The city of Aurangabad – known as the City of Gates (it has 52 of them) – is the gateway to the ancient rock-hewn temples of Ajanta Ellora Caves, both UNESCO World Heritage sites and two of the best caves in India.
How to get to Ajanta and Ellora Caves
A 45–minute flight from the vibrant city of Mumbai is all it takes to get to Aurangabad. Mumbai is the only airport at the moment where you can board a direct flight to Aurangabad.
This city is not only a welcoming oasis but has the Bibi Ka Maqbara, a Taj Mahal-style mausoleum Emperor Aurangzeb built for his wife, while Aurangzeb’s own tomb is a modest affair in the village of Khuldabad, 24km to the northwest of Aurangabad and also worth visiting.
Another way to visit Ajanta and Ellora caves is aboard the Deccan Odyssey Train, which is a luxury train journey through the state of Maharashtra in India.
On the way to the Ajanta rock temples, there is a treat in store: the Daulatabad Fort.
When the Moghul Empire got to this region in 1327, Mohammed-bin-Tuglaq was so entranced by the defensive mechanisms of the fort, he shifted his entire capital from Delhi to here and re-named it Daulatabad, the ‘Abode of Wealth’.
Unfortunately, after a couple of years, lack of water forced him to move the entire population back to Delhi.
A maze of narrow dark passages leading to a pitch-black chamber where invaders could be massacred easily is at the core of this architectural marvel.
This is if you made it through the crocodile-infested moat, winding paths, unexpected angles and unending steps…
This fort was truly un-impregnable and it now is one of the seven wonders of Maharashtra.
Never conquered in battle (when it fell to Shah Jahan in 1632, it was by means of treachery) this most impressive fort sits on top of a hill, the lower part of which was chiselled out to a vertical, smooth surface, giving its profile the distinct shape of a cupcake with a cherry on top.
Of course, the real purpose of the vertical walls was to make climbing them impossible.
Despite being a fort, carvings, highly decorated towers and the 64m high Chand Minar (only second in height to the Qutb Minar in Delhi) add beauty to what is a primarily military citadel.
Today, there are no soldiers but pilgrims who come to worship at the Valley of the Saints (Khuldabad) – the area in between the Daulatabad Fort and the Ellora Caves.
Groups of pilgrims gather to have a rest inside the fort’s walls and when I enquire they say they have come to pay their respects to Shirdi Sai Baba (born in 1835) a spiritual master regarded by both Hindus and Muslims devotees as a saint.
Kailash temple Ellora
The Ellora temples represent three faiths: Hindu, Jain and Buddhist.
One Hindu temple, in particular, is of such complexity, it has led some to speculate it was built with the help of extra-terrestrial intelligence.
How else could anybody in 8th-century carve out of sheer basalt rock the Kailash Temple, some argue?
This masterpiece of ingenuity was hewn from the top down by cutting a three-sided wide trench.
The remaining giant monolithic cube in the middle was carved out to produce a whole citadel of monuments.
What were means of calculation necessary to visualize the finished oeuvre? There are flying bridges linking the three different sections; twisting steps; the sanctum (highly decorated and painted with a few delightful erotic scenes – after all it is dedicated to Lord Shiva); two external giant monolithic flagpoles and two massive freestanding elephants.
Lord Kama (god of love) is shown together with his consort after the consummation of their union.
Their bliss is obvious, represented by the sweetness of a sugar cane growing between the two of them.
Ajanta caves tour
Fields of cotton, sugar cane, ginger and guava orchards make the drive from Aurangabad to Ajanta a very pleasant and educative one: migrant workers on bullock carts piled high with children and possessions pass by while tractors haul huge loads of cotton and camel carts shift sugarcane.
Dozens of dusty villages – where men in impossibly white dhotis and Nehru caps sip sweet tea in front of small shops – dot the way to Ajanta caves.
It is hard to imagine this was tiger country once.
A British hunt party re-discovered the fabulous temples by chance in the 19th-century as a jumble of jungle greenery had strangled them and hidden them from view.
Buddhist monks had settled in this perfectly horseshoe-shaped valley in the 2nd-century BC and for the following 200 years carved, sculpted and painted.
Close to an important intersection of caravan routes, the monastic enclave thrived. When caravan routes moved location, temple construction ceased.
The entirely Buddhist complex of Ajanta caves is carved out of sheer rock.
Exquisite paintings were done on plaster applied to the rock and left to dry decorate the interiors.
You could easily spend hours admiring these paintings and a good tour guide can bring the stories behind the paintings to life. Here’s a description of the Ajanta paintings in cave 1.
The most remarkable surviving painting is that of a Bodhisattva by the name of Avalokiteshvara (Lord who looks down with compassion.).
Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who are destined to become Buddhas but postpone the privilege in order to help humanity.
Centuries later, Mughal troops defiled the statuary, mutilating faces and genitalia but thankfully many remained intact.
These rock-hewn temples are another treasure of Incredible India indeed…
Air India is the only airline with direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi.
Two separate days are essential to visit the Ajanta and Ellora caves from Aurangabad as they lay in opposite directions and longish drives are involved.
The five-star Rama International Hotel in Aurangabad is a sleek, green oasis to call home.
A guide and a car are essential to go to the caves and can be arranged with Amigo Travel Maharashtra. My guide, Mr Ram Ji, was not only knowledgeable but with a background in radio and theatre, made my day by chanting Hindu and Buddhist mantras inside the ‘Carpenter’s Cave’ (Ellora) which has marvellous acoustics.
If you cannot go to Aurangabad to visit Ajanta and Ellora temples, take the very pleasant ferry ride to the Elephanta Caves departing from the Gateway of India in Mumbai. The architecture is similar but on a much smaller scale.
For more information go to www.incredibleindia.org
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