Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Ajanta Road Trip

Ajanta – Ellora Caves. You all know about them from your Class V history book. You’ve seen them mentioned in a lot of Incredible India ads, Lonely Planet guidebooks, so many places. They’re a World Heritage site, famous for their Jain, Buddhist and Hindu paintings and sculptures. This long weekend, we went a step further, and decided to pay a visit.

7:30 am, we piled into our car, topped up the tank and headed out. The drive is long – close to 7 hours – but the roads are sheer poetry. On the trip, we encountered sudden thundershowers, loud restaurant managers in even louder shirts, I got mistaken for a dhaba waiter, and we lost our map, but the drive through the Sahyadris was like being in an Indian Switzerland – gentle, rolling grass-scapes and hills, clear traffic, music and good conversation, and plenty of relaxed photo-ops. I am in love with the Maharashtra highways.

Serene, smooth, and silent roads

Dhaba Breakfasts

Windmill farms - looks like something out of War of the Worlds

Aurangabad is the nearest major town, and that’s where we stayed; a little worried, since we hadn’t made any bookings, but a brief search gave us some pretty decent hotels. Even on a long weekend, it’s easy to find vacancies.
Tip: Avoid the hotels that appear in guidebooks in this scenario, they're guaranteed full. Others are equally good - if you don't mind roughing it a bit. After seeing scaffolding in the lobby, (Hotel 1), bedbugs in the mattresses (Hotels 2 & 3), supercilious, arrogant receptionists (Hotel 4), a 60% discount, but still out of budget (5-star hotel 5), no lift (hotels 6 & 7), and no AC (hotel 8), we still got a decent deal at the Bagga International on Airport Road, which has decent rooms, good prices, and a kickass restaurant.

Aurangabad has some interesting places to visit – there are caves, the Aurangabad and Daulatabad forts, lots of historical gates (in fact, it’s known as the ‘City of Gates’), and a Mughal-era water-wheel called the ‘Panchakki’. The high point, though, is the Bibi-ka-Maqbara, better known as India’s Fake Taj Mahal. It’s the mausoleum of Aurangzeb’s wife Rabia-ud-Durrani, modeled after his father Shah Jahan’s gift to architecture. Different, and yet eerily similar, it has a unique charm, and deserves a visit.

The Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad - India's Fake Taj Mahal

In fact, while you’re in the city, check out two things for certain – a traditional dish called Quaalia Naan (non-veg) – a little hard to find, but worth it – the true taste of Aurangabad. The second is a handicraft called Himroo, seen in shawls, stoles, and even bedcovers.

Ajanta Caves are 120 km, a 3-hour drive from Aurangabad. Everything – parking, food, supplies – is taken care of on arrival (which loosely translates into Attack Of The Touts, Tickets, and Toilet Charges); and a shuttle bus takes you the last 4 km to the caves themselves. Tickets for entry, parking, shuttle bus, cameras, guides... keep plenty of small notes handy.

A quick description of what's around us - around equal numbers of Europeans and Bongs, which make up around 90% of the group, the rest representing all other India. Rock-cut steps lined with the slightly shy, well-behaved Langurs, who will pose prettily for photos instead of their boisterous, aggressive and noisy Macaque cousins. Bright sunshine interspersed with sudden, cooling showers, in which C, fast as lightning, grabs the only umbrella to protect what his newlywed better half calls 'his first wife' - his prized Nikon D90 - while she, and the rest of us, glare at him after scuttling to a doorway.

The Caves were made over six centuries, between 200 BC to 400 AD; later abandoned and lost to history for a thousand years in the mountain jungles, they were discovered accidentally by a British explorer (interestingly enough, named John Smith) in 1819. They’re beautiful, laid out in a horseshoe shape around a small, precipitous valley.

Ajanta Caves

There are three types of art which you’ll see here – Buddhist architecture, in the arches, pillars, and stupas; sculpture, in the rock carvings, statues and decorations; and the most famous, the wall-paintings and murals. Even after two thousand years, the colors blaze out in vivid reds, oranges, browns and yellows – clear, vivid and brilliant in the darkness. The detailing is extraordinary, but most of all, it’s the stories they tell that will remain in your memory. Every mural is a Jataka fable, incidents in images scattered over the wall speaking to you across millenia.

But the flow of tourists is taking it's tool; the combined moisture from people's breathing makes the inside of each cave a sauna, and you'll know it as soon as you step in. Slowly and implacably, this is destroying the paintings; paint peels, fades. It won't be around too long; see it while you can.

