Even in a land pockmarked with centuries-old temples and monuments, the cave paintings and sculptures at Ajanta and Ellora stand out as among India’s more renowned historical treasures – with good reason, as I found out this weekend. The two cave complexes are easily among the highest achievements of human engineering and artistry in the world, the only comparable examples, in my opinion, being Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Longmen Grottoes in China, and the temples at Abu Simbel and Karnak in Upper Egypt.
Although Aurangabad does have an airport, it is a tiny one and not as well-connected in terms of cities or frequency of flights. However, you should certainly check it out in case what is available fits your schedule. We chose to start from Pune, the epicentre of Marathi culture and 235 kilometres to the southwest of Aurangabad. Although the two cities are connected fairly well by bus and train, we preferred the flexibility of a rented car. In India, most car rentals provide a driver with the car and one does not have to be worried about knowing the roads though that comes at the cost of losing one seat. In that sense, I suppose it is more of an extended taxi service than a car rental. Unfortunately, our driver was not familiar with Aurangabad but since we hardly deviated from the state highways, this did not cause much trouble. Be sure to check if your driver knows your destination well when you rent a car.
Our first destination was Ellora, or Elapura as it was once known. Thirty kilometres from Aurangabad, the caves open to the public at 06 00 and close at 18 00; if you have the stamina to make full use of these hours, Ellora would take two days to finish. For ordinary mortals, three days makes for better planning. This is assuming that you, the discerning tourist, would spend time getting an overall feel of the place, identify each of the sculptures, dwell on the construction techniques, and marvel at the artistic genius. Many plebeians, however, are simply interested in taking some selfies for Facebook or Twitter and make a nuisance of themselves at the site.
The Ellora cave complex has 34 caves, 17 Hindu, 12 Buddhist, and 5 Jain. Unfortunately, these are numbered consecutively rather than chronologically – Caves I – XII are Buddhist and in the south, Caves XIII – XXIX are Hindu and in the middle, and Caves XXX – XXXIV are Jain and in the north. If you are a stickler for chronology – it makes seeing the transitions and developments easier – as I am, you can expect Ellora to include a bit of a walk.
The latest historical research indicates that the earliest construction was of a few Hindu caves, followed by the Buddhist caves, a second phase of Hindu cave construction, and finally the Jain caves. These phases lasted from the early fifth century to the late tenth century and obviously, some of these phases overlapped with each other. The earliest caves were carved during the rule of the earliest Kalachuri kings and the later caves – Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain – were built during the Rashtrakuta Empire.
It is not necessary to visit all the caves – some are incomplete and where stonemasons and sculptors perfected their techniques before applying them to the main sites. Nonetheless, these caves may give you an idea about the construction techniques of the cave builders and should not be totally ignored.
The piece de resistance at Ellora is undoubtedly the imposing Kailasa Temple one sees immediately upon entering the premises. Constructed in the mid-eighth century by Krishna I, the megalith rises to over 100 feet and has a footprint of about 42,500 square feet. At these dimensions, it is the largest cave structure in India and probably the world. Technically Cave XVI, the Kailasa Temple is built in the Pallava style with tapering viharas and cloisters flanking the temple on three sides. It is estimated that some 400,000 tonnes of rock were excavated to create it. Originally, the temple was painted completely white so as to resemble Lord Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas. The temple itself has two floors and is surrounded by a three-storey gallery on three sides. The main prayer hall has a large and majestic lingam and the inseparable Nandi a few metres away while the walls are decorated with sculptures depicting events from the puranas and epics.
Densely packed with sculptures from Hindu cosmology, Kailasa alone requires the better part of a day to decipher and appreciate. The view of the temple from the front is blocked by a fortress wall but you can climb around the sides and get a view of the entire complex from the top and behind. What makes Cave XVI stand out as one of the greatest achievements of not just Hindu iconography but monument-building worldwide is that the entire structure was carved out of a single piece of rock – engineers, stonemasons, master craftsmen, and others would have had to have calculated how the temple would take shape precisely as they worked on it starting from the top and proceeding to the bottom. Given the necessity for structurally sound rock for the temple, workers could not simply hammer away the tonnes of rocks or wedge indiscriminately for fear of larger-than-desired cracks developing. The whole project had to be meticulously planned and carefully excavated, and that is why I rank this monument so highly.
