Monday, July 8, 2013


I am pleased to say that the journey was well worth it.

There's not much that I can say about Aurangabad itself, partly because I suspect that there is not much to say about it in general, and partly because we made very little effort to explore the town. We were not there for the city itself but for the nearby Ajanta and Ellora caves, which are billed as one of the top sights in India.

The morning after our arrival we took a three hour local bus, followed by a shorter trip on a dedicated bus that brought us to the bottom of a series of stairs that led up to the Ajanta caves. (If you were invalid, or just fat and lazy, you could hire four lucky men to carry you around the site.) I should say from the outset that “caves” is a complete misnomer and does an injustice to the fantastic things we saw in the Aurangabad area, which are a series of increasingly elaborate temples carved directly from one huge solid piece of rock.

The Ajanta caves comprise a horseshoe shaped area of cliff-face into which Hindus, Buddhists and Jains have created a series of more than 30 amazing temples over a span of around 900 years starting in the 2nd century BC. Thus, each so-called 'cave' is tunneled directly into the cliff-face with thousands of tons of rock removed to create spacious rooms supported by numerous pillars. In Ajanta, several of these temples featured elaborate murals, much of which have miraculously survived.

We joined a friendly Indian family on a guided tour of some of the key temples. The guide was extremely well informed, however he focused primarily on the paintings within the temples for which Ajanta is famous.

Whilst the paintings are undeniably impressive, particularly in light of their age, and the stories they tell interesting, for me these paintings very much took second place to the incredible feats of creating the temples themselves. I can't even begin to imagine how many man hours it would have taken purely to excavate tons of rock from the cliff-face, before the skilled task of carving out the details of the temples could begin. A number of the caves were never completed, which gave an interesting insight into the process of creating them, but unfortunately our guide didn't really go into any detail on the creation process. 
The interiors .of the finished temples are all unique, but do follow similar themes. Obviously they each have a series of pillars to support the huge weight of the cliff-face above, and the focus of each temple is the idol at the far end. Photos can't really do the caves justice, because they really need to be appreciated in the context of seeing the raw rock from which they have been made, but here are a few samples to give an idea:

The area was crawling with thousands of centipedes which our Lego friend inspected closely.

On our return journey to our guesthouse we struggled to find a single rickshaw driver who would give us a decent price for the trip from the bus station (every one quoting over twice the amount we had paid to get there in the morning) so we decided to walk. After a while we were a little unsure as to whether we had passed our turning and so we approached a rickshaw driver for directions; rather than try to charge us for an extremely short journey, he informed us that it was around the next corner and that we would be better off walking. Having found a reasonable rickshaw driver (which are about as common in India as steakhouses) we subsequently hired him to take us around the remaining sights of the area over the next two days. Rickshaw drivers take note: it pays to be reasonable!

The following day our driver first took us to the Daulatabad fort which is pretty impressive in of itself, but also offers some great views of the surrounding area. The landscape is very different to the lush green which we had become used to in Kerala.

As I braved the sweaty climb to the very top of the fort (during which I was very glad that we visited first thing in the morning before it got really hot) Monique made friends with with elusive yet adorable Indian squirrels.

Next stop was the Ellora caves. Having been wowed by the Ajanta caves, we assumed that they couldn't top what we had seen the previous day. Incredibly Ellora managed to top Ajanta by a distance.

The 34 Ellora caves are spread over a long stretch of cliff-face, and again are a mixture of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples built into the rock.  They are more recent than the Ajanta caves, dating back to the 5th century, and their creation is part of the reason why a number of the caves at Ajanta went unfinished.  Whilst many of the Ellora temples were very similar to those which we had seen at Ajanta, a few stood out as bigger, more elaborate, and frankly better than what Ajanta had to offer—something I did not think would be possible.

Amongst the first of the Ellora temples we visited was a massive Hindu temple which included multiple massive carvings depicting the various deities and scenes from stories. I have never seen so many carvings on that scale before. Whilst Ajanta is renowned for its paintings Ellora is, understandably, famous for its stone carvings.

5'10" girl included for scale
The Hindu sculptors were clearly breast men

One “cave”, however, blew everything else out of the water; an enormous and elaborately decorated Hindu temple consisting of multiple buildings all created out of the same enormous piece of rock. The temple, which is really more of a palace, incorporated a number of smaller temples, was dug out from the top down over the course of 200 years. Taken out of context the buildings would be impressive when compared to many of the temples which we had seen on our travels so far, particularly because the level of decoration better than most. However unlike those other temples, it is surrounded by the raw rock from which it has been created, a reminder that you are standing in a massive negative space in the middle of what was once solid rock, and that every part of the temple is created from that same rock. None of the buildings or sculptures have been imported from elsewhere, they have all been carved directly out of the rock from the top down. It is really one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. Words cannot do it justice, and unfortunately neither can photos, but these might give a bit of an idea.

On the way back, we stopped by a quiet corner of Aurangabad to see some beautiful tombs of Muslim spiritual leaders. The tombs are also home to an important relic, part of a cloth robe purporting to belong to Muhammad. While it is only displayed once a year, it is possible to touch the gate that holds the relic and be (gently) hit with a broom to obtain some blessings.

The following day our driver had waited outside our guesthouse on the off-chance that we wanted to hire him again, and it was extremely lucky for us that he did. Firstly he was extremely helpful in assisting our travel plans onwards towards Delhi, which had not been as straightforward as we had hoped. One stop at a helpful travel agency followed by a trip to the railway where we scooped the last 2AC tickets to Delhi. 

We then headed off to the Aurangabad caves, which were nice, but remarkable mostly for the attention we attracted from the other visitors—everybody wanted their photo taken, and taken again...and again. Afterward, he took us to the Bibi Ka Maqbara, which is affectionately referred to as the “Mini Taj”. The building, a mausoleum like the Taj Mahal itself, is very impressive in its own right but also served as a sample of what we could expect to see when we get to Agra towards the end of our time in India. Much like the Taj Mahal, it was created for a loved one, only this was built by a son for his mother. Made of limestone, it is more fragile than the Taj, but with a considerably smaller price tag. 


Suitably wowed by everything we had seen, we prepared for a long, long journey to Delhi.

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