Our main reason for being in Aurangabad was the city’s proximity to two large systems of ancient rock-cut temples known as Ellora and Ajanta Caves.
Both sites were away from large cities and towns, built in to natural escarpments in the landscape and located nearly one hundred kilometres apart.
Natural caves had been used as monasteries and temples by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains all across India from as early as the 5th century BCE. Monks and nuns dedicated to asceticism and monastic life would wander the countryside using the caves as places of refuge, particularly during the rainy months of the monsoon.
As the influence of religion grew, it was considered an act of merit to not only feed monks and nuns, but provide shelter and support for them as well. From around the 2nd century BCE, thanks to the wealth, initiative and religious leanings of the ruling Indian dynasties, work began on purpose-built artificial caves, cut out of the rock by hand and formed into larger scale monasteries and temples. Known as rock-cut architecture, it would reach a particularly high level of refinement in the region around Aurangabad, due to the suitability of the rock for excavation and sculpting.
While similar ‘caves’ exist in a number of places throughout India, the Ellora and Ajanta Caves are some of the country’s most magnificent and best preserved examples. As a result they have become popular tourist destinations and designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Ellora Caves are located thirty kilometres north-west of Aurangabad. We chose to get there on a cheap but crowded public bus. It was a hot day with a temperature somewhere in the low-to-mid thirties. The landscape was dry as if it hadn’t rained in a long time and the area around the caves looked very different from what we’d seen in images. At Hotel Panchavati, where we were staying, the corridor walls on each floor had been adorned with photographs of various Ellora and Ajanta Caves and in many pictures the surrounding landscape was much greener and more lush. Presumably, the photographs had been taken during the monsoon.
At Ellora, there were 34 caves in total, spread out over two kilometres, although a few of them were off limits due to closure of the access walkway. We started at Cave 1 and over several hours walked around the site, exploring almost every cave that was accessible.
The first 12 caves were all Buddhist and had been cut into the rock, perpendicular to the cliff face with straight and level surfaces to form large rooms. Most of them were built as monasteries known as Viharas. They had a central hall supported by columns and surrounded by a series of simple cells that were used as monks’ quarters. Some of the caves included a shrine at the back that contained a stupa or a sculpture of a Buddha or other figures. Two of the larger monasteries were built three stories high with each floor having a balcony that extended across the entire facade.
The Buddhist caves tended to be quite austere and minimalist in their appearance, following hard geometric lines and lacking some of the sculptural adornment of other caves. Only one of the Buddhist caves (Cave 10) was built as a worship hall, known as a Chaitya, rather than a monastery. It had a large stupa at the back of the hall and a vaulted ceiling sculptured to look as if the ribs were constructed of wooden beams, as was typical of the architecture of the time.
The next 17 caves were Hindu and built in the form of temples dedicated to one or more Hindu deities. Sculptures of gods, goddesses and wall reliefs of mythological scenes were common throughout the temples. Some of them were excavated from the top down rather than perpendicular to the rock. The largest of these was the impressive Kailash temple complex, built to symbolise Mount Kailash in Tibet. Although the mountain is sacred to Buddhists and Jains as well, Hindus believe its summit is the home of their god Shiva. The Kailash temple is the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world.
The remaining five caves were Jain and although they tended to be smaller than the others, they contained some of the most ornate and best preserved sculptured interiors. Some of them even contained evidence of wall and ceiling painting.
In all the Ellora Caves there was a sense of solidity and structural integrity that had stood the test of time. There was an adherence to architectural design, craftsmanship and the aesthetic of beauty. It was remarkable to think these structures had been hollowed out of the rock by hand, using primitive equipment, with such geometrically precise interiors and with so many ornate sculptural elements. One can only imagine the thousands of people that must have been put to work over hundreds of years to complete such a task.
In the late afternoon, we caught the bus back to Aurangabad, tired but elated by what we’d seen. The next day we would leave the city and make our way towards the similar but also uniquely different example of rock-cut architecture at Ajanta Caves.
The Ajanta Caves are located 104 kilometres north-east of Aurangabad not far from a small town called Fardapur. To get there we shared a taxi with a couple Clare had met on her retreat in Anandwan. It was a far more pleasant journey than the bus and took a little over two hours.
There was not much available in terms of accommodation in the area around Ajanta caves. We’d booked a room at the Ajanta Tourist Resort on the edge of Fardapur, but calling it a ‘resort’ was a bit of a stretch. It was basically a collection of individual lime green accommodation blocks, surrounded by a few trees. There was a reception area and a dining hall and a forlorn-looking play area for kids, all of which gave me the impression we were staying in a holiday resort for struggling families. When we arrived, the place was empty and it looked as if no one had stayed there for a long time.
