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.