Rock Temples of Ellora and Ajanta

Rock Temples of Ellora and Ajanta

Our train ride to Ahmednagar is a long disturbed night – with little sleep. Young boys want to chat; babies cry; a group of men play cards till 4 am….Meanwhile an interesting aspect of Indian railways is that they rarely, if ever, announce an upcoming station. So it’s left up to you to peer out of a heavily tinted glass window to read the name of the station you’re pulling into. When your projected arrival time is 5 am, this is certainly not conducive for a good night’s sleep. But we managed to wake up and disembark at the right station.

It’s still too early to go to our next destination – the bus stand. So we hang around the train station, drinking little paper cups of chai. At 6 am we go out to get a rickshaw and in the dark step gingerly over a seeming sea of sleeping bodies wrapped under shawls, and waiting for who knows what?

We end up buying seats in a taxi instead of taking a bus for the 130 km to Aurangabad. The jeep packs three men in beside the driver; we sit behind beside a young Moslem couple. The woman is heavily veiled in black and her eyes stare out at me with a look of apprehension. The driver stops at every opportunity alongside the road packing more passengers into the back of the jeep – schoolgirls for a couple of miles, women with a bevy of children…Our betel nut chewing driver plays loud thumping Bollywood music all the way. Those who know Gerard’s refined taste in music can imagine his pain! After a three hour ride packed tightly together, the Moslem women’s eyes smile at me from her veil, as we disembark.

Aurangabad would not have been our first choice as a place to stay because of its namesake. Aurangazeb was the son of the famous Mogul emperor, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. Arungazeb overthrew his father and imprisoned him in the Red Fort next to the Taj Majal where he could look out on his masterpiece only threw a small window, until he died in prison. Aurangazeb is also known for his brutal treatment of the Hindus and Sikhs. Despite of the fact he built beautiful gardens in Srinigar and elsewhere, he’s mostly remembered as being a butcher of mankind. This city is where he is buried and they changed the name to Aurangabad to commemorate him. (It’s still predominantly a Moslem town) It is now a huge metropolis with 900,000 people, but has little to offer except as a jumping off point to see the renowned caves of Ellora and Ajanta.

Ellora is huge with a total of 34 caves over a 2 km area. Built between the 6th and 8thCs the sanctuaries carved out of basalt cliffs are devoted to a combination of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism – which illustrates the spirit of tolerance characteristic of ancient India. The main attraction is the colossal Kailash temple- its colonnaded halls, galleries and shrines rear from a huge cavity cut from the hillside.

But although much larger than Badami, we were disappointed in the state of the Ellora carvings. The deterioration is greater, from both natural causes (basalt is much softer than sandstone) and the hands of the Moguls. But Ellora is still impressive. A fascinating side bar was the huge convoy of bats hanging from the ceilings in the back of the temples. Tourists love to disturb them by shining flashlights – they fly around squawking in a huge commotion, their eyes creating a thousand sparks of light.

We both preferred Ajanta for several reasons. First, the caves are situated around a exquisite horseshoe shaped ravine with a winding stream and flowering trees. Second, added to the sculptural and architectural work of these rock temples, the third art form of painting is a further enhancement. The huge Buddhist sculptures and paintings are very beautiful and, dating back as far as 2ndC BC, are in amazingly good condition. This is mainly due to the fact that its remote location kept Ajanta hidden from the destructive hand of the Moguls. Abandoned in 7thC AD when its creators moved to Ellora, the site was not rediscovered until 1819 when some East India Company tiger hunters saw one of the largest caves protruding through the foliage. Most of the faces on the sculptures are still intact and we could get a much better sense of their beauty and power than at Ellora where so much is lost. Also, in the Hindu temples and halls the focal point is generally a Lingum (a phallic symbol worshipped for fertility). Whereas in the Buddhist temples, having a similar lay out, the niches contain a Buddha in the lotus position. We were more attracted to the Buddhas than the Lingums!

