caves of Pitalkhora in the Satamala range of the Sahyadri hills. There are thirteen caves, set high up on the hill, overlooking picturesque ravines. Many of the caves contain carvings and paintings that date from the 1st century B.C. to the 5the century A.D. They were discovered after Ajanta and are first mentioned in a publication of 1853 where Caves 3 and 4 are described.
Many of the carvings as well as the paintings have been damaged by the weather and vandals. The caves appear to be of the early Hinayana period of Buddhism and are contemporary to the other rock-cut Buddhist temples in western India. They were probably excavated and carved during the Satavahana-Kshaharata regimes.
There appears to be a subsequent period of desertion and re-occupation much later in the 5th century A.D. during the Vakataka rule. In the Hinayana Buddhist period no images of Buddha or Bodhisattvas (celestial beings personifying the virtues of Buddha and attending to the needs of the people) appear in places of worship and none can be seen in the caves of Pitalkhora except for the paintings in Cave 3, which belong to the later phase of occupation.
Because of their locations the caves have been divided into two groups. Caves 1-9 face north and east and are adjacent to each other. These are in Group I. On the other side of the hill, facing southwards are Caves 10-14 which make up Group II.
Many of the caves have crumbled and are badly damaged. Cave 1 looks like a huge natural opening. There are indications of cells and door supports and it may have formed an extensive Vihara or monastery.
Caves 2, 3 and 4 share the same forecourt and are presumed to be of the same period. The dividing wall between 2 and 3 has disappeared, 2 was a Vihara and has an interesting rock-cut drain which prevents water from flowing into Cave 3 which was a prayer hall.
The best paintings are in Cave 3. These appear on the pillars and side walls. 37 pillars used to separate the aisle from the hall and these were donated individually as inscriptions on the 10th and 11th pillars, on the right, indicate. The donors of both these pillars were residents of Paithan. Steps lead down to a basement containing several carvings. Rare crystals and other reliquaries were found in the stupa here.
Cave 4 has a number of carvings of elephants and horses as well as inscriptions about donors. Among the detached rock is a carved panel depicting Buddha as a prince, leaving his palace. This is the only scene from the life of Buddha that has been found at Pitalkhora.
The damage Cave 5 was a Vihara and contains an interesting inscription on a loose boulder which mentions a gift by a guild of bankers. Caves 6, 7 and 8 were all Viharas. 6 has some traces of painting on the walls. Between 7 & 8 there is an unfinished rock-cut cistern. Cave 9 was an extensive Vihara and still has remnants of plastering and painting.
On the other side of the hill is Group II. The caves here are Chaityas or chapels for prayer and contain stupas. Cave 11 has several stupas possibly excavated at different times. Cave 13 and 14 share the same forecourt and contain some very unique sculptures but are both in a crumbled and damaged condition.
Because of its remoteness Pitalkhora has few visitors and having reached the caves one can almost imagine that one has in fact discovered them. And there may in fact be more to discover.
Travel : Pitalkhora is 78 kms from Ajanta and can be visited by car, but the climb up the hill has to be done on foot. Another way of getting there is by taking the night train from Bombay – Chalisgaon and then a bus to the ancient shrine of Patna Devi. A short trek and then the climb up the hill. One can also take a bus from Chalisgaon to Bhamarwadi and from there the caves are about 9 kms.