We had considered hanging out in Vijayapura, but after realizing we had pretty much seen what we came for, we decided to move on. Consulting our list of potential destinations and sites to see, Aurangabad, or relatively nearby, stuck out as our next point of interest. The next question was whether to take another bus or take the train. A train ride could be fun, so it was settled. Unfortunately, we found out that the train ride beyond Solapur would take an additional day of travel. It seemed a combination of the two choices was the best choice.
We had opted to take the 6:30 p.m. train and, after transferring to a bus in Solapur, would have us arrive in Aurangabad around 5:30 in the morning. The short train ride was pleasant, although we couldn’t see much of the landscape as the evening grew darker. The light from the train only showed spindly trees as we passed them by. We soon arrived in Solapur.
Solapur Bus Station
After the mad, crowded dance of purchasing tickets, we miraculously found a space on a bench and waited. No magic tricks this time. The Solapur bus station was crowded with people, some of whom seemed to have been waiting a long time. They sat in their small encampments on woven mats with bags of food and clothes for their journeys.
The police slowly patrolled the platform, making sure nobody slept. This was undoubtedly a way to ensure that the encampments weren’t permanent. The swift whack with a bamboo stick would rouse any sleepers. People would manage to sleep anyway. One person would watch, nudging any nearby sleepers awake before the policeman arrived. We were a little tired but didn’t want to take any chances at getting whacked.
The bus arrived, we boarded, and quickly took our seats. The decor was as vibrantly colorful as you might imagine. It was much more comfortable than some of the other buses we had been on. I suppose this was due to it being a night bus. People would hopefully sleep through most of the journey. Of course, the driver cranked up the Hindu music to stay awake. We somehow slept anyway.
Aurangabad to Ajanta
The following morning, we arrived in Aurangabad, Maharashtra’s fifth-most populous urban area after Mumbai. The 17th-century marble Bibi ka Maqbara shrine, styled on the Taj Mahal, is there, but we wanted to see the real thing, so we waited on that. We bypassed staying in Aurangabad and went straight on to Ajanta. When arriving in Ajanta, we excitedly found the next bus to the Ajanta caves.
Named after the nearby village, Ajanta is a cluster of 30 caves of different sizes excavated into a horseshoe-shaped stretch of rock. The original construction of the caves started around the 2nd century BC, with the second group of caves built around 400–650 AD. Each cave, overlooking the Vaghorâ River, was connected by a flight of steps to a narrow stream called Waghora. These steps are now demolished with few remnants left behind. The cave is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Discovery” of Ajanta
At some later point, the caves were abandoned entirely and remained so for over three centuries without a stable or steady Buddhist community presence. As the story goes, in the summer of 1818, a British tiger hunting party “discovered” Cave 10, the first of these 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments. Although no longer in use, locals already knew the caves, and a local shepherd boy guided him to the location and the door. “Discovered” indeed!
The long hall of Cave 10 has 39 octagonal pillars with figures of orange and yellow-robed monks with green halos standing on blue lotus flowers. Paintings of elaborate crowd scenes cover the panels on the walls. The paintings have been damaged over the centuries, yet the colors are still vivid today. I understand there is a reparation project for the artwork. There have been recreations of several artworks throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by artists worldwide.
The Ajanta Caves contain the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence, dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha. These masterpieces of Buddhist religious art show the past lives and rebirths of Buddha, Buddhist traditions, costumes of the period, pictorial tales from Aryasura’s Jatakamala, and rock-cut sculptures of Buddhist deities.
We wandered slowly through every cave, discovering each and every nook and cranny and every artwork and sculpture, which were stunning. I find it extraordinary that all of these intricately detailed rooms are carved by hand with a hammer and chisel out of stone.
Next, we took a two-hour shuttle through the countryside to Ellora. As we pulled up to the entrance, we were amazed at the size of the site. Carved out of the basalt (a dark, volcanic rock) cliffs in the Charanandri Hills between 6th and 12th Century CE, there are over 100 caves, but only 34 of them are open to visitors.
While Ajanta is mostly about beautiful paintings made on cave walls on the theme of Buddhism, Ellora is all about sculpture and architecture. Ellora belongs to three major Indian religions that have peacefully laid joint claim to the caves since they were created. The three significant building periods are an early Hindu period (~550 to 600 CE), a Buddhist phase (~600 to 730 CE), and a later Hindu and Jain phase (~730 to 950 CE).
