A side trip to visit the Ajanta and Ellora Caves
When we first learned that we would be coming to India I spent a lot of time researching many of the ancient architectural wonders of the country. India is so vast, and travel is so difficult here that we knew we couldn't visit them all, but from the beginning I told Steve that at the top of my list was a chance to see the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. They are located in Maharashtra on the Deccan plateau, somewhat removed from the tourist trail, so we had booked flights from Goa to Aurangabad, the closest big city, with a connection in Mumbai.
Our exit from Goa did not go well. I had booked our flights thru an online travel site back in October, and as I have now learned, made the mistake of selecting an option using two different airlines. It is a long, long story that is still not fully settled, but because of the way things don't work here, after arriving on time with confirmed seats we found ourselves facing cancellation fees for a missed connection, hotel costs and full last minute fares totaling close to $700. As the four of us were travelling for most of December our budget had been carefully set, and an extra $700 was not in it. As I stood in the Goa airport beginning to face the reality that I might not get to see the caves, Steve mentioned something about looking into taking an overnight bus from Mumbai and I burst into tears. At that moment I had reached my breaking point of India travel. It was a female Jet Airways manager, who saw this probably ridiculous looking sobbing foreign woman standing with her two children and husband, who ultimately took pity on us and rearranged things to get us to our destination the next day. God bless Venant.
The first day we drove for a few hours north to the site of the Ajanta Caves. We viewed some typical scenes along the way:
As this was peak season there were long lines of people waiting to take buses into the ravine where the caves are located. At least we had some entertainment as we stood in the lines.
When we reached the parking lot it was a bit of a hike up to the caves. Some Indians opted for a ride up on a sedan chair.
A bit of history here from The Rough Guide:
"Hewn from the near-vertical side of a horshoe-shaped ravine, the caves at Ajanta occupy a site worthy of the spectacular ancient art they contain. Less than two centuries ago, this remote spot was known only to the local Bhil tribes-people; the shadowy entrances to its abandoned stone chambers lay buried deep under a thick blanket of creepers and jungle. The chance arrival in 1819 of a small detachment of East India Company troops, however, brought the caves' obscurity to an abrupt end. Led to the top of the precipitous bluff that overlooks the gorge by a young "half-wild" scout, the tiger-hunters spied what has now been identified as the facade of Cave 10 protruding thru the foliage. The British soldiers had made one of the most sensational archeological finds of all time."
This was the site of a Buddhist monastery and inscriptions indicate that the earliest cave excavations took place in the second century BC. Ajanta had it's heyday from around 500 to 600 AD when it sheltered more than two hundred monks as well as a large community of painters, sculptors and laborers employed in excavating and decorating the cells and sanctuaries. There are a total of 28 colonnaded caves chiseled out of the chocolate brown and grey basalt cliffs lining the river.
In addition to the rows of stone Buddhas and other sculptures, it is the murals and painted artwork that line the interiors that are so remarkable. As I walked thru the caves I was particularly struck by the panelized decorative ceilings. So many of the motifs and designs created by these monks can still be found in the most beautiful buildings in the western world. The light levels are kept low to protect the art but you can still make out why they are regarded as the finest surviving gallery of art from any of the world's ancient civilizations.
This was our only available time to visit Ajanta, but I can't say that we weren't warned about the tortuous crowds before we came:
"In spite of its comparative remoteness, Ajanta receives an extraordinary number of visitors. If you want to enjoy this site in anything close to its original serenity, avoid coming on a weekend or public holiday- it takes a fertile imagination indeed to picture Buddhist monks filing softly around the rough stone steps when riotous school kids and holiday-makers are clambering over them."
It was very difficult to remain focused on the sights after yet another piercing whistle from a guard yelling at the Indian tourists not to take flash photos of the artwork. Deep breaths, deep breaths Jenn, you are viewing a world treasure...
Pushing and shoving is the way they queue.
The girls found a lovely spot to sit on our way out to join the line for the 45 minute wait for the buses.
The next day we stopped at the dramatic fort of Daulatabad on our way to the Ellora caves. I won't bore you with the history, suffice it to say it involves some fighting between a bunch of Hindus, Jains, and Muslims.
As usual we found ourselves part of the attraction for the Indian tourists. I wonder sometimes just how many thousands of phones and cameras in India include a picture of us.
When we reached Ellora in the afternoon we were glad to find that there were no buses involved, and the crowds were lighter. We had some relative peace and quiet exploring for a while. There are 34 caves here, and they were started in the middle of the sixth century, about the time that Ajanta was abandoned. This was the twilight of the Buddhist era in central India, and by the seventh century Hinduism was on the rise, so the majority of the caves here are Hindu, culminating in the building of the colossal Kailash Temple in the eighth century. Where Ajanta is prized for its paintings and location, here architecture and sculpture reign supreme.
Some residents of the caves:
We rested for a few minutes, as we had saved the best for last and wanted to view the Kailash Temple in the afternoon light. This monolithic structure is Ellora's masterpiece. It took one hundred years and four generations of kings, architects and craftsmen before the project was completed. The temple was hewn from solid rock and the sheer scale is staggering. All in all, a quarter of a million tons of chippings and debris are estimated to have been cut from the hillside, with no room for improvisation or error. The temple was conceived as a giant replica of Shiva and Parvarti's Himalayan abode, the pyramidal Mount Kailash- a Tibetan peak said to be the "divine axis" between heaven and earth. The Sanborns said, not too shabby...