Rock cut architecture which dominates the architectural style of western India, is nowhere more explicitly manifest than the caves of Ajanta and Ellora. Located near Aurangabad in Maharashtra, Ajanta and Ellora exhibit unparalleled creativity and artistic excellence beyond imagination.
An overnight bus journey took us from Mumbai to Aurangabad. We were greeted by an early morning chill, to be expected in the month of February, one of the best times to visit the area.
Upon reaching, we made an early start for Ellora, located about 20 minutes from Aurangabad. Ellora has a cluster of caves dedicated to three major religions: Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. Each has its own distinctive features and architectural style. What remains enmeshed in my memory of Ellora is, undoubtedly, the Kailash Temple.
Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple and the surrounding monuments are stunning – a living testimony of the workmanship of that era. As we entered the temple premises we fell silent, as if in a trance. After a while we realized that we had left each other’s company. Each of us had sought solitude and silence to imbibe the grandeur of the place.
What made it such a spellbinding and heart-stirring experience was the realization that all these were cut out of rocks. We paid silent tribute to all those artists who, with their craft, have left behind a wealth of artistic creations, a treat for the eyes, a solace for the heart.
The natural and obvious remark was, “how on earth did they manage to create all these out of rocks? It must have taken them ages!”
Spiritual mystical environment
The shrine or the ‘lingam’ was in a dark room, the darkness dissipated by the light of a single candle. The darkness and the silence created a spiritual and mystical environment for experiencing one to one communion with God. This feeling of complete enchantment fills my mind when I close my eyes and invoke the image of Ellora.
From Ellora, we drove to the tomb of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Indeed, the city of Aurangabad was named after the infamous Mughal emperor and no visit to the city is complete without a visit to his tomb. Devoid of any architectural extravagance, the tomb reflects the austerity that characterized Aurangzeb and his reign.
Among the several historical monuments that Aurangabad boasts of, is the Daulatabad fort located 16 kilometers northwest of Aurangabad in Daulatabad, also known as Deogiri. Muhammad-bin-Tuglaq had shifted his capital here, which was later relocated to Delhi.
The sight that greeted us at Daulatabad was in stark contrast to the refined beauty of the Ellora caves. The fort is conspicuous by the absence of art and grand sculptures. It is bare and reflects the barrenness of the land around it. The importance of the fort lay in its extraordinary strength, the ingenious way it was built to ward off enemies and the mechanisms used to defend it. History testifies that this fort was never captured in battle, such was its brilliance. It changed hands only when a ruler surrendered it to another.
The view from the top of the fort is worth the climb. It offers tourists a sweeping view of the surrounding land: rough, barren and rocky. At the summit there is also a specimen of a massive metal tope or canon with verses from the Quran inscribed on it. This is one of the few remaining metal canons of its type, another one located in the Janjira Fort in the Raigad district of Maharashtra.
A tour of the fort can be an exhaustive experience even in early February, with the sun beating down through the arid atmosphere. A drink of nariyal pani or tender coconut water is refreshing and a must!
Bibi ka Maqbara
After lunch, we proceeded to Bibi ka Maqbara. Built by Mughal Prince Azam Shah in loving memory of his mother, Begum Rabia Durani, wife of Aurangzeb, this monument was intended to be a replica of the Taj Mahal.
Unfortunately the monument is but a poor replica of the Taj Mahal, lacking the architectural brilliance, effulgence and dazzling beauty of the unparalleled Taj. The mesmerizing craftsmanship that marked the architectural undertakings of Akbar and Shah Jahan was pitifully lost in the later years of the Mughal reign. Bibi ka Maqbara is an eloquent example. Nevertheless the monument is worth a visit, if only to understand this transition in Mughal architecture.
Paithan near Aurangabad
If you have time on your hand, a trip to Paithan, few kilometers from Aurangabad, is recommended before calling it a day. It is famous for the Jaikwadi Dam and even more popular for the exquisitely woven and brightly colored Paithani silk sarees with rich silver or gold borders. Before taking the bus back to Mumbai you must remember to pick one up!
We reached Paithan at dusk. The setting sun on the dam created a tranquil atmosphere and we spent some time taking a leisurely walk along the side of the dam. It had been a long day and the peaceful environment was refreshing. As we retired for the night, we were tired but already looking forward to the next day.
Ajanta Caves, 104 kms from Aurangabad
The Ajanta caves was our final destination. Located about 104 kilometers away, it is a two and a half hour drive from Aurangabad. Consisting of 29 rock-cut cave monuments, the Ajanta caves were an outstanding display of craftsmanship, testimony to the perseverance of the artists.
Dating back to the 2nd century BC, the caves house some of the best paintings and sculptures of this age, considered to be masterpieces of Buddhist religious art. The frescoes on the walls of the caves are breathtakingly beautiful. Stripped of much of its grandeur with the passage of time and due to neglect, the remnants of color on the frescoes on ceilings and walls live on as a silent witness of its heyday.
Aurangabad Ajanta caves
The tiger hill close by, easily reached by car, offers an impressive panoramic view of the horse shoe-shaped Ajanta caves and the surrounding area.
As a student of history, with a special love for historical architecture, the fact that I would be left spell bound by Aurangabad is no wonder. But today when I look back, I realize that it is much more than just history that captured my heart. It is the peaceful co-existence of the past and the present and the simplicity that the city exudes that left an indelible imprint on my mind. Being closely intertwined with history and spared from the excessive ravages of the modern world, Aurangabad and its vicinity has a distinct charming character of its own.
- Aurangabad, located in Maharashtra is an 8-10 hour car/overnight bus journey from Mumbai.
- January-February is a good time to visit. During the day, temperatures tend to soar, but early mornings and evenings are pleasant, with a slight chill in the air.
- You must carry some light warm clothes if you are traveling in January or February, and also sunglasses and hats. Some background study of the places before the trip is recommended. And DO NOT forget to carry your camera as the place is a photographer’s delight!