Friday night of the Holi weekend, four of us caught the 9 p.m. train to Aurangabad, our base camp. We were in second sleeper compartments, which during the course of the night, morphed into a general compartment. Passengers without reservations seemed to have no compunction about boarding, and were more than a little surprised to see the berths occupied by people trying to get some sleep. Undeterred, they just sat everyone’s feet and made themselves at home by starting loud and long conversations. By the time the train reached our station at 4 a.m., all of us had given up on sleep and were just glad to be off.
Aurangabad lay in darkness thanks to a power cut and it was pouring. When we reached our hotel, we had one torchlight between the four of us to get ready. By 7.15 we were all out, looking dishevelled and sleepy.
Our spirits, however, finally began to rise when we hit the well maintained road to Ajanta. The landscape was quite stark thanks to the season. Bare trees adorned the barren lands and did not move much in the cool breeze. I sat in the front, plugged in my ipod and let the music and scenery engulf me. The others slept in the back of the car.
Our first stop was Ajanta. The friendly tourism department had come up with an interesting method of accessing the place involving buying tickets at various points, walking through shopping centres, boarding buses and what not. Lest you thought that there was only Ajanta to see, you could feel reassured that there was an entire maze thrown in for free. By the time we actually saw the caves, we were an hour behind our schedule.
There were 30 caves in Ajanta and not all of them were worth seeing unless you were a student of history/architecture etc. We decided to be sensible and hire a guide. Which was easier said than done because everyone had had the same idea and there were none on hire for love or money. Eventually we did find one for both the love and money. He was a very effeminate and effusive man in his late 40s and had already been engaged by another group. But clearly Sri’s charms were irresistible and he took us on. Sri was not amused.
Ajanta’s caves were created from a volcanic rock face sometime from 3rd century BC to 7th century AD. They were used as temples and also as residences for wandering Buddhist monks. Given the long timelines, the caves depicted both key forms of Buddhism – Mahayana and Hinayana. The more lowkey Hinayana form does not believe in depicting Buddha directly, but rather through symbols like lotuses, Stupas and elephants. The Mahayana form is a lot more gregarious on the other hand and has lovely sculptures of Buddha. The fact that caves were dug so long ago with relatively primitive implements was impressive in itself. The paintings and the carvings were the icing on the cake. Sadly a lot of the paintings were not very clear and to protect them from further damage there was not much lighting in most caves. (Note - Carrying a torchlight along will be handy).
Our guide quickly led us through the key caves. The last cave we saw had a carving of a prone Buddha, depicting him as dead. It also had a Stupa and a statue of Buddha, showing a combination of both forms of Buddhism. A lovely finish to a crescendo set in stone.
Given the tight timeline, there was no time to linger and explore the other caves for any unexpected discoveries. Instead, we wound our way back through the maze and jumped into our waiting car to go to Ellora.
Ellora was a good two hours away from Ajanta, through a shortcut that did not touch Aurangabad. In the afternoon sun, the journey was the exact length to catch a nap and then nibble at snacks. We arrived at Ellora, tired but revived.
Ellora, unlike Ajanta , had caves from three religions –Buddhism (built between 500 – 600 AD), Hinduism (from 900 AD) and Jainism (800 – 1000 AD). Also, unlike Ajanta which was carved into the flat mountain face and was almost midway between the river below and the hilltop above, the Ellora caves were closer to the ground, made from a sloping rock face. By far the most impressive was the famous Cave 16, housing the Kailashanath Temple. The carving of the temple began from the top and as the rocks were dug further and further, the whole temple came into existence. Apparently about 2 million tons of rock were dug out and a space 107 feet, 276 long and 154 feet wide emerged. The monolith that was left was then chiseled to create the larger than life carvings of shapely gods and goddess, animals and mythical creatures. It was truly an architectural feat. Our guide was equally smitten, despite having been here for about 2 years. A very academic looking chap, he had spent a few years in a 9 to 5 job and had then moved into this line. We compared views on the architecture of South Indian temples and learnt about the history of Ellora. Then we sat for a while in one of the temples and watched the bright blue sky through the stone courtyard, a view that probably had been seen by the monks of yore.
Our plan had also included a quick dash to Daulatabad Fort. When we finished at five though, it became pretty obvious that we had neither the time nor the energy to cover more places and headed back to the hotel for a wash.
The hotel looked much better in the warm glow of electricity. We lounged around in the restaurant, playing Scrabble and eating dinner till it was time to get back to the station. I was on the upper berth. I was really tired. I knew that ours was the last stop. With conditions so perfect it was a matter of minutes before I floated into a deep drooling slumber, dreaming of masons and monks.