Entering the arrivals hall of Aurangabad airport in India, I was greeted by a man called Mr Ashoka who was holding a sign with my name printed on it. He spoke very little English but I knew he’d been sent by the hotel I had booked several weeks earlier when I was still in Nepal. He showed me to his car and off we went, barely exchanging words, to Hotel Panchavati on the other side of the city.
Right next door to the hotel was the office for Ashoka Travels. As soon as we pulled up, several men from the office approached me requesting payment for the taxi, and at the same time, encouraging me to consider using their service the following day for excursions out of the city. I told them I needed to check in to my room and rather than pay them or sign up for anything, I entered the hotel.
A young man beaming with pride in his hotel uniform showed me to the room on the second floor. As the door opened, I was blasted by a furious rush of cool air. Preempting my arrival, the hotel staff had already turned both the air conditioner and the ceiling fan on to maximum settings. The outside temperature was certainly warm for night time – somewhere in the high twenties – but not warm enough to warrant the use of two cooling devices, especially in a relatively small space. I turned the fan off and left the air-con on low to freshen the room. I was a little disappointed but not all that surprised to find the drab and dated interior was nothing at all like the images displayed on the hotel’s website.
Over the past three weeks Clare had been on a retreat in Anandwan, around 480 kilometres to the east, while I had stayed in Nepal to do some trekking. We’d agreed to meet in Aurangabad in Maharashtra state, mainly because it was accessible for both of us and relatively close to the Ellora and Ajanta caves which we intended to visit.
Clare arrived at the hotel only an hour or so after me. She’d come by train from Warora, near Anandwan, a journey that had taken twelve and a half hours. We settled into our room as best we could, got a bite to eat in the restaurant downstairs and caught up on all the adventures we’d had since we last saw each other.
As we’d both arrived in Aurangabad after dark, we only started to get a full picture of the environment we’d landed in the next morning. Hotel Panchavati was located next to a major overpass and adjacent to a deep construction pit where two mechanical diggers spent most of the day excavating and driving piles into the ground.
During the night the room had been mostly quiet except for the constant hum of an industrial fan that seemed to be located near the bathroom window, although try as I might, I wasn’t able to locate the source. The bed had a good mattress and an appropriate blanket for the climate, but the length of the bed was too short (more like a child’s length) and the pillows were way too firm and inappropriately high. In the end I’d slept rather poorly but it was more because of how I was feeling than any minor annoyances with the hotel’s standard of comfort.
Before arriving in Aurangabad, I’d spent four days in Delhi to repack my bags and replace trekking equipment with travel gear. During that time I’d picked up a head cold and another gastro bug of some kind. It wasn’t too bad – diarrhoea was the worst of it – but it made me approach food and places to eat with an enhanced level of caution.
In the morning, for lack of alternatives, we went downstairs for breakfast in the hotel restaurant and chose one of the only tables that wasn’t directly under a ceiling fan. There was a limited range of western-style options on the menu which I would normally avoid in an Indian restaurant. I couldn’t stomach the idea though of spicy food for breakfast, so I ordered toast with jam and a black coffee.
The toast and jam wasn’t too bad but the coffee was a complete mistake – weak and watery, probably Nescafé. Clare had an Indian breakfast and really enjoyed it and we found most of the Indian food served at the restaurant was tasty. Service throughout the hotel was friendly yet somewhat confusing. I wasn’t sure if it was because the staff had only a very basic understanding of English or whether things in general were just unnecessarily complicated. We often found requests were interpreted in a manner not completely in keeping with our intentions.
Eating Out in Aurangabad
For lunch, we decided to consult our Lonely Planet guide and get some perspective on what was available in the local area. We found one recommendation called Bhoj Restaurant, located only ten minutes from the hotel by auto-rickshaw.
Bhoj didn’t look particularly appealing from the outside but we decided to trust the reviews and upon entering, found ourselves ushered towards one of the tables. At each seating position was a large circular metal tray, each loaded with a number of metal bowls. As soon as we were seated a team of waiters, dressed in traditional Indian robes, and each carrying an ornate serving bucket, started to spoon little dollops of food into the bowls and onto the tray in front of us. There were different curries, scoops of rice, pickled vegetables, sauces, various condiments and chapati, all artfully displayed Thali-style on our trays. We quickly realised we would not be perusing a menu as our lunch was already slowly accumulating in front of us. It was a fascinating and totally unique spectacle. Each waiter seemed to be delighted with the contents of his bucket and each of them would hover close by, ready to serve a top-up. Despite virtually everything being intensely packed with spice, the food itself was delicious and superbly cooked. I could appreciate why it was one of the premier restaurants in Aurangabad and a popular spot for locals and visitors alike.
