The Allure of Ellora & Ajanta

Are you embarrassed by your fellow-travellers? Do you cringe and step away to disassociate yourself from selfie-obsessed loud littering tourists? Do you groan at the sound of passengers unbuckling themselves from the shackles of the airplane seat-belt the second the wheels touch land? I do.

Why do people leave garbage at monuments? Why do we scribble on the walls? Why must we express our love for Mona and Shona and Ramesh on ancient structures? Nobody cares that you <3 Kishore, Laila!

This unsolicited marking of territory is no better than the apartment kitten I feed everyday, who has recently discovered he is a boy and must wee on my couch to announce his existence. He has been christened Lulu McSusuFace, and is not allowed inside my home anymore. Ah who am I kidding. Of course he is. Look at that moonji.

Lulu with his sisters

On this trip to Aurangabad, apart from the beautiful caves, I saw the following:

  • Morons climb up an ancient monument with their shoes on to get selfies, and then walk past the rest of the temples without even looking.
  • People scribble on the walls of the 2000 year old cave structures.
  • Families have a picnic in the lovely lawns, and then leave their garbage there.
  • Stone-carved goddesses with well-worn breasts and thighs because guess where people like to touch the statues the most.
  • Flash photography inside the dark caves that house the world-famous Ajanta paintings.
  • People scream at their kids to stand still for photographs inside the Buddhist shrines, while the serene chanting was in progress. 
  • People scratch the painted walls and then say “huh, it’s not very well maintained, the paint is coming off.”

If you plan a trip to Ajanta-Ellora, please do your bit to not destroy what remains of our heritage!

Get To Aurangabad

Both Ajanta and Ellora are best done by basing yourself in Aurangabad. Ibuprofen is going to be your best friend. Trust me.

Ellora

All of the art history lectures I’ve sat through did not prepare me in the least for what I was about to see, and neither do these pictures do justice to it all.

Our driver told us the caves open at 6 am, but “aint nobody gonna wake up that early for crazy tourists. I will come at 8, be ready, it’s only one hour away,” he said.

The moment you step in, you are greeted by the finest of the 34 caves open to public. It will stun you – being the single largest monolithic rock-cut temple in the world!

I won’t bore you with the history because you can read it all in a guide book as you go (please buy one to make any sense of what you’re seeing!) but I will say this – prepare to be elated, surprised, hungry as hell, and exhausted.

cave 16 - 8
Kailasanatha Temple, Ellora. The largest monolithic rock-cut temple in the world!
cave 16 - 2
Entrance to Kailasanatha Temple
cave 16 - 3
Morons in the beautiful ancient temple
cave 16 - 4
Inside the Kailasanatha Temple
cave 16 - 5
Inside the Kailasanatha Temple
cave 16 - 6
Kailasanatha Temple – you can go up one storey
cave 16 - 7
View from the top. Make sure to climb up the sides for full views

That’s just one of the caves! We took a good 6 hours walking around the rest of the Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina caves. You have to take the bus for 21 rupees to the Jaina caves which are 2 kilometres away. You will see larger-than-life statues of the Buddha, Hindu and Jaina deities, and the odd surviving painting (which you can view with a torch, but no flash photography please!)

Ellora
Ellora – you will find seated Buddhas in many of the caves
Ellora – one of the monasteries
Ellora – larger than life sculptures in one of the Hindu caves
Ellora – Hindu cave. Their scale bewilders!
Ellora – view from one of the caves, of the water body underneath. This shortcut is closed in the rainy season, and you have to walk 2 kilometers around the hill to get back to the entrance
All the caves are clearly marked, so you know exactly what you’re looking at
Ellora – Buddhist cave with rows of seated Buddhas. This one was my favourite. You have to climb up a couple of stories to see this. Unsurprisingly, it was empty. No touching please!

Aurangzeb’s Tomb

The Mughals were the kings of grand mausoleums, so visiting Aurangzeb’s tomb feels like someone’s playing a joke on you. He rests in a tiny grave inside a mosque at the end of a busy street in Aurangabad. Nothing announces he’s there, and even the enclosing walls are said to have been a later addition, donated by an Englishman.

It seems he was a man with a wish to rest in simplicity, and simple is what he got.