Cave XIV is called Ravan ka Khai for reasons beyond me. It has a pillared hall and the walls are decorated with life-size sculptures of a dancing Shiva, Varahavtara, Shiva and Parvati playing chausar, Gajalakshmi, the saptamatrikas, Andhakasuravadha, and others. In fact, it looks as if one wall is dedicated to the Shivapurana and the other to the Vishnupurana. What I found most riveting, however, was the sculpture of Mahishasuramardini on the right as soon as you enter. Interestingly, though the common depiction of Mahishasuramardini shows Durga killing a buffalo, a couple of carvings at Cave XVI showed Mahishasura as a man wearing a horned helmet.
Cave XV is up a steep flight of stairs and another marvellous cave. It is a two-storeyed pillared hall with a Nandi mandapam in the courtyard. The Nandi statue has been displaced from the mandapam, I don’t know why, and can be seen on the first floor of the cave. What makes this cave even more interesting is that it is one of the few caves that are supposed to have inscriptions in them – the Rashtrakuta king Dantidurga is supposed to have etched out his genealogy and conquests in the stone somewhere near the Nandi mandapam. Unfortunately, we were ill-prepared and did not have flashlights and what feeble light our mobile phones gave off was not enough to spot it. The cave is called the Dasavatara cave but precious few of Lord Vishnu’s avatars are depicted in it; in fact, Cave XV is a Shiva shrine and is adorned with sculptures like the Markandeya anugraha murti, Gangadhara, Lingodhbhava Shiva and Tripurantaka.
Again, the multiple floors and courtyards of Cave XV make it easy to forget that this cave, like all others at Ellora, were carved out of the Charanandri Hills. The sculptures’ magnificence aside, that the entire complex was carved in situ makes it even more remarkable.
Cave XXIX, also known as Dumarlena, bears a striking similarity to the Elephanta caves in Bombay. There is a large lingam in a centrally located shrine with four doorways, each guarded by two towering dwarapalaks. The walls of the spacious cave have six large panels with various depictions of Lord Shiva such as the sundarakalyanam, Nataraja, Lakulisa, Shiva and Parvati playing a game, Ravana trying to lift Kailasa, and the killing of Andhaka.
As far as I know, there is no documentary or inscriptional evidence that details the funding of the construction of Ajanta or Ellora. One can only surmise that something of this magnitude would have required royal patronage and perhaps the support of rich local merchants. While Ajanta was lost for a long time, Ellora was close to important trade routes and did not suffer the same fate. The complex continued to receive visitors over the centuries and some fo the caves were indeed used for the purpose for which they seem to have been created – prayer.
To sample the next day’s pleasures, we ended the day with a visit to the Buddhist Cave X. In retrospect, I can say that it is, without doubt, the most stunning Buddhist cave at Elapura. The colonnaded chamber with its ribbed ceiling is reminiscent of pre-Carolingian churches (no transept) and has two floors. In the place of the altar is a stupa and before it sits Buddha on what can only be imagined as a throne. Buddha sits in the pralambapadasana, making what is probably a vyakhyana mudra, believed to be what is referred to in the base tongue as the teaching mudra. On the right side of the cave’s porch, there is a mini-shrine to Mahamayuri, one of the pancharakshas in Buddhism, who is seated on her peacock vahana and holding the iconic peacock feather. This simplicity is in contrast to later depictions, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, that show Mahamayuri with multiple arms laden with various symbols such as the lotus. Some of the pillars that ran down the sides of the cave all had regular holes at the same height, presumably to bear torches at night.