The site of Ellora cave temple is spread across an area of over 2 km (1.24 miles). These temples are carved side-by-side in an uninterrupted sequence, making them one of the world’s most complex and unique temple designs.
Dhumar Lena, also known as Cave 29, is among the largest and one of the earliest excavations in Ellora. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, other gods and goddesses of Hinduism also shared equal reverence by the artisans. As in all Shiva temples, there was a linga-yoni. Linga means phallus. Yoni means womb. The male and female regenerative organs are the life force of the universe.
It was dry season while we were visiting, but during monsoon season, a waterfall is a natural feature of the monument and is visible from a rock-carved balcony.
The perspectives of the larger-than-life carvings were a little disturbing. It seems they were not thought out well, as they ran out of working space. Arms and legs were a little stumpy and squat in some instances. But this problem was only in this earliest of cave excavation efforts. They must have learned from this because the rest of the carvings were quite good. Certainly better than I might have done!
The Rameshwar Temple
The Rameshwar temple, Cave 21, is also one of the earlier excavations which features carvings depicting the story of goddess Parvati’s pursuit of Shiva. Durga is also represented in this temple. This may become confusing, but Parvati and Durga are the same goddess in different forms. Parvati is the goddess of Power, Beauty, Love, devotion, fertility, motherhood, food, nourishment etc. She is not only the Mother of Ganesha but the Mother of the whole universe. But like all women, piss her off, and she becomes Durga, who has between eight and 18 arms holding a symbolic object or weapon in each hand while riding a tiger. She battles the forces of evil in the world. Even Shiva doesn’t want to upset her!
There are also the seven mother goddesses of the Shakti tradition of Hinduism, Sapta Matrika, flanked on either side by Ganesha and Shiva. Ganesha is the elephant-headed god that is so popular. He is prominently known as the remover of obstacles. Because of this, many Hindus worship him before any significant endeavor they undertake – be it business, marriage, childbirth, etc.
The Kailasa Temple
When people think of Ellora, this is the place that comes to mind. Dedicated to Shiva, Cave 16, the Kailasa temple, is based on Shiva’s abode – Mt Kailash. An enormous multi-level temple complex with a courtyard, this one-of-its-kind temple is the largest monolithic rock-cut monument in the world.
In an impressive feat of architectural engineering, this temple was carved out from the top down. It is estimated that three million cubic feet of stone, weighing approximately 200,000 tonnes, were removed to excavate the temple. Having been carved entirely out of a single rock at 32 meters high (104.987 feet) and 78 meters long (255 feet), it is widely considered remarkable for its size, architecture, and sculptural treatment. The elephant statues on either side of the temple are perfectly symmetrical to each other.
As you enter, Nandi, the bull that is Shiva’s mount, stands before the temple. The central hall is flat-roofed and supported by 16 pillars. This is the place of puja rituals with the lingam. Two of the walls in the central temple house rows of carvings depicting the Mahabharata along the north side and the Ramayana on the south side.
We spent hours inside and outside this overwhelmingly massive temple. Then we hiked to see the whole Kailasa Temple from the cliff behind the temple. The view was stunning and gave us a chance to see details of the temple’s spire.
The Buddhist caves are a complex of 12 caves created between the fifth and eighth centuries in two phases. Caves 11 and 12 are three-story monasteries cut out of a rock, with tantric iconography, mandalas, and numerous goddesses carved into the walls.
These caves were monasteries with prayer halls, living quarters, sleeping quarters, kitchens, and other rooms. In some of these caves, sculptors tried to give the stone the look of wood. The monastery caves have shrines including carvings of The Buddha, followers on the path to enlightenment, and saints.
The north end of the Ellora complex has five Jain caves featuring highly detailed carvings. Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions, originating in India at least 2,500 years ago. The Jain faith does not believe in a creator god like Hinduism or the Abrahamic faiths. The spiritual goal of Jainism is to become liberated from the endless cycle of rebirth and to achieve an all-knowing state called moksha.
The emphasis of the architectural and devotional art is placed on the depiction of the twenty-four Jinas, the spiritual conquerors who have gained liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth. There are also carvings of gods and goddesses, yaksa (male nature deity) and yaksi (female nature deity).
Long Days Over
By the end of these tours, we were exhausted! So much so that neither of us remembers anything of where we stayed or for how long! Exhausted but full of iconography and history of these two unique places dancing through our minds.