Aurangzeb’s Tomb – the mosque. Enter through the gate on the left
Emperor Aurangazeb’s resting spot – rather unremarkable, just like he wanted

Daulatabad Fort

This fort is MASSIVE and is going to throw in your face exactly how useless your urban workouts are. I could not move my legs the next morning – enter Ibuprofin. The fort takes you on a never-ending climb up to the top, and even has a scary dark passage that reeks unmistakably of bats and rats. It is said to have housed tens of different surprise ways to confuse and kill the enemy – from poisonous gas to boiling hot oil. It is absolutely fascinating, so read up beforehand to appreciate what you see!

Entrance to the Daulatabad Fort, one of the most formidable forts in India
Daulatabad Fort walls
The dark alleyway to go up the top, filled with hidden weapons to confuse the incoming enemy
Palace right on the top, after about 700 steep steps!
Climb forever at the Daulatabad Fort
Resting point halfway up, where half the uphill crowd gives up
View of the Chand Minar, Daulatabad Fort
Baoli or stepwell, a recurring water conservation feature in North India, Daulatabad Fort

Ajanta

Ajanta caves are a 2 hour drive out of Aurangabad, so leave as early as you possibly can. Walk into every cave to see the evolution of rock-cut architecture over the centuries, culminating in the detailed cave at the very end. The surviving dry-fresco paintings are at least 1500 years old, and are falling apart now. The walls here are better protected than Ellora, with line managers, dim lighting, and humidity controllers.

Of course, you still have the odd moron using his flash camera inside despite incessant “no flash” yells from the staff! Try and keep your cool at the screaming parents being a giant blot on the serenity of these beautiful Buddhist monasteries.

Climb all the way up to the very top for an unbelievable view of the gorge and carved rocks.

Ajanta Caves
Ajanta Caves – lined up along the hill
The world-famous paintings of Ajanta Caves – very little survives, and is all in the dark to protect the surfaces from light
Ajanta Caves – details of one of the more evolved caves with sculptures, arches and pillar on the facade
More surviving paintings – Ajanta Caves
Seated Buddha in front of a stupa inside a cave. This form of depicting the Buddha came much later, in the Mahayana phase
The stream flowing through the gorge that fills up during and after the monsoons
Climb all the way up the steep hill for a stunning view of the waterfall
Green as far as the eye can see – Ajanta Caves

 

From the very top, view of all the caves
Ajanta Caves – the entire area has been beautifully preserved, with no commercial activity allowed. It is thickly forested, with the occasional farmer and his herd of goats
The source of the waterfall – a clear, cool babbling stream right at the top of the hill

Bibi Ka Makbara

Unlike Aurangzeb, his wife rests in a typical Mughal tomb, nicknamed ‘Baby Taj’ – which in hindsight may not have been the best idea. You instantly compare it to the Taj Mahal, and boy does it fall short.

It is best to look at it as an independent structure and admire the symmetry, architecture and design for what it is. She rests under a sarcophagus that’s flooded with money, and people toss coins onto her grave even as the signs say not to.

It’s in desperate need of attention and restoration. Go early in the morning on a weekday if you can, for it is the Marina Beach of Aurangabad!

Bibi ka Makbara, Aurangabad
Bibi ka Makbara – perfectly symmetrical on all four sides
Bibi ka Makbara – limited marble and inlay work, mostly plaster and stucco
Restoration work at Bibi ka Makbara is in progress, but this lovely man told us it stops with the peripheral walls

Aurangabad Caves

Our taxi driver told us to not bother with the Aurangabad caves – nothing to see there, he said. We’re so glad we ignored him.

The Aurangabad Caves are a tiny cluster set in one of the hills, far enough away from the city to offer calming views of the valleys and the Bibi Ka Makbara.

We even got to see a mongoose taunt a wild peacock!

Aurangabad Caves – entrance
Aurangabad Caves – statues carved in relief
The skull of what I thought was a squirrel, but we later confirmed could only have been a lizard. Eek!
Beautiful eggshell at the serene caves – mynahs or parrots?

Quick Tips:

  • You can fly from Chennai to Aurangabad via Mumbai
  • Our taxi driver was an over-enthu dude named Hussain, and is highly recommended. Reach him on +91 8855835494. He will charge you between 1200 and 2500 per day, depending on how much distance you want to cover. He speaks only Hindi.
  • Carry a torch with you to see dark corners and ceilings in the caves.
  • You want to always carry drinking water, soap, sanitiser, and toilet roll, for there is a severe lack of clean toilets.
  • Skip the following with your eyes closed: the zoo, the pan-chakki, the Soneri Mahal which is not really a Mahal.
  • For an hour-by-hour 2 day itinerary, read our 50-hours blog post here.

 

 

 

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