We chose one of the deluxe AC rooms, where AC stood for Air Conditioning, a feature that didn’t actually work. The shower didn’t really function either. There was a serious leak near the faucet that resulted in a hard stream of very hot water spraying out perpendicular to the wall at midriff height, thus making the shower unusable. The bed was comfortable though and the room was quiet. Occasionally the silence was interrupted by the cry of a monkey or the call to prayer, emanating from the mosques in Fardapur.
For breakfast we went to the dining hall and made the decision right there and then that we would only stay one night rather than the two we’d originally planned. An Indian man dressed in what looked like a McDonald’s uniform came to serve us. Once again there were limited options for people like me who didn’t want spicy curry for breakfast. I chose toast with butter and jam, and a black tea – it had become clear that coffee would be out of the question. Amidst fighting off mosquitos and other tiny flea-like insects, I couldn’t wait to leave the resort and make our way towards the Caves. Apparently near the Ajanta Caves entrance there was a satisfactory restaurant where I envisioned supplementing what had so far been a fairly meagre breakfast.
We got an auto-rickshaw to a car park from which a shuttle bus to the Caves was due to leave at 9:00. There were loads of buses and quite a large group of mostly Indian tourists waiting to leave. Although there were bus drivers in khaki uniforms milling about, there was a complete lack of clarity about which bus to board and when it would be leaving. One bus would pull up, but only certain people would be allowed on, presumably those on some kind of tour. The bus staff seemed no clearer on what was going on than the visitors. When the remaining group suddenly started queuing next to the door of one of the buses we joined the push-and-shove scramble to get a seat, before it finally left around 9:30.
The restaurant was near the ticket office to Ajanta Caves. I ordered a coffee and some french toast but still, nothing much positive to say about it. At one point I noticed a small bird had flown into the restaurant. It landed on top of a bowl of those tiny sweets often served at the end of an Indian meal. The bird was walking around in the bowl, dipping its beak into the sweets, which I knew would later on be offered to guests. Two waiters nearby were oblivious to the bird, so made no effort to shoo it away.
Just outside the restaurant was a long staircase leading up the hill to Cave 1. It was where most of the tourists were headed. At the base of the steps were some Indians wearing bright orange vests. For a fee they would carry people up the stairs and along the walkways connecting the caves. Four men were required for the purpose, each bearing the ends of two poles that supported a seat on which the person would sit. It was I guess, an equivalent to wheelchair access. I watched a couple of older people being carried up the staircase, perched high in their chair above the four bearers.
Something about it hearkened back to a time when people who were supposedly important were carried about in a similar manner. Not surprisingly, it had been a popular method of conveyance with European visitors to India in times past, even by those who had able use of their legs.
Instead of taking the staircase to Cave 1, we took a left turn over a footbridge that led to the last cave at Ajanta and made our way around the site in a backwards direction, thereby avoiding most of the tourist crowd.
Ajanta Caves are older than those at Ellora, built between 200 BCE and around 680 CE. They are completely Buddhist and feature 26 caves that are accessible today. Most of them were built as monasteries (Viharas) but some as worship halls (Chaityas).
The Ajanta Caves have very similar structural and sculptural elements to the Buddhist caves at Ellora. They are particularly well known though for the wall and ceiling paintings that decorate their interiors, some of which are remarkably well preserved for their age. Most of the paintings depict scenes from the Jataka tales – a collection of stories about the Buddha’s past lives in both human and animal form. While most of the paintings are faded or chipped and worn, they depict a high level of detail, artistry and richness in both their colour and composition. They are especially remarkable not only because of their age but their execution using natural pigments and primitive tools. They were also painted in semi-darkness inside caves without natural light.
Unlike Ellora, where the caves are quite spread out over more or less a straight line, at Ajanta the caves are situated in the cliffs of a great natural crescent that follows the curve of the Waghora River. After the decline of Buddhism in India, the Ajanta caves were abandoned and became overgrown. They were only discovered in 1819 by a British officer on a tiger hunting expedition. Ellora Caves on the other hand, were never ‘lost’ and have been regularly visited since they were built.
Although similar, both cave systems proved well worth visiting. They each had different highlights. Ajanta was more enjoyable to walk around because it was more compact, and formed part of a natural amphitheatre whereas the Ellora Caves felt quite spread out and more exposed to the heat. While Ajanta had the most impressive range of wall and ceiling paintings, the Kailash Temple and Jain Caves at Ellora were the high points of rock-cut architecture and sculpture. In addition, the Ajanta Caves are a reminder of the golden age of Buddhism in India and the Ellora Caves symbolise the tolerance between the three great religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.