We simply had to sit there and take in the ambience of the place, imagining the cave in its heyday. The torches, the darker nights, the smell of oil, the monks, the chanting…it was quite enough to give some of us goose bumps. Although camphor is offered to the Buddha in Japan and Sri Lanka, I am not sure if that custom was prevalent in India twelve centuries ago.
The next day, before reaching Ellora, we stopped by the Grishneshwar Temple at Verul. I don’t know much about the temple itself except that it was renovated in the late 18th century by the Malwa queen Ahilyabai Holkar or that it has a fairly high tapering shikhara of stone in various shades of red. Grishneshwar is the last of the twelve jyotirlingas and very close to Devagiri, now known as Daulatabad, barely a kilometre or so away from Ellora. There is nothing to differentiate a jyotirlingam from any other lingam visibly; it is believed, however, that those who have achieved higher states of consciousness can see the jyotirlingam as a beam of bright light penetrating the earth and stretching upwards towards the sky.
According to Hindu mythology, Brahma and Vishnu, two of the Trinity, get into a debate about who has a better knowledge of Shiva. To test them, Shiva appeared as an endless pillar of light and asked Brahma and Vishnu to go up and down respectively until the end of the pillar. After a while, Brahma came back and lied that he had seen the top while Vishnu confessed that he could not find the bottom. Shiva was enraged with Brahma for lying and cursed him that there would be no temples to him while Vishnu would be worshipped for eternity.
As many temples in India, the approach to the temple was dirty and the temple itself not clean. Even early in the morning, there was a fairly large crowd waiting for darshan. At Grishneshwar, devotees can actually touch the lingam and offer flowers, bael patra (aegle marmelos), or do a milk abhishekam themselves. As we were standing in line waiting to be given access to the garbhagudi (sanctum sanctorum), I spotted vendors I had just passed at the entrance separating the flowers from the bael patra from a pile of discarded offerings. I suspect they recycle the flora by selling it to unsuspecting pilgrims who arrive a little later. My experience was further marred by the priest asking for dakshina even before we had started our prayers. For all the agitation Hindu groups in India do about political rights, I wish a little effort were also spent in keeping these supposedly sacred places spotless.
After our temple visit, we hit the Buddhist caves. Of the twelve Buddhist caves at Ellora, only four are significant. This is not to say that others should not be visited but only that anyone pressed to finish Ellora within two days might have to prioritise which caves they wish to spend their time in.
Cave II has over 20 sculptures of the Buddha, a few unfinished and coarse, in pralambapadasana and a couple in padmasana atop a lotus. Most of the Buddhas are flanked by bodhisattvas and are making what appears to be a dharmachakra pravartana mudra though I may be wrong on this. However, many scholars argue that this mudra is the same as the vyakhyana mudra. A little variety is available in the form on a Maitreya Buddha on the right side of the entrance to the cave and a panel depicting the miracles at Sravasti on the left upon entry. There is also a depiction of Tara, the Saraswati of Mahayana Buddhism, near the Sravasti miracles panel and Jambhala, the bodhisattva of material wealth, sits at the left end of the porch. I am told that both Jambhala and Tara come colour-coded to symbolise various virtues but my knowledge of Buddhism is not up to par to remember all those details.
Another Buddhist cave of interest is Cave V. It is designed as a prayer hall seen in any Buddhist monastery, with low stone benches running down its entire length in the centre and a Buddha statue at what is presumably the altar. It is about 35 metres in depth and and lined with small cells, presumably for monks to rest between chanting, prayer, and study. At the door stand the bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani.
The last Buddhist cave we visited was Cave XII. It is a massive construction, three storeys high and built like a miniature fort with a courtyard and two keep-like structures in the right and left corners that used to be connected to the main complex. The entire cave is arranged in the form of three mandalas, and someone with significantly greater knowledge of Buddhism will have to explain to me the full significance of the cave. At the basic visual level, I can account for a series of deities like Manjushri, Raktalokeshwara, Sthirachakra, Tara, Kunda, and a couple of others at the back of the cave on the first floor. In the sanctum sanctorum sit Buddha making the bhumsparsa mudra with several bodhisattvas around him; do enter the chamber or you will miss the several sculptures surrounding the Buddha as he preaches.
