Man is a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of his spiritual pilgrimage. ~Morris West
One of my most favoritist personality traits of India is encapsulated in the rich heritage preserved in ancient artifices, hallowed monuments, and the venerable temples with roots stretching into a history built on the cradle of civilization in the Indus valley. The first leg of our trip was to the Ancient caves at Ellora and Ajanta in Maharashtra.
To and Fro
Our jumping off point was the city of Pune, a city I have been associated with since 2006, a place I hung my hat for a memorable 18 months. There are friends living there, friends so close to my heart, I count them as mi familia, my family. I would have preferred to fly to Aurangabad to see the caves, however, there were no direct flights from Pune making air time equivalent to road time. So, we decided to rent a car with a driver. It was a fortuitous decision as our other internal flights in India were fraught with delays causing us to completely miss out on our planned visit to Body Gaya.
It’s 160 miles by car from Pune to Ellora. In US terms, we are looking at 2 to 2.5 hours. India traffic easily doubles the time for the same distance or longer depending on the time of day traffic conditions. Ajanta is a further 65 miles, clocking up a return trip close to 9 hours, 9 brutal, traffic-y hours of stop and go, horn blaring, kidney shaking travel.
We left on Monday at 5 am for Ellora Caves arriving around 10:30…just in time for the peak sun hours.
Ellora consists of 100 caves 34 which are open to the public. They are Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu in nature dating between 600 to 1000 AD. All the caves were amazing with the pièce de résistance being #16, the Kailasa Temple, a megalith excavated from a single, solid rock. When we arrived, there was a VVIP (very, very, important person, one step up from the common VIP) at Kailasa so it was temporarily closed. We decided to start with the furthermost caves, the Jain caves. A low fee, 20 rupees, shuttle service is provided for the round trip. It was accessible by foot but that would have been a rather long walk on what was already a warm day.
Cave 16: Kailasa Temple
What was once solid rock was carved out by hand revealing the Kailasa Temple. How did the ancients know this marvelous temple was hidden inside solid rock?
It is a cave the boggles the imagination. It is a work of art I would love to have wandered for a couple of lifetimes. I could have spent the entire day at this temple, this one temple were not 33 others demanding our presence. I would have like to have been able to sit silently and grown into the rock, feel the vibrations, the meditations of long deceased monks, if not for the noisy people colliding with the exhaled meditations sending them into disarray. But for my monkey brain, my thoughts would have danced with the ancient craftsmen (craftswomen?) in their quest to unite with the universal consciousness through exquisite design.
Internally, there were many large elephant carvings, sentinels guarding the main section of the temple. Quite a few still had trunks intact. With carvings, trunks, human arms, human necks are the first to be broken off. They are the thinnest point and the most vulnerable. Subcaves were carved into the rock surrounding the temple, facing the temple. The ancients included an overhang to protect from the intense sun and blowing monsoon rains.
Other Ellora Caves
The number for each cave was clearly marked on the well-maintained, ocassionally flower lined, walkway allowing us to reference them in the guidebook we purchased. Each was magnificent in its own right. None, however, exuded the aura of #16.
Telling stories with visuals is an ancient art. We’ve been drawing pictures on cave walls for centuries. It’s like what they say about the perfect picture book. The art and the text stand alone, but together, they create something even better. ~Deborah Wiles
Following an overnight in Aurangabad at a Vivanta Taj hotel, we headed out at 7am to arrive by 9 am opening. We knew there would be a long ride home and we wanted to get out around noon. Our driver dropped us off at the park entrance, the only parking lot. We made our way through the gauntlet of vendors and hopped on the first bus to the caves. We did not escape the gauntlet unscathed. A seller latched on to us, took us to the busses, and made sure we were on the first bus. In exchange, he extracted from us a promise to visit his store on the return trip. He was waiting at the bus stop upon our return. The shop visit was less than pleasant with him trying to extort high prices from us. As we left, one of his workers followed us all the way to the car carrying an item I found interesting finally dropping the price to reasonable. I was annoyed at the hard sell tactics to refused to purchase his products. Had he been reasonable at first visit, I definitely would have purchased the item.
Anyway, the 10-minute ride, again for around 40 rupees, a very inexpensive rate, took us over rough roads. The bus had poor suspension and we felt every bang and shudder in our bones.
Ajanta is a set of 29 rock cut, Buddhist caves that were inhabited by monks Aum-ing the world into a unified mind energy. I wonder if the ancients wore saffron robes like the modern monks? These caves are much older than Ellora dating as far back as the 2nd century BC through 650 AD. In addition to rock sculptures, there are significant frescoes (paintings on the rocks.) They are all accessible via a contiguous walkway.
Hint: Almost every cave required shoe removal prior to entry. Wear sandals or easy slip-on shoes to ease the transitions. I wore tie shoes…mistake #1.
Many of the carvings were similar to those in Ellora. Which is not surprising since there is Buddhist influence at both sites. There were more stupas in the Ajanta caves which makes sense since stupas are a common component in Buddhist symbology. I was reminded of the Karla caves nearer to Pune. One of the last caves in the set contained a magnificent reclining Buddha. Whether the Buddha was resting or deceased, I was not sure. The differences between the two are small and I am not attuned to the subtlety of the differences. I did encounter a deceased Buddha at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. It’s a place I highly recommend visiting. Go in Winter to avoid the high Sri Lankan humidity.
The primary attraction of Ajanta is the promise of frescoes. They were piecemeal, faded by hundreds of years of outside light, and smoke from thousands of fires. Unfortunately, the frescoes are very, very difficult to photograph with a DLSR camera. Flash is prohibited since repeated exposure degrades the paint. And, there are low awnings in front of the cave with the most spectacular frescoes preventing much outside light from entering. Surprisingly, the iPhone was much better at capturing pictures in low light than my DSLR. All the frescoes photos are taken with my iPhone.
I am a pasty complected, white-haired Westerner. In photographic terms, I would be a negative image of the Indians visiting these sites. Because I am an anomaly, I was stopped countless times, my wife a few less than countless, by locals wanting pictures taken with me and them, her and them, us and them. You can see the request coming. People slyly point, whisper together, then inch their way over with the request balanced on their lips. I said yes all but once (for which I soon felt guilty) because I was getting tired of posing. I understand a little how a celebrity must feel when hounded by the paparazzi.
I wasn’t sure about the clothing requirements so I wore long pants. Mistake #2. At points, the heat overwhelmed me and I had to roll up my pants knicker style. Shorts would have been a much better and culturally acceptable choice.
If we had the opportunity to do this part of the trip all over again, we would choose to visit Ellora only. We found it to be more spectacular than Ajanta. The additional driving time required for Ajanta, we felt, was not the best use of our time.
Next Up: The Golden Temple of Amritsar