Caves — but not as many as we thought

Our carefree month at the beach ended with a momentary downturn: the night before we left Gokarna Gerard came down with what must have been food poisoning. Alone, I said goodbye to our friends at breakfast the next morning and we set off for the short train ride to Madgaon. Gerard slept the remainder of the day away while I found a pure veg restaurant with remarkably good masala chai. We’d decided to fly to make the long trip to Aurangabad less arduous. However, this is India. The trains rarely run on schedule; why would we think domestic flights would be any different? Two short flights on twin engine props, but a long tedious day of delayed connecting flights and more time sitting in airports than on planes.

Aurangabad was named after the infamous Mogul Emperor, Aurangzeb, one of whose cruelest act was to imprison his father, Shah Jahan, in full sight of the Taj Mahal he (Jahan) had built in honor of his wife. In captivity, Jahan was forced daily to look out on his creation. Another busy Indian city, the only reason for coming here was because of its proximity to the caves of Ellora and Ajanta. Nine years ago, we were so impressed, we decided to make another visit this year.

Our first day, Gerard had recuperated enough to visit nearby Ellora. We shared a taxi with a jovial Frenchman, our age, who spoke virtually no English. The taxi dropped us at the caves early in the morning and waited until the evening to bring us back. Once again, we were awestruck at the long line of caves carved into the cliff.

Over 600 years, between the 5th and 11th Cs AD, both Hindus and Buddhists carved a total of 34 caves out of the rock face. Sitting close to one another, they illustrate the religious harmony that existed in ancient India. One wishes that was still true today.

Most impressive is a massive complex: Kailasha is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. It’s said to have taken ten generations to complete and includes a large pillared hall, antechambers, and gigantic sculptures of Hindu deities. Wall panels depict Hindu mythologies: in particular, the two major epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Though the stone sculptures and decorations have worn away over the centuries, they are still impressive.

Most of the Buddhist caves are multi-story monasteries with massive carved Buddhas. The largest is the three-story ‘Vishvakarma or ‘Carpenter’s Cave’ so-called because the rock has been given a finish that looks like wooden beams.

You enter a facade decorated with meditating monks, then up a flight of steps to a cathedral-like prayer hall. Its vaulted roof is carved with wooden like ribs. At the far end, a colossal fifteen-foot Buddha sitting in preaching pose took my breath away. The Buddha’s presence was tangible.

Either side are Bodhisattvas and Buddhist goddesses seated on lotus thrones. Seeing all this antiquity in its original location can’t compare to visiting a museum assembled with similar artifacts. Here, you are immersed in what was a great period in history. As we looked at these ancient works of art, the term ‘carved in stone’ came to mind, but even stone is subject to decay.

The following day, we were looking forward to returning to Ajanta where the design and decoration of the Buddhist caves are even more amazing than that of Ellora. Normally, a three-hour bus ride away from the city, we were warned that the road is torn up under reconstruction and the ride could be now close to five hours. Gerard, still not fully recovered, the thought of the bumpy ride on a crowded local bus would be too much. So reluctantly, we canceled our plans, reassuring ourselves that, God willing, we can return next year to visit Ajanta. when the new road should be completed.

What to do instead? Aurangabad offers little of historic interest, except a mini Taj Mahal built in 1660.

Commissioned by Aurangzeb in memory of his own wife, the Bibi Ka Maqbara, is smaller and much less imposing than the Taj Mahal, but still bears some resemblance with its once formal gardens and waterways. No surprise, the same architect was commissioned to design both.

Our next stop had less impact except for its surroundings. The Soneri Mahal sits on the outskirts of the city. The ‘palace’ was decorated in gold giving its present name; Soneri meaning cloth of gold. Today, it is a cream-painted nondescript looking building with a mediocre museum of pottery, sculptures and kitchen utensils. But sitting in open countryside, against a backdrop of hills it was a pleasant place for a short visit. Away from the hubbub, we immediately felt refreshed by the tranquility.

The following day, we took our last domestic flight to Varanasi on time and with no problem. From now on, we’re back to traveling via trains and buses.