The second floor has a couple of pillars with inscriptions on them; in an inscription-starved site, even sighting one inscription was elating even if I could not read much of it! The level is also similar with Tara, Kunda, bodhisattvas in the main chamber, Padmapani and Vajrapani as the dwarpalaks, and in the main shrine, again, Buddha in the bhumisparsa mudra surrounded by bodhisattvas. On this floor, he is also joined by Tara and Jambhala in the shrine. Interestingly, Padmapani seems to be holding a thunderbolt and one of the bodhisattvas an upraised sword; this is quite a contrast with the common (mis)perception of Buddhism as a peaceful and ascetic religion. In reality, there are several sects and each interpret the teachings of the Buddha in different ways; hence the weapons, the presence of several deities, and a heavy dose of tantra can be seen at Ellora.
The third floor is, in my opinion, the most majestic. There are five low stone benches running across the enormous hall, interspersed by pillars. Like Cave V, this was probably a place for meditation, prayer, chanting, and study. There are five buddhas along the right wall and four along the left either in padmasana or pralambapadasana; at the front of the hall, there are 14 of the 27 buddhas prior to Siddhartha Gautama. As our guidebook informed us, they are Vipasi, Sikhi, Vishvabhu, Krachakunda, Kanakmuni, Kashyapa, Sakya Simha, Vairochanda, Akshobhya, Ratna Sambhava, Amitabha, Amogha Siddhi, Vajrasattva, and Vajra Raja from left to right. The 14 buddhas sitting in meditation inject a serenity in the chamber that I did not feel on the other two floors. We decided to take a little break right in that hall and enjoy the feel of the cave a little longer.
The shrine has an antechamber on this floor and there are six female figures along its walls – Janguli, Mahamyuri, Pandra, Bhrikuti, Tara, and Usanisavijaya. There are also six female figures facing out, three on each side of the door, and the dwarpalaks Padmapani and Vajrapani. As for the female figures, I am a bit confused – some say they are all bodhisattvas while others say there are different manifestations of Tara. Either way, the Buddhist pantheon, I realised, is fuller than I had thought.
In the innermost chamber, Buddha sits with a bhumisparsa mudra and is surrounded by Maitreya, Sthirachakra, Manjushri, Tara, Jambhala, and other bodhisattvas.
We broke for lunch before returning to finish off the Jain caves. Now I am sure none of my companions will agree with me on this but there are absolutely no civilised places to eat in the immediate vicinity of Ellora. There is one decent-looking restaurant whose food is of middling palatability and service is atrociously slow. The rest are basically shacks fashioned out of corrugated metal sheets. There is one other sturdier place, Vrindavan, if you like Jain Gujarati food – one of us asked for an onion unknowingly and got a look as if we had asked to sacrifice the waiter’s first-born to Melqart! Personally, I plan to carry a small tucker bag of goodies on my next visit.
While we are on the topic of food, another thing I noticed is how difficult it is nowadays to find misal pav in Aurangabad; I am told that Bombay is no different either. When we went looking for some good Maharashtrian snacks, on the first evening, we were told it is a breakfast food. The next morning, however, misal pav and its friends – pav bhaji, sev batata puri, bhel puri, usal pav – was nowhere to be seen either. In fact, it was easier to locate a quasi Udupi restaurant for some idli vada and upma. This is quite different from my experience elsewhere – in the north, restaurants will carry aloo paratha, samosa, and kachori all day whether you find them fit for breakfast or not, and in the south, no restaurant worth its salt would stop making idli or dosa at any point of the day.