Whatever, the two sites represent the crowing achievement of three religions at their high watermark. They weren’t the easiest places to get to but it’s an understatement to say it was well worth the effort. Seeing is believing….and we have serious doubts that any photographs can really capture Ajanta and Ellora. We both agree that like many other great pieces of art you have to stand in front of it to even begin to appreciate it. To state the obvious, to see this art work in its entirety and intended environment has such a greater impact than looking at artefacts in a museum.

Our Hearts Sink in Bagalkot

We left Badami by bus as the sun was setting and drove through quiet countryside in the dusk – wide flat fields and clean villages – wooden carts resting beside Honda motor bikes, painted tractors adorned with garlands, Vodafone signs on the side of white washed adobe buildings. Refreshingly restful after noisy, dirty Badami.

Arriving at the train station in Bagalkot, we inspect the illuminated departure board and don’t see our overnight train listed.
While I stand by the bags, Gerard goes to the ticket counter – “Train to Aurungabad?
What train?” the man asks. Gerard shows him our ticket.
He hands it to the station master who asks, “Where did you get this?”
“ Goa.”
“Goa? There is no train.”
Gerard’s heart sinks. Eyes glaze over, beads of sweat form on his forehead as his mind carries him off contemplating a major screw up along the line. Stranded in Bagalkot! Images of sleeping on the floor in the station until who knows when…. His illusion is interrupted by the station master’s voice: “Wait, What day is it? Tuesday.”
“Yes, it is Tuesday”, all agree.
He smiles, “Yes, there is a train today. It comes just once a week.”
Gerard asks, “And why isn’t it on the board?”

The station master has moved on to a new topic: “Never mind that. Where are you from?”
He extends his hand out through the window to shake Gerard’s.
“What time is the train coming?” Gerard persists.
“Don’t worry, it’s coming…Do you have coins from your country?
“Yes, I do have coins in my luggage.”
“Then take your bags and bring them around into the office.”
“But what time is the train coming?”
“Yes, yes, we’ll talk about that later…”

Gerard comes over to tell me that the station master had forgotten about this weekly train. I reply with thinly veiled irritation,” Hello, isn’t he station master? Isn’t he supposed to know these things?”
“No problem, the train’s coming…and we’ve been asked to join the station master in his office.”
We plough through the crowd with our baggage to join our new friend. Now the attention is diverted to us. The window clerk, the station master, the ticket collector…they all grab chairs, insist that we sit down. Gerard rummages through his suitcase and comes up with a handful of nickels, dimes and quarters, which he distributes as if it was parshad (blessed food).

There’s much discussion among the Indians about the coins.
“How many rupees is that one worth?” asks a young woman, introduced to us as the ticket collector.
“How many of these make a dollar?” another asks.
At this point, we notice that the other waiting passengers are pressing their faces against the glass to see what’s going on inside.
The station master asks, “How much are they all worth?”
“About 50 rupees.”
He digs in his pocket for 50 rupees and we refuse them.
“So, you must have tea!”
He calls for tea and a man arrives with pretty little decorated porcelain cups of hot chai. We sit, drinking and chatting. Then just before our train is due… the train he had forgotten about…he escorts us to our platform, shakes our hands and wishes us good fortune. “Whenever I look at these coins, I will think of you,”… and he bids us farewell

Within minutes the train arrives on schedule….and with no notification on the board How the other passengers knew it was coming, we couldn’t figure.

Majestic Caves Overlook Impoverished Badami

The only way to Badami is by bus. The main problem in riding buses in the south of India is finding the one going to our destination. There are no signs in English, and we’re so far into poor rural areas that people are not that educated and speak very little English – and the names of some of the towns are impossible to pronounce, adding to the confusion when we ask for information. We stand beside the bus lines looking for someone who might be able to help us. A driver appears, guesses we’re going to Badami and leads us to his bus. Immediately another driver intercepts: no, this is the bus, and tries to lead us to his. Suddenly we’re involved in a tug-of-war between two buses and their drivers. This is unusual – normally buses are so full, no one is trying to drum up business.

A supposed five hour bus journey extends closer to seven. But it’s an interesting ride, through several remote hillside villages that somehow seem little affected by the 21st century – with the exception of plastic. From the vantage point of the bus, you can be a spectator without being observed.

