Buddhist Travel
Traveler Tales

Caves of divinity


Aurangabad, India -- If you thought fashion was only for clothes, think again. The magnificent Ajanta and Ellora Caves located a short distance from the city of Aurangabad, were among the most favoured tourist spots, around the time of India?s independence.

Thereafter, there was a gradual decline in visitors even though, Aurangabad gained as a major industrial area. Those were also days when there were not enough flights from Delhi or Mumbai too!

Having seen images of the famous frescoes of Ajanta since childhood, I was determined to visit them at the earliest opportunity. Ellora interested me less, but this was before I was totally awed by the amazing rock-hewn Kailash temple.

My visit finally happened in the month of July some years ago. I discovered, that my timing was just right and that the period during the rains, was the best for visiting Ajanta.

Monsoon had set in and the weather was cool, as we drove towards Ajanta - a 2-hour drive on well-maintained roads. For those who prefer to stay on site, there was a tourist lodge at Ajanta, as well as a railway station.

The 29 Ajanta Caves dating around 200 BC to 650 AD, are cut in a horse-shoe shaped curve, into the steep face of a rocky gorge. The River Beghora flows through the ravine and in the monsoons, the view is spectacular. Excavated by Buddhist monks,the Ajanta caves lay hidden till they were accidentally discovered in 1819 by some British soldiers.

Their isolation no doubt, helped in preserving the frescoes while some good restoration work has also made a difference. After visiting the dimly lit caves (where one can pay to have lights switched on), it is a good idea to also see the frescoes up close, documented by Japanese technology, in a mini museum on the site. The caves have splendid carvings on the exteriors with the Buddha depicted in various positions and sizes.

There are also the huge carved figures within, where the Buddha fills the entire space, dwarfing his followers. The enormous reclining Buddha, is a great attraction and hand-held reflectors light up the interior of this dark cave for visitors. However, the main attractions of the Ajanta Caves are the amazing frescoes and murals, created by Budhist monks so long ago.

Among these the finest paintings are in Cave 17,where images of everyday life, royal processions and spectators are created in detail. The painting of a royal lady being dressed by attendants is among the best known images of Ajanta.

It is from these frescoes, that research scholars have been able to date the famous ?ikat? weave! Royal personages in these frescoes are shown dressed in this type of fabric worn as sarongs in which the weave appears remarkably similar to those seen today.

The visit to Ellora had to be done on another day, as it was in a completely different direction. The road passes the famous hilltop fortress of Daulatabad (15 km from Aurangabad), a pyramid shaped rock that was considered invincible.

The fort was the scene of one of history?s greatest follies, when Mohammd Bin Tughlak, the eccentric Sultan of Delhi, decided to shift his capital to there in the 14th century.

Since Ellora was my goal, I left Daulatabad for another day. Ellora is a short distance from Daulatabad (30 km from Aurangabad), where 34 caves have been hewn out of rock by different religious sects. It is perhaps one of the most spiritually syncretic places in the world, for the 12 earliest caves are Buddhist , 17 are Hindu and the remaining 5 are Jain.

The caves are cut into a hillside covering approximately 2 km and most have elaborate entrance halls. There are three and two storied caves and some even with balconies. Many appear unfinished, while others have spectacular carvings.

The mighty Kailash Temple, which is flocked by worshippers on most days, is the central attraction at Ellora. Here rock-cut temple architecture in India, reached its peak. The temple consists of a huge courtyard, 81 metres long by 47 metres wide and 33 metres high.

In the centre, the main temple rises up and is connected to the outer enclosure by a bridge. Around the enclosure are galleries, while towards the front are two large stone elephants flanking the Nandi pavilion.

Among the Jain caves, the Indra Sabha hall, is the finest. The ground plan is similar to that of the Kailash Temple but the upper area has wonderfully carved friezes. There some fine images of the Jain Tirthankars, Parasnath and Gomateshwara, the latter surrounded by vegetation and wildlife. Inside the shrine is a seated image of Mahavir, the 24th and last Tirthankar.

Faint traces of paintings can still be seen on the ceilings and walls. The Buddhist caves, which were probably made by those who for some inexplicable reason abandoned Ajanta, are less interesting and since the area is so vast and the caves spread out, most people tend to go straight to the Kailash Temple.

On the way back I stopped at Khuldabad (also known as Rauza), to see Aurangzeb?s tomb which is located within the Alamgir Dargah at the centre of this town. There was no tomb here, only a simple grave.

This Mughal Emperor, after whom Aurangabad is named and who commanded the largest part of Hindustan at the time of his death, is buried in a grave that lies open to the sky and only an upright marble slab records his name. This is in keeping with the austerity that Aurangzeb practiced all his life. A fine marble trellis that now surrounds the grave, is said to have been added years later, by the British.

A humble and peaceful resting place for a controversial emperor then. But where better to rest for eternity than in this place of incredible spiritually and oneness of faith? I am sure the centuries past will vouch for this contention!