There is perhaps only one Jain cave that stands out – Cave XXXII, named the Indra Sabha; one thing I will clearly never understand is the naming conventions of some of these caves! In any case, Cave XXXII is a series of small shrines to Mahavira and other important tirthankaras of Jainism. There is a sarvatobhadra mandapa, meaning that there is a tirthankara facing each of the four cardinal directions; in this case, they are Rishabha, the founder of the faith, Parsvanatha, Neminatha, and Mahavira the great reformer. There is also a stambha and a free-standing rock elephant in the courtyard.
The hall contains sculptures primarily of Mahavira, sometimes flanked by Indra on his Airavata; Neminatha is seen protected by Ambika on her lion, and Parsvanantha under the hood of a naga. There are several other key Jain figures in the hall like Gomateshwara, Sarvanabhuti, Bahubali, and others. The main shrine, at the back and centre of the hall, contained a large Mahavira in his usual dhyana mudra and padmasana.
The first floor of the cave contained more of the same. However, more of the paint seems to have survived here than in any of the other caves at Ellora. Though covered in centuries of grime and neglected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) – some may say that is a blessing in disguise – the remaining bits of the frescoes and murals give an idea of how wonderful the caves might have been when new.
We quickly wound up the rest of the Jain section and moved back to Kailasa where we ended the day. The temple is so massive that it takes a lot of time to take it all in; we were yet to explore the cloisters and that we did at the end of the second day, our last day in Ellora.
Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Ellora is very poorly maintained. All the caves reek of largely chiropteran excrement or have anything more than natural lighting. One would simply have to be an above average photographer to capture the beauty of some of the sculptures in the recesses of the caves. Furthermore, the caves are still home to hundreds of bats and tourists should be careful in using their camera flash in the darker corners of the caves.
Yet the greatest danger to Ellora comes from elsewhere – Indians. It is shocking to see the criminal disregard the overwhelming majority of Indian visitors to Ellora show for the ancient rock sculptures. At several places, I saw litter and graffiti. This is a problem not just at Ellora but all Indian monuments I have visited. At Ellora, we also saw a special breed of idiot that insisted on climbing on top of the sculptures to take photographs. We even asked the guards to stop them but severely undermanned, had just given up and did not bother to fine or evict any of the visitors. By the second day, our horror had surpassed our desire to avoid conflict and a couple of us started yelling at the vandals to get off the artwork while others might have started mentally going through ancient and medieval torture techniques.
Maybe it is for the best that so many of India’s historical artifacts were looted by the British and are now on display in their museums – at least they are being preserved well. India’s ancient heritage needs to be preserved, no doubt, but the first step in that process seems to be to protect it from Indians.
I remember someone wondered if the defacement happens because of a loss of sacrality of the site – because the temples, chaityagrihas, and Buddhist viharas have fallen out of use, they are just ordinary structures and no longer sacred ones that need to be cherished. If true, this would be spell a sad fate for secular monuments; however, there is no reason to believe this is so as even functioning temples are quite filthy at times. Nearby Grishneshwar was dirty but not disgusting; Kashi and Puri, on the other hand, would drive any sane man to apostasy!
One way to prevent such defacement is to raise the entry fees; at present, Indians and citizens of SAARC and BIMSTEC countries can gain access for ₹10 and other foreigners for ₹250. If this were raised to a hefty ₹1,000, it may not stop the vandalism – wealth or education did not appear to be criteria for being idiots – but it will at least reduce the crowds to a level that may be more manageable for the guards. The high entry fees would also ensure that Ellora is not just some picnic spot on the way to somewhere else – usually Shirdi – and only people interested in visiting the site would come in.
The caves ought to be cleaned and proper lighting provided. By proper, I mean bright yet soft light and bulbs that give off low heat. Given the affordability of MP3 players, audio guides to the caves in five or six Indian and foreign languages can also be easily made available.
