Traveling in India by any mode of transport is an adventure, for you never know exactly how things will go. We soon learnt that it is best to just drift with the flow and enjoy the unscheduled diversions.
It was on a recent trip to the subcontinent that we took a week away from Mumbai to explore other areas. Our first stop was Aurangabad to see the amazing cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora. A well-traveled photojournalist cousin had told us that a visit to these monuments was as rewarding as a trip to the Pyramids. We have to agree, because the two days in this area were full of awesome sights and interesting information that have added immensely to our knowledge of history and appreciation of archeological monuments of the area.
The Taj Hotel in Aurangabad was our comfortable abode for two nights. The immaculate gardens and fountains, the huge circular swimming pool, and excellent restaurant at the hotel provided the bonus comforts for the 5-star price.
Our tour guide is a gentleman in his mid-60s, a dignified walking encyclopedia, one who obviously enjoys his work and took pride in what he does. As the bus slows down to a stop, he is up on his feet with a smile and gives us fair warning: because we are at a popular tour destination, we are about to be attacked by feisty souvenir sellers who will rattle off not only in English but also Japanese, French, German, and other European languages. Thankfully, these enterprising vendors are restricted to the parking areas so we have peace for a few hours while we are at the actual cave sites. The guide’s advice is to ignore the souvenir vendors until after the tour of the caves—the inflated prices will come down to almost half after the tour, we are told.
We follow our guide up a well-paved, railed pathway and several flights of stairs and get our first impressive view of the temple caves of Ajanta, artfully carved, set in a colorful horseshoe-shaped, deep canyon gorge. A narrow river, the Waghore, runs through the canyon. Having traveled in India, I expect to see signs of habitation wherever there is a body of water. Sure enough, we see small clusters of homes in the deep canyon below, people working outside their homes, women doing the wash in the river, wisps of smoke rising from the kitchens. High above us on the canyon rim in the distance, a thin stream of water spills over the edge, feeding the river below. Our MTDC guide is quick to mention that the gushing waterfall is a pretty sight after the monsoons but the last rains were several months ago.
After the last ones of our group have reached the terraced area and recovered from the climb, our guide begins his formal tour presentation. His enthusiasm is catchy as he tells us about these Buddhist temples and carvings from the period 200 B.C. to 650 A.D. There are 29 caves in all but not all of them are ready for public tours as restoration work is going on in some. We are told that five of the caves are chaityas, meaning prayer rooms or assembly halls, and the other 24 are viharas, or cells for meditation and rest. The story goes that these caves were abruptly abandoned (some unfinished) by the Buddhists and were discovered quite by accident in 1819 by a British hunting party who came upon the carvings in the rocky hillside. The thick natural vegetation on the cliffs covered the face and entrances of the caves for centuries and probably helped to preserve and protect them.
As our group follows the guide from chamber to chamber, we are impressed by the job done by the Department of Archaeology both in terms of restoration as well as in the maintenance of these amazing monuments, which are a designated World Heritage site.
The magnificent paintings, elaborate sculptures and stupas, huge statues, perfectly symmetrical halls, remarkably detailed facades, columns and ceilings—all keep us spellbound for the duration of our visit and beyond. The paintings and murals each have an epic or story to tell and the MTDC guide is well versed in many. While most of these works of art are displayed on the walls, quite a few elaborate ones also adorn the ceilings. Some fascinating paintings and sculptures create illusions of movement as the angles of light and vision change. Our guide takes special pleasure in demonstrating this fascinating feature with his flashlight.
We see young apprentice Buddhist monks in their mustard-yellow garbs, following their teacher as their guide. Their group is rightfully privileged and allowed into some areas where the general public is not. We watch their patient rituals for a few minutes before catching up with our guide and group.
Our grand finale for the Ajanta tour is a viewing of the most notable sculpture—the famous Reclining Buddha, depicting the Great One in his last days, preparing to enter nirvana or final release from the state of existence. This Buddha is about 40 feet in length and, for some reason, situated in a narrow chamber, making it impossible to get a single-frame photograph of the entire reclining figure. Nevertheless, I can’t resist taking multiple shots of this simple yet magnificent creation out of solid rock. I stand quietly in awe, studying the Reclining Buddha. I can feel the peaceful serenity of the Buddha’s face touching my heart.
I recover from my short trance and step out to take another look at the canyon below and the temples partly encircling its rim. I wonder with amazement at the skill, patience, and devotion of the faithful artisans who worked on this historic site. This is one place I want to go back to in a few years.
Coming down the stairs we spot an eating place, the only one at Ajanta. A healthy vegetarian lunch and lassi under the cool ceiling fans re-energize us for the long trip back. But first, true to our guide’s prediction, the enterprising souvenir vendors trying to sell books and postcards of Ajanta, Ellora, and even distant locations like the erotic temples of Khajuraho attack us again. In a last-ditch effort to make a quick sale, the prices are slashed by half when the bus starts
and slowly starts to roll out. A few bargaining tourists make the most of the situation and close the sale just as the bus gathers speed. We settle in our seats with windows all the way down, for a bumpy ride and catnaps in the warm afternoon until we reach the gates of our hotel.
It is believed; we learn from our guide, that the Buddhist builders of Ajanta moved to Ellora and that the earliest of the 34 caves at Ellora are Buddhist. Later, as Buddhism began to decline in India, Hindu and Jain cave temples were added.
Unlike Ajanta, the cave sites at Ellora are in several groups separated by significant distances between them. Consequently, our tour bus makes several stops to cover all the sites we can see. Many of the caves are rather simple compared to the more elaborate ones and don’t take very long to go through.
By far the most scintillating structures at Ellora are the Hindu caves, with their dynamic carvings and sculptures of enormous complexity. Many of the entrance halls are quite dramatic with massive, ornate pillars and elaborately designed figures—true masterpieces of sculpture. Most of the carvings are from top to bottom in the sandstone rocky hillside, like magnificent columns and walls open to the sky above, not really “caves” by the usual definition.
The distinction between Ajanta and Ellora is unmistakable in that Ajanta’s attraction is in its rocky canyon setting and elaborate mural paintings, while Ellora is heaven for a sculpture enthusiast. Ellora was an excellent second day in the Aurangabad area and well worth it. As the tour continued on to Bibi ka Maqbara and the lesser-known Aurangabad caves we left because we had a plane to catch for Udaipur, Rajasthan. Bibi ka Maqbara, built by Aurangzeb’s son, is also referred as a cheap imitation of the famous Taj Mahal in Agra. We’ll get to it on the next trip home.
Amjad Noorani lives in Salinas, CA.
Caves: The MTDC tour bus for Ellora picks us up at the Taj Hotel right after breakfast, sparing us the taxi ride to the railway station. Ellora caves are only a short 30-kilometer bus ride from Aurangabad city center and today our well-trained guide is a young man, a recent history graduate not lacking in knowledge about the subject.Ajanta: The very reasonably priced guided-tour with Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) starts almost on time from the MTDC center near the railway station. The two-and-a-half hour bus ride to Ajanta caves is through scrub desert, frequently interrupted by fertile patches of irrigated farmlands around small village settlements. Our anticipation mounts as the bus slowly wound its way up a range of medium sized hills. One last turn and suddenly we are under the gigantic umbrella of shady banyan trees, a perfect parking lot and assembly area for tourists.