Astounding! This is the only expression I can think of to describe the caves at Ajanta and Ellora around Aurangabad in Maharashtra. These could only have been the works of those with special skills, an extraordinary sense of art and possibly some supernatural powers. The Taj Mahal should gracefully admit it is not the greatest monument built in India. Get set to be overwhelmed when you tour the caves of Ajanta and Ellora. What you get here is just a peek; even a tome cannot do justice to these wonders.
What may have been bad news for a tiger turned out to be a good one for the world. Two British officers out hunting for the big cat stumbled upon the rock-cut caves of Ajanta in 1819, lying in obscurity for centuries. Travellers and historians have been richer for it ever since.
The handiwork of Buddhists, the caves were carved into a semi-circular steep rocky face, about 250 feet (76 metres) high, overlooking a narrow gorge with the Waghora stream flowing through it. Five of the caves here served as chaitya-grihas (sanctuary) while another 25 as viharas (monasteries). The caves are now connected by a terraced path which is a later development; originally, all had individual steps leading to the stream below. These steps have all but disappeared now. The caves had come up between the second century B.C. and the seventh century A.D., with no known patrons.
The surviving mural paintings have established themselves as popular icons in their own right, inspiring many a modern artist. These overshadow the sculptures, no less impressive. The theme of the paintings are mostly religious depicting the Buddha and incidents from His life, Bodhisattvas and the Jatakas presenting tales of the previous births of Gautama Buddha. The paintings on the ceilings are mostly decorative in nature though. Let the images speak for themselves.
The how of rock-cut architecture
The creation of something like the caves at Ajanta was no mean task. Work would start with marking outlines, and finishing the ceilings first. Work then moved downwards, cutting deep alleys with sharp and heavy instruments like the pickaxe. This was followed by the breaking of the intervening ridges, leaving solid blocks for pillars where necessary. The floor was taken care of last. The finishing and carving was executed using hammer and chisel. After the façade of the verandah, workers went deep into the interiors, attending to the hall first and then the antechamber, shrine or cells as planned. All in all, it was a job requiring delicate handling, precision and extreme care. And skills and creativity we cannot imagine anyone possessing in modern times.
The signature cave at Ellora is the monolithic Kailasa temple, numbered 16 in the series, and named after the mountain abode of Hindu God Shiva. The massive structure was hewn from a mass of rock obtained by cutting three big trenches in the three sides of a hill. It is estimated this temple demanded labour across 10 generations, the work taking 200 years to complete. It comprises a main shrine, another shrine for the Nandi bull, a wagon shaped gopuram or main entrance and a 16-pillared mandapa or main hall – the last three connected by stone bridges. The complex is full of ornate sculptures of deities, amorous couples and friezes of scenes from the epics besides floral, faunal and geometrical designs. Carving any one of the elements of this temple would have been a feat; it boggles the mind imagining anyone daring to carve a mammoth, heavily sculptured structure in one piece.
That’s Ellora for you, also called Verul and Elura; these are all corruptions of its ancient name of Elapura. These caves celebrate the achievements of three major religions of India: Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Their patrons and even their age are guesstimates at best; these may have been built between the 6th and 10th centuries A.D. Ellora’s wealth lies in both its architecture and sculptures. Go explore, without being rushed.
Bibi ka Makbara: The Taj of Deccan
The most striking feature of Bibi ka Makbara in the heart of Aurangabad is its resemblance to the famous Taj Mahal; it is thus often referred to as the ‘Taj of Deccan.’ An architectural marvel in its own right, it is the tomb of Emperor Aurangzeb’s first wife Rabia-ul-Daurani. It was commissioned in her loving memory by her son Prince Azam Shah between 1650 – 1657. It was meant to rival the Taj Mahal, but dwindling finances of a failing Mughal empire restricted the budget to only Rs. 700,000; the wonder in Agra cost Rs. 32 million if one wants to put things in perspective. Don’t miss it.
The Caves of Aurangabad
Overshadowed by Ajanta and Ellora, the caves of Aurangabad are modest in scale but impressive in their own right. There are 12 Buddhist caves, cut out into hills running just over a mile behind Bibi ka Maqbara. These date back to circa 2nd – 7th centuries A.D. A must visit while you are in these parts.
Do drop in at the Daulatabad Fort located 15 kms (10 miles) from Aurangabad on the way to Ellora. It got its name when Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq shifted his capital from Delhi in 1328 A.D. Regarded as his folly, he ordered every citizen to move to the new capital hundreds of miles away only to reverse the decision soon thereafter. Originally called Devagiri or Deogiri meaning the ‘Hill of Gods,’ Tughlaq renamed it Daulatabad meaning the ‘Abode of Wealth.’ Built on a 200 metre high hill, its attraction to rulers lay in its impregnability. Surrounded by moats and further secured by three fortification walls, lofty gates and bastions, it sure looks a challenge to surmount for any army.
Aurangabad: Travel Tips
* Accommodation: Aurangabad has many hotels of all quality levels. It is best to make your base here to explore the attractions around.
* Best time to go: October to February. It can be very hot in the summers and wet during the monsoons. Not the best of time to walk on superheated or slippery rocky surfaces. Try to reach the caves early morning to beat the crowds, and see the structures come alive with the rising sun.
* Getting there: Aurangabad is well connected by air, road and train. Ellora is about 29 kms (18 miles) and Ajanta is about 105 kms (66 miles) from Aurangabad.
* Give yourself a full day each for Ajanta and Ellora, and another day for other caves and buildings.