One last thing I noticed about Ellora was the damage to many of the caves. The most common reason given is water damage but that simply does not cover it. The builders of Ellora, fully aware of the Elaganga and other streams that flow through the Charanandri Hills, would have taken measures to limit water damage. Furthermore, while water damage may still explain some of the damage to the extremities of the caves, it does not explain the damage to the sculptures deeper inside. Some of the damage can also be explained by the disrepair the caves fell into after the Muslim conquest of the region. Neglected by the authorities, the caves were used by locals as dwellings as well as to stable their livestock. However, a lot of the damage curiously involves decapitation of the hands, breasts, and head – typical of Islamic marauders as can be attested by Hampi and several other sites across India. It would be a striking coincidence if water damage explains this uniformly across all the caves.
My theory is that much of the damage was wrought by the Islamic overlords of Maharashtra, from the Khiljis, the Tughlaqs, the Bahamanis, and finally the Mughals. Part of the damage was caused by the lack of maintenance and royal patronage while a significant amount must have been caused by the iconoclasm of the invaders. If anyone has a better theory, I am more than willing to reconsider my assertion.
On our last day in the region, we visited Ajanta. The first thing I learned was that the town name is pronounced अजिंठा and not अजंता as I have always heard. Admittedly, one is in Marathi and the latter in Hindi but since Indians seem to believe their regional flavours must be accommodated by all – Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Puducherry – I was amused at the adhocism of this petulance.
Ajanta is about 95 kms away from Aurangabad and so not as conveniently reachable as Ellora is. On Indian roads, this translates to approximately two hours of driving. Strategically, visitors to the Ajanta would be better off staying in Jalgaon than Aurangabad. In any case, we had finally located some misal pav and had our fill – minor delays would not faze us that day!
Ajanta is a complex of 29 Buddhist caves, not all of which are finished, that were constructed in two phases. The first phase of cave building, under the Satavahanas, took place somewhere around 200 BCE and the second phase, during the reign of the Vakatakas, took place from 200 CE to 500 CE. Ajanta is therefore older than the cave complex at Ellora. It is common knowledge that the location of these caves was lost for centuries and Ajanta was found accidentally in 1819 by Captain John Smith, a British officer with the 28th Cavalry of the Madras Presidency, while hunting.
When we reached Ajanta, I was surprised to see how well planned the site was, very unlike most tourist sites in India. My surprise soon vanished when I found out that the Japanese government planned the tourist centre and access to the Ajanta complex; implementation, however, was in the hands of the Maharashtra government and quite poor. For example, there were two or three tickets we had to purchase and the bus from the tourist centre to the caves had another ticket – I am not sure why they could not all be combined into one fee. One more thing – the caves are not, yet again, in chronological order but simply numbered in the order they come on the east-to-west tourist path.
After Ellora, I did not think I could be impressed anymore; I had just seen some of the most magnificent manifestations of human artistic endeavour and surely there could be little to surpass the Ellora 35. I was wrong. The caves at Ajanta may not have surpassed Ellora but were easily their equals in grandeur and beauty. Here, the creators had been less intense with sculpture but the paintwork had survived the centuries due to the undisturbed state of Ajanta until 1819. The beautiful frescoes and murals, though covered in grime, were still vivid and even bright in some spots.
It is difficult for me to explain even the contents of the important caves because I am not well versed in the Buddhist canon. However, the subject matter of the murals and frescoes at Ajanta are events from the life of the Buddha, stories from the Jataka Tales, and events from the lives of some of the bodhisattvas; Ajanta is too early for the more “ornamented” versions of Buddhism, though that is what makes it better.
Cave I contains the murals of Padmapani and Vajrapani prominently seen in India’s tourism promotion campaigns. Caves IX and X are chaityagrihas – they have stupas in them – and tales from the Buddhist scriptures painted on the walls. Cave X was also the cave that Smith spotted and subsequently vandalised by scratching his name and date on one of the murals higher up. Cave XXVI is famous for its large reclining Buddha rock carving, showing the man at his moment of death. It also holds a magnificent Buddha sitting in front of a stupa and preaching.