As we pull into Badami, it’s not what we expected at all – but things rarely are. It is much busier, dirtier and noisier. The street is a chaotic scene of rickshaws, trucks, people, menacing monkeys and wild hairy pigs (not the beguilingly attractive variety of Goa). We have litte choice of hotel. Our room sits beside a generator which comes on for long periods, day and night, when the power’s out. Power cuts in India are a fact of life. Our hotel has a generator which is a mixed blessing. The ceiling fan operates throughout the night; the downside is that we have to hear the diesel engine generator roaring outside the window. The garden restaurant, described in the guidebook as Badami’s saving grace – is closed. The scrubby garden doesn’t look inviting anyway. This must be the poorest Indian town we’ve ever visited!

But we have to remind ourselves, we didn’t come to Badami for the facilities. We came to see 6th Century caves carved out of sandstone cliffs – rather I came because Gerard wanted to, drawn by a compelling picture he found on the Internet of the multicolor layered cliff caves bordering a huge water tank. But when we visit the three major caves, even I am awestruck by the immensity of the carvings – the huge statues of the Hindu Gods – Vishnu, the monkey Hanuman, sixteen armed dancing Shiva – the Buddhist bodhisattvas in the neighboring Jain temple. The detailed design and the workmanship involved are truly amazing. Considering their age, and the record of the Muslim invaders for destroying and defacing anything that predated Islam, they are in incredibly good shape. The archeological society of India is now maintaining and doing some repair work.

We go back the next day for a second look, trying to imprint them in our memory because even though we take a lot of pictures, they still can’t capture the awesome presence of the carvings. From the caves we look out across the huge tank where women are washing clothes, to the hillsides around dotted with structural temples built later in the 7th Century. Gerard comments, that in modern times, it’s hard to think of anything comparable. So little attempt is made to do great works, never mind communal projects that involve thousands of people working for the same ideal. No doubt there are great artists today, but there’s something here that seems to transcend the individual ego. It’s true these days we construct large buildings but they’re a testament to commerce and not to spiritual devotion.

Leaving the Beaten Track for Badami

Hampi is the kind of place we’d love to visit again, but probably never will. I wasn’t too excited about Badami. We talked a few travelers who’d been there and commented – few hotels, not much to see, not worth the hassle of getting there… But I was happy to leave “tourist haven” which was beginning to feel too much like spring break – with all the young people who seem to come to India more for the sun and cheap living than for experiencing the culture. They stay close to the guest houses, dress themselves minimally in cheap Indian clothes made for tourists, make forays out on motorbikes, and watch movies with titles like “Obnoxious Bastards” shown in restaurants at night in between power outages. Many are Israelis, traveling after their military service. We’ve met several older Israelis who have defected to Europe or Australia, not happy with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, with no plans to return

Enroute to Badami we spend one night in Hospet – a town you would only pass through on your way somewhere else. We stay in a “luxury” hotel with air conditioning (of sorts) white sheets and a swimming pool. We enjoy the comfort and I swim in the kingfisher blue painted pool, beside a wall thick with morning glory flowers. In the restaurant our dinner is served by three waiters. The service is good; the food is not. The whole experience is horribly old school British, down to the way the boy ceremoniously lays out the cutlery at each place –most of which we have no use for.

One vignette that will remain with me of our stay in Hospet is buying Limca lemon soda from the soft drink stand on the street, and being persuaded by the owner to sit down to drink it on two plastic chairs immediately behind the stand. His wife joins us and sits beside me, smiling in a motherly manner. I am moved by her affection expressed without saying a word. Neither husband nor wife can speak English but they make us feel so welcome.

Boulders and Pillars of Hampi

Ruins and active temple in Hampi bazaar

Sunset on Boulders

Set beside a winding river, the landscape around Hampi is magical. Gigantic golden brown granite boulders are piled on top each other in gravity defying configurations. Just how this landscape is created is a complete mystery. Banana plantations are scattered among the boulders and ruins of what was once a vital city and lush rice paddies border the river.