Decorated Pillar

Baby's day out

A row of murals

Deep, vivd reds, yellows, and browns - the all-natural colors used by the monks two thousand years ago


There are guides in each cave; it’s worth hiring one or two just to see these stories, which otherwise might not be distinguishable.

The first cave has the Padam Pani Buddha, the most famous image to come out of Ajanta; you’ll recognize it instantly as soon as you see it. Caves 19 and 26 have superb, detailed sculptures including a giant reclining Buddha; Caves 16 and 17 have some of the best paintings after Cave 1. You can buy a guidebook to the caves outside for a small sum; read up about each cave before going in to explore. You can’t use a flash, so carry a good camera… but don’t get so absorbed in taking snaps that you forget the experience itself.

20-foot Buddhas, Cave 19

Nokia's the biggest manufacturer of cameras now, btw

Buddha statue, Cave 2

Wall Frieze, Cave 26

The caves alone can easily be covered in a few hours, if you go slow and take your time; and going slow is a good idea. It’s going to be a long ride back. Get immersed in the feel of the place. Slow down. Drink in the atmosphere. Watch the squirrels play on the cliff-face, the elegant, slender silver-furred langurs in the trees.

Outside the last cave

Mandatory Group Snap

There’s an MTDC restaurant outside the caves that’s pretty ok for food, if you aren’t too hung up on ambience; which our neighbouring table people unfortunately were. They asked for 3 varieties of soft drinks, rejecting each for being too warm / dirty / flat. They wanted AC. They wanted a cleaner table. They wanted bigger plates, then cleaner ones. They wanted cutlery. Extra glasses. More menu cards. Then a discussion on each dish in the menu. Finally, after great debate amongst themselves, they settled on chicken, demanding to know how each chicken dish was made, boneless options, and finally if it was available. This is a restaurant that survives on fast throughput; the waiter, fried beyond endurance, tells them all chicken got finished in the time they took to order. They sat morosely for a while, deep sadness writ large on their face, then settled for egg. We had ordered, eaten, and paid the bill in the time it took for them to finish ordering.

Then, time to head home.

Ellora Caves are about an hour out of Aurangabad, but don’t try to do both Ajanta & Ellora in a day, it’ll be too hectic and you won’t be able to enjoy either. Ellora’s bigger and more spread out than Ajanta, so it’ll take longer to explore (though faster to reach). The high point is a Kailash Temple, best of all Ellora excavations, an entire temple cut out of a single rock over one hundred years. It’s breathtaking. Unfortunately, between bad weather and too much time spent at Ajanta, we didn't have enough time left for Ellora; so that's kept for trip 2.

As we drive off, the stormlight in the sky darkens into thunderclouds, and our homeward journey is punctuated with showers that turn the countryside into a dim, green and quiet fairyland, while the smell of wet earth rises out of the ground like the scent of Life itself.


It's like a dream - and the dream symbolism manifests into a slightly surreal experience when almost the entire chinese zodiac parades past the car at regular intervals, monkey, dog, pig, ox, rooster... and some Indian additions like an elephant, a pair of camels, and finally a whole tree on the back of a tractor.

The perfect weather to sit in a dhaba’s verandah with some hot chai, watch the rain and look back at a holiday well-spent.

The Perfect Ending

The man, the machine, the truck driver.

Getting there
By Road: Aurangabad is reachable via Mumbai-Pune-Ahmednagar; you can either drive or take an overnight bus.
By Train to Aurangabad station, around which most of the hotels are found;
By Air: you can fly in to Aurangabad airport, 10 km outside the city.

Once settled in, you can hire taxis to Ajanta (120 km) or Ellora (30 km); the road to Ellora also passes through Daulatabad and Khuldabad, with their own attractions and places to see. There are also buses, share-taxis and jeeps.
Ajanta is closed Mondays, and Ellora Tuesdays, so plan accordingly.

Epilogue: It wasn't over yet. The last - and easiest - part of the trip, the drive home to Mumbai on the Expressway, was interrupted with a cloudburst that reduced visibility to ten feet. Ever driven at 80 kmph in pitch darkness, on black asphalt, with the only visual input a row of oil drums painted with reflector stripes, in a six-foot-wide channel for over an hour? It's like being in a videogame, orange-red flashes zipping past, everything else invisible... your body goes slack, frozen in place, while the eyes and the hands and feet on the wheel and pedals talk to each other in a language that bypasses the rest of your conscious mind. Fugue State. You feel yourself waking up, as if out of some deep sleep, when it ends.

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