Later, when I looked up the restaurant’s website, I was impressed to discover that all food items at Bhoj Restaurant are ‘made in extremely hygienic conditions’, with chefs and kitchen staff using ‘hair nets, aprons and hand gloves while preparing each dish’. The price of our lunch was of course ridiculously cheap by western standards and we left completely satisfied with the experience.
Back on the street, we asked a rickshaw driver to take us to one of the city’s main tourist sites – a large tomb, known as Bibi Ka Maqbara.
Getting Around the City
Prior to arriving in India, I had never known the pleasure of travelling in an auto-rickshaw. They are the ideal transport vehicle for short urban journeys, particularly in warmer climates. The ride is more immersive than a car but without the anxieties over safety that one might experience travelling on a motorbike. An auto-rickshaw is a doorless, three-wheeled vehicle, powered by a small diesel or compressed gas motor. It is suitable for carrying two passengers comfortably, although locals seem to squeeze significantly more people into them. The auto (motorised) version is the third stage in the evolution of the rickshaw, preceded by both pulled and cycle equivalents. They are made by a variety of companies, including the Italian brand Piaggio, famous for its Vespas.
In India, auto-rickshaws are a cheap way to travel short distances through urban areas and because there are so many of them, they can be flagged down almost anywhere. Quite oddly, they all seem to have a taximeter, but it’s never used. Instead you simply agree on a price with the driver and off you go, weaving in and out of traffic with the agility of a motorbike but the comfort and security of a car.
In Aurangabad the traffic was a seething mass of constant movement and constant horn honking with vehicles of all different types passing within inches of each other, vying for space amongst the congestion along with an endless stream of pedestrians and the random wandering of farm animals.
One less favourable side of travelling by rickshaw is the obvious exposure to the air and all of the odours and pollutants it accumulates. While occasionally you are treated to a waft of delicious spice or incense, more often than not, it’s the smell of dust, diesel fumes, raw sewage or burning rubbish. The completely unfamiliar and often incomprehensible levels of pollution, even in smaller cities and towns, adds an extra layer of physical intensity to the experience of travelling in this part of the world.
From our perch in the rickshaw, it was impossible not to notice the many women in the street who were dressed in black and wearing the niqab. In India as a whole, Muslims make up just over 14% of the population but in Aurangabad, they account for close to 30%. This meant of course that throughout the day and frustratingly early in the morning we would hear the distinctive sound of the call to prayer being tannoyed from the city’s mosques. It turned out too that we were on our way in the rickshaw to a Muslim monument: a tomb built by the Mughal empire, an Islamic dynasty that ruled over India from the early 16th to the mid 18th centuries, prior to the period of British rule.
Bibi Ka Maqbara
Known as the ‘Taj Mahal of Deccan’, in reference to the geological plateau on which it sits, Bibi Ka Maqbara, just like its larger counterpart in Agra, was built as a mausoleum to a much-loved woman who’d died.
As we entered the main gate, the building’s similarity to the Taj Mahal was obvious, at least in its form and appearance. Ivory-coloured and symmetrical, the central tomb and its dome-shaped roof stood on a square plinth framed by four minarets at its corners. The whole structure rose above extensive grounds that had been landscaped to complement the overall symmetry.
The name Bibi Ka Maqbara means ‘Tomb of the Lady’ and the building it refers to was completed in 1661, only twenty years after the Taj Mahal. It was built by Prince Azam Shah in memory of his mother Dilras Banu Begum. The prince had been the eldest son of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, often considered one of the last effective rulers of the Mughal empire before its decline.
The Taj Mahal in Agra, regarded as the world’s finest example of Mughal architecture, was actually built as a tomb for Aurangzeb’s mother Mumtaz Mahal. Despite similarities in appearance and links with family lineage, Bibi Ka Maqbara was not built to the same scale or level of refinement as its inspiration in Agra. As the Mughal empire was in decline during its construction, Bibi Ka Maqbara was allocated a much smaller budget and even today is sometimes referred to as the ‘poor man’s Taj Mahal’. It is fairly obvious when looking at the building and walking around the grounds that it’s not as well maintained as it could be. Plaster is peeling from the walls, the fountains and ponds that once surrounded it are sadly devoid of water and the gardens are looking a little tired. It is however an impressive piece of architecture and adds some interest to what would otherwise be a fairly ordinary city.
Aurangabad is probably not a place many people would visit if it wasn’t for its proximity to the Ellora and Ajanta caves. Even still, our stay turned out better than expected and allowed us time to acclimatise to some of the more challenging and less familiar aspects of travelling in India.