Hampi is the ruined sight of the once capital of a Hindu dynasty, Vijayanagar, which held out from the invading Moguls until the 16th Century. The ruins look much older than they are due to damage done by the Muslim invaders. But from the main bazaar you can still make out the remains of the old city. The ruined colonnaded bazaar is still partly inhabited by today’s colorful market, and landless laborers live in many of the crumbling 500 year old granite buildings. Some of these ancient buildings have been recycled into a modern bank, a bookstore – with no fanfare.

The ruins are so prolific that one can get blasé about it. There’s ruins at the ferry stop… in the bazaar… on the surrounding hills… to the left… to the right…You must try and be still enough in order to begin to absorb what an unusual place this is. Removed from familiar surroundings and daily routines, traveling offers a unique opportunity to be in the present and fully appreciate what you’re seeing.

My love affair with a thatched hut is over. It’s claustrophobic and we share it with too many critters of various shapes and sizes. We have a spectacular view of the rice paddies and rocks behind, but after three days we retreat back to a guest house and a more spacious room. We wake up one morning, invaded by an army of mosquitoes. They are everywhere – clinging in droves to the mosquito net, swarming in the bathroom and, springing from our suitcases when disturbed. We made the mistake of opening the back window. Once again, Gerard has to rise to the occasion and after squatting mosquitoes for at least two hours, it is finally safe to inhabit the room again. The next night we light mosquito coils and we get a good night’s sleep.

I discover there are advantages of eating out three times a day, but also disadvantages. Sometimes you get what you want, sometimes you don‘t. The other night after a grueling day of sightseeing, I’d obviously had too much sun when I asked the waiter who could speak about three words of English, if his spinach soup had real spinach in it….Not having learned the lesson, this morning I ordered “good” coffee. Good, he repeated blankly – and served me Nescafe yet again.

We’ve now met five couples roughly our age, who like us, traveled in the late 60s/early 70s and are now traveling again after families and careers. A Swiss woman, who traveled overland to India back then, also remarked that Europeans traveling in India now is like Americans traveling in Europe in the 60s.

Brief meetings give us a snapshot of people’s lives, but leave room for both mystery and misinterpretation. At the guesthouse, we meet a boisterous Iraqi and his beautiful Parisian girlfriend, again around our age. They both have interesting stories: his escape from Baghdad; her miraculous recovery from being literally run over by a car and in a coma for six months. At first we assume she is having an affair while traveling – but no, she corrects us, she’s divorced amicably… How did the Iraqi manage to make enough money to bring his family to Paris and support them, and now travel for months on end? They leave for Goa before us and we’ll never know the rest of the story. But on the other hand, with people we see every day, we don’t get the complete story either.

Journey to Hampi

Ferry quai in Hampi
notice: Ferry in background

train ride to Hospet

The train station at Margoa signifies the beginning of our long journey across seven or more states. It is familiar (we were here a year ago) and relatively clean and less chaotic than most Indian train stations. But it is crowded. Backpacking tourists wander around in a daze, trying to figure out what’s going on; Indian families camp on the platform with piles of baggage and small children, ready to rush on to the train as it pulls in, and if lucky grab a place in general seating. We’re privileged – in sleeper class we have an assigned seat – we just have to figure out where it is. Indian trains stretch forever and are always full. Generally, there are 22 cars with 74 seats in each sleeper car, and who knows how many in general seating.

We enjoy an Indian breakfast standing on the platform – idli (rice pancakes) with hot sauce served on a paper plate with chai masala for just over a dollar. It feels good to eat real Indian food again- and the price is right!

The guide book prepares us for a wonderful train journey through a wild stretch of the Western Ghats and across the white water of Dudhsagar Falls. But the mist is heavy and we catch only glimpses of the valleys below the mountains through the bars of the open train windows. Later, the vast plains striped with cotton fields on the other side of the Ghats are more visible but less dramatic.

Train journeys are made entertaining by a constant stream of food vendors and chai wallahs – all chanting their wares. We do not go hungry or thirsty. Beggars include colorful transvestites who swagger down the carriage, pinching men’s cheeks and brazenly demanding rupees. A dirty brown boy crawls through sweeping the floor with his tee-shirt, stretching up his hand to the passengers above him. More troubling is a man with no hands and only one foot who opens his shirt pocket with his stump for you to put in a coin.

Our travel companions are all westerners – atypically the Indians and westerners have been seated separately. Italian, French and British voices mingle. It’s daytime, but people lay across the two tier seats trying to sleep – a tangle of bodies with feet extending in midair. We chat with two intriguing men sitting across from us. One, an Italian freelance photographer who divides his year equally between London, Florence, NYC and India. His likeable appearance, personality and campy behavior all bear an uncanny resemblance to a good friend back home. The other is strangely striking – part Brazilian, part American. With an English ex-wife, he still spends most of his time in London – and sounds a lot more English than I do.

It’s fascinating to meet people and then bump into them again later. We see this odd pair from the train twice again in Hampi. We’re now old friends, although neither has shared his name with us – keeping a little mystery. The Brazilian/American tells us how he accidentally became a major Ralph Lauren model in the 90s. Sitting in a café one day, in London, he was picked out by a modeling scout. Now I see it – he has the Ralph Lauren look!

We arrive in Hospet, 13 km from Hampi only one hour late. Not bad for Indian trains.. The guide book advises taking a bus rather than rickshaw because the unpaved road is so bumpy. So we drag our cases through the busy dusty street toward the bus station while rickshaws trail us. The price drops the further we get from the train. Finally, when it drops from 200 to 60 rupees we succumb. The road is newly paved, insists our driver. Ok, but if it’s not, the ride is free, quips Gerard, and we pile into the rickshaw on top of our cases. The driver is telling the truth – the ride is smooth, the road newly paved.
Our dark skinned driver introduces himself as Black Cobra. He can barely speak English but we like his low key manner. He doesn’t pressure us. We opt to stay in a guesthouse across the river from the main bazaar because it seems quieter. But crossing the river can be hazardous depending no the water level. If it is high, you have to wade out into the river to board the little ferry, further complicated if you’re carrying a heavy case on wheels. But Black Cobra, who is a true gentleman, and also an entrepreneur to drum up more business, carries my case. His tactic works – we hire him all of the next day to take us around the ruins and temples that are spread out over a 35 sq km area.

Week 2 in Agonda

Conversation has become a daily occupation – almost surpassing the swimming! One of the people we’ve befriended is another Brit who was a Buddhist priest until he left the order seven years ago. After much struggle he feels that the Buddhist path is still right for him. In a short space of time, we feel close. Gerard loves to hear other peoples’ story – and does his best to encourage them to open up. I’m always more concerned about invading their space. Maybe they don’t want to talk…and the moment is lost.

The character of our guesthouse has changed. The Brits have been diluted by a noisy multinational mix of Israeli backpackers, an extended Polish family, and a large contingent of Russians. A Welsh expatriate living north of Yellowstone Park has brought her preadolescent daughter to India for four months as part of her home schooling. They’re accompanied by a Serbian woman they met at Meher Baba’s ashram in Poone. And yet another story…. A German healer arrives to teach self realization on the roof, and an Auyrevedic masseuse sets up his table in an adjoining shed. Neither seems to attract much business; the lure of the beach prevails.

I manage to get Gerard swimming twice a day, provided he has ear plugs to protect his sensitive ears from salt water. He’d be even happier if he had an eye mask and nose clip blocking all orifices! He’d be happier still on dry land… He comes swimming only to please his wife, he says. But I have a suspicion he’s actually enjoying riding the waves, floating on his back. His home maintenance skills are pressed into service once again when I leap into bed with too much enthusiasm and dislodge the plywood board supporting the mattress.

For some unknown reason, the cook has taken up residence on a concrete sceptic tank, where he sleeps under a mosquito net. One morning we find him sleeping with a motorcycle helmet! We later learned he’s afraid of coconuts falling on him. As always the Indian capability to sleep anywhere and among anything is amazing!

Despite our busy schedule, we’ve found time to search for new restaurants. We stagger off the beach into a bamboo Tibetan café from where we can be amused by the goings on in front of us: brown pigs tiptoeing on ridiculously dainty little feet supporting their large bodies…trailed by the cutest timid piglets, some looking only a few days old. Healthy looking dogs – by Indian standards – make a game out of chasing the pigs. On Sunday morning, the young Goan women pass by on their way to church dressed in body clinging iridescent satin dresses. If we weren’t in India, I’d mistake them for call girls on their way to work. A traditionally dressed Indian woman, in a beautiful sari, gold necklace and earrings, picks up bottles from the road…. It’s hard to comprehend how such a seemingly dressed woman is a street sweeper. Probably the only all purpose outfit she owns.

If we can get ready in time, we go up the hill to Sunset restaurant for dinner and watch the sun sink down over the ocean. The area behind the restaurant leads to “little Italy”; a collection of older Portuguese style houses with tiled roofs and brightly colored verandahs. As the name implies, most of the tenants are baked Italians wearing Speedos, with cigarettes and cappuccino always in hand.

Only two days left in this indolent Paradise. We’re getting ready to start off on a more adventurous chapter than life on the beach.

Return to Agonda

During our travels in the third world, we have a tendency to return to places we’ve loved – sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with horror to find things unrecognizably altered. Small beautiful adobe towns turned into overpopulated concrete blocks, for example.

Although it’s only a year since we discovered Agonda – I’m apprehensive it won’t live up to our initial experience. We’re even going back to the same guest house. The motherly Portuguese landlady greets us with a warm hug as though she remembers us from the year before, and has a room waiting overlooking the beach.

Agonda is a small sleepy beach town on the southernmost tip of Goa without the usual high rises and package tours. As we stand on the beach, Gerard says to me – was it really a year ago we were here? Everything seems so familiar. Nothing stands still, nor has Agonda, but the changes have been minor. Perhaps a few more tourists than last year and more amenities, but the long stretch of beach doesn’t seem any more crowded. An interesting new spectacle is Indian day tourists, the women wading into the water fully dressed in their saris.

Guest houses always take on the character of the people staying there. Last year, it was predominantly Russians –hip young people, who zoomed around on rented motorbikes and scooters, drank vodka at night and did yoga on the beach in the morning.
Right now, the British predominate – and are older. It’s a novelty to sit down at breakfast and talk with someone in our age bracket. Usually the people we meet are younger, no less interesting, just younger. Gerard says it’s nice to relate important events in his life to someone without them responding, “Oh, yes, I saw that on the history channel”

We’ve befriended a couple from East Anglia. While Gerard discusses with Tony their respective house renovations, Jen and share memories of a common childhood in postwar Britain. Not something I have the chance to do that often living in the U.S. They are old hippie types who found a way to make a comfortable living (including traveling to India every winter) out of designing one-of-a-kind woolen jumpers (sweaters) – using little old ladies to hand knit them. They still sell at festivals and fairs and don’t even have a website.

Another interesting younger couple is from Brighton. He’s a picker (an antique dealer who goes around knocking on doors for items). Over dinner one evening, he regales us with stories of great finds – not dissimilar to stories Gerard’s father (also a picker) used to tell. His wife, Jane, has a vast array of sun dresses that she rotates throughout the day. She definitely does not have a small case! Gerard says he’d hate to have to carry her bags —but I point out that one of her diminutive outfits weighs less than a single pair of his underpants. I wonder if Jane has a hairdryer stashed in her baggage that I could borrow….

We move at a slow pace as the whole town seems to do – no movement till at least 8 am. We still manage to wake early and meditate before the roosters, crows and dogs start their morning chorus. Our days have a nice rhythm. So far we have not done a lot except eat, go to the beach, meditate and read. Unfortunately, a small case does not allow for sufficient reading material. I’ve already finished my quota of one novel (we’re also sharing a lengthy but well written History of India) – but hotel libraries and secondhand bookstores are great for trading books and fun to peruse.

We swim before it gets too hot and again in the late afternoon. When I return from my last swim of the day, Gerard has given up trying to fix the sagging mosquito net above our bed and tame the noisy ceiling fan. He is taking pictures of the red globe sinking between the palm trees before it dips into the ocean, while strains of Miles Davis loaded on my netbook come from our room. Always a designer, Gerard creates a home wherever he goes.

We have ended our first week in Agonda, and we negotiate with Fatima to stay another week.