The caves at Ajanta clearly present evidence that construction was carried out in two phases. The first phase matched the earlier and more austere Hinayana Buddhism while the latter is more in line with Mahayana Buddhism. One simple example is the increasing placement of Buddha’s statue in the shrine rather than the aniconic stupa in later caves. This is, however, an oversimplification – the latter caves are not fully Mahayana caves though they represent the transition from the earlier practices of Buddhism.
Something else that is quite interesting in the Ajanta caves is the occasional but not infrequent appearance of darker-complexioned people in the paintings. Unlike much of medieval Western art in which black represented evil, there is no hierarchy implied in the cave paintings at Ajanta. Vajrapani, Buddha’s dwarpalak and a bodhisattva, is dark. In fact, even the Buddha is frequently depicted as a black man. This is not surprising to anyone well-versed in Hindu literature – Krishna, one of the key protagonists in the Mahabharata and the eighth avatara of Vishnu, is always shown to be dusky. There is no doubt that there is an aesthetic preference for fairer skin among many in India but that preference does not at all extend to moral and character judgments about darker people. The cave paintings at Ajanta are yet another example of this fact.
I remember being asked to pay for a special ticket while entering Ajanta that was supposed to be for the lighting in the caves. Unlike Ellora, Ajanta has at least attempted to remedy the problem of darkness in the caves. However, the lighting is very poor and you will need a torch as you did at Ellora. Worse, I am not sure if the lighting installed by the management is conducive to the long life of the artwork in the caves – I would have expected a brighter and softer light, probably LEDs, that gave off much less heat than what has been provided presently.
We finished with Ajanta and headed back to Pune. Ajanta is open from 09 00 until 17 00 but we did not spend the whole day wandering through the caves. This was due to the way our itinerary had turned out but honestly, I was a bit bored in the Buddhist and Jain caves of Ajanta and Ellora. No doubt, they are exquisite creations, but they are difficult to appreciate for someone not fluent in Buddhist and Jain cosmology. I walked in, was wow’ed, and I walked out – after all, there are only so many times you can see a buddha in pralambapadasana holding a vyakhyana mudra and not get bored. Growing up on the exponentially vaster Hindu canon, I took for granted what outsiders might consider mind-boggling and ultimately confusing diversity of Hinduism. My familiarity with the various avataras of Vishnu and Shiva, not to mention the epics, is hardly scholarly but these things are the sort of stuff any normal Indian would be weaned on and just know. My quick saturation with the Buddhist and Jain caves in no way takes away from them but only expresses my weaker understanding of their canon and hence an inability to enjoy them as thoroughly as I did the Hindu caves.
If you are from afar, you may want to spend some time in Aurangabad too now that you have travelled so much. The city has a few sites of interest, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s unassuming tomb near Ellora being one of them. Alamgir’s first wife is also buried there in the Bibi ka Maqbara, which looks a little like a poor man’s Taj Mahal. The Daulatabad fort may also be worth a visit. The city also has a few dargahs but none quite so spectacular or for anyone so renowned – you would be better off spending your limited time elsewhere than visit mausoleums for every Tanveer, Dastagir, and Hamid.
The misal pav was one hunt we went on but if you are non-vegetarian, do not miss out on Aurangabad’s famous naan qalia, a delicious mutton preparation.
India is hot, tropical country, and Maharashtra offers no respite; Aurangabad can be quite hot and sunny even in the non-summer months. You may want to bring along a cap, sunglasses, and some sunscreen if you do not get along with Suryadev but more importantly, be sure to keep yourself well hydrated. There is a canteen at the entrance of the Ellora complex where you can replenish your supplies, and an extra bottle of water in your backpack will not hurt. The catch here is that, like most places in India, the bathrooms are utterly filthy. Beware, you have been warned!
Like most tourism in India, Ajanta and Ellora makes one seriously consider if the dirt and grime is really worth the potential pleasure of seeing an important historical site, and like most places, the answer is a resounding “Yes” after a moment’s hesitation. These two World Heritage sites are an absolute must-see for anyone interested in Indian art, and mine was a long weekend well spent.
A few photographs from…a different kind of spelunking: