I had made a trip to Ajanta Ellora Caves in February. It turned out to be a fun trip as I was joined by a few other friends from Mumbai and Pune. And because, I was meeting all these friends from college and school after a long time, I decided to extend the weekend and took a 3 day leave from office to do make it a proper trip and not just a touch-n-go experience. This is how my 4 days were distributed –
- Day 1 – Bangalore –> Mumbai –> Aurangabad
- Day 2 – Aurangabad –> Ellora –> Aurangabad
- Day 3 – Aurangabad –> Ajanta –> Aurangabad –> Pune
- Day 4 – Pune –> Bangalore
It was a bit of a stretch as we almost covered 2500 km on road in these 5 days, which included 4 overnight journeys in buses. But it was fun, more so because of the group! and on the lines of the last trip to Belur and Halebidu, this time as well, the sketches were done by Disha. This was our second trip together and I think she really compliments my photography with her sketches.
So, starting with Mumbai.. well, I don’t like the city! Every friend living there has said to me that one has to live in Mumbai to love it, maybe that’s true.. because from all my one day visits, I’ve never felt that I can like the city and this trip was no exception. I spent a lazy afternoon in Bandra where I was catching up with friends and then later headed to Andheri to board the bus to Aurangabad. It was a unique group that we had formed because there was not even a single person in the group who knew everybody! I was the one who knew most of the people, all but one, and there were people who knew just one more friend, with whom they had tagged along. So the last couple of hours went into making sure that nobody would miss the bus, and although we had a last minute hiccup with one guy, everyone managed to be in the bus when it was time to leave.
Here’s a tip, if you’re traveling between 2 big cities, then pick a sleeper because if you’re not traveling on the highway, sleeper buses can really break your back! If you’re not sure of the roads, it’s always safer to take the reclining seats. Anyhow, we reached Aurangabad next morning. We booked a hotel, checked into our rooms without much delay and freshened up to explore the city of Aurangabad.
A quick history recap for region surrounding Aurangabad – The first settlement in the area can be traced backed to 2nd century BCE when the Satavahana rulers established their capital in Pratishtanapura, today known as Paithan. It was around this time that the viharas (monasteries) were carved out of caves in what is now Ajanta, and the stunning cave paintings were made, to be lost and rediscovered in the early 19th century. The carvings in the Ellora caves track the changing fortunes of three major religions Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism between the 5th and the 10th century CE. The Yadava kings established their capital in Devagiri (also spelt Deogiri) and built a fort that stands to this day. The fort was reputed to be impregnable, but Ala-ud-din Khilji of Delhi captured it by laying siege on it and renamed it to Daulatabad. Malik Kafur, his general consolidated his hold on the region. As the Delhi Sultanate was captured by Mohammad bin Tughluq, the fort passed to him. Aurangabad then fell to the local Muslim rulers of Deccan who revolted against the Delhi Sultan. The city of Aurangabad was founded by Malik Ambar, the Prime Minister of one of these rulers, though the name of the city then was Fatehpura. The region kept changing hands till the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan consolidated his hold and appointed his son Aurangzeb as the governor. Aurangzeb established his base here and thus the city got renamed to his name and the name hasn’t changed since.
We decided to look around in the city first, but Aurangabad has only a few places that are worth visiting. The first stop for us was Panchakki, which is a 17th century water mill. There is a picturesque garden here that houses several beautiful fish tanks and it plays abode to the memorial of a Sufi Saint. Our guide told us that the saint was a Russian vagabond who got famous by the name of Hazrat Baba Shah Musafir. He came to the city in earlier part of 18th century and helped the locals in making this water mill, and that’s why his grave was revered and was worshiped as a shrine. I wouldn’t recommend stoping at this spot, there is nothing that you’d miss..
After a disappointing start to the trip, we were hoping for some better luck with Bibi ka Maqbara, our next destination. For those of you who do not know about the monument, it is a replica of Taj Mahal built by Aurangzeb’s son, in tribute to his mother, Begum Rabia Durani. By this time, Mughals had established such a strong presence in Deccan, that going back in the north would’ve seemed odd. But then gong by this logic, we should’ve had more Mughal monuments in the region, and somehow Bibi ka Maqbara is the only one that we’ll come across in the Deccan region. The building itself is evident of the declining power of Mughals.. the building started in marble but then due to budget constraints was completed in brick and plaster, which infact was made by grinding sea shells. This is partly because the Mughal treasury at this point in time was majorly used for winning the wars against the Deccan states and thus architecture slipped down in priority list. This also can be attributed to the emperor’s outlook, Aurangzeb was a very pious Muslim who lived a simple life. He was not in the favor of spending the taxpayer’s money on building personal monuments and never built anything comparable to his elders. His own grave lies in a small town near Aurangabad – Khuldabad. It lies is sharp contrast to the previous Mughal rulers.
Mughals started their journey from Uzbekistan and reached the peak of their rule when they were ruling from Aurangabad. If you look up the two regions on a map, it speaks a lot about how much they traveled in search of power. On the other hand, there is no region that the Mughals could’ve called their own, everything they ruled over at any point in time was what they had won from someone else and then lost it to someone else.
We headed to Ellora caves and left Aurangabad behind, but made a stop in between for lunch. The 12 Buddhist (caves 1–12), 17 Hindu (caves 13–29) and 5 Jain (caves 30–34) caves, built in proximity, demonstrate the religious harmony prevalent during this period of Indian history. We couldn’t cover all the caves as we had to cover the Daulatabad fort before the day would’ve ended. But we did see most of the famous structures and caves, starting with the Jain caves, in this group, the cave#32 is the biggest one, shown below in the photos and sketches.
If you’ve got further interest in the architecture of the caves, you should visit this site prepared as a part of a documentation project, it has floor plans and elevation pictures to study all the caves in details.
After seeing the Jain caves, we moved forward to the Hindu caves. the most famous structure at Ellora is the Kailasnath Temple, which is a Hindu temple. It shows Shiva and Parvati at their Himalayan abode – Mount Kailash. The most amazing thing about it is that it was carved from the rock of the mountain. It was not built. They had to take out some 220,000 tonnes of rock to create a “trench” around it, leaving a massive centre rock, which they then carved into the shape of a giant chariot that is also a temple. The whole thing is covered in sculptures depicting many scenes, such as the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the descent of river Ganga, and Ravana shaking Mount Kailash. Also, one can see leftover of plaster and paint in corners of the temple, thus, it suggests that the temple used to be painted at its prime. It is said that the temple was painted white so as the resemble the Mount Kailash itself. Strangely for a Shiva temple, most of the deities at the left of the entrance are Shaivaite (followers of Shiva) while on the right hand side the deities are Vaishnavaites (followers of Vishnu). Below are shots and sketches of the Kailashnath temple, cave#16.
The Kailashnath temple is a splendid achievement of Rashtrakuta Karnataka architecture. It is also evident from the fact that the construction went for 200 years! Imagine a generation of workers just devoted to completing this temple. This project was started in around 760 AD by Krishna I of the Rashtrakuta dynasty that ruled in present day Karnataka and Maharashtra state. His rule had also spread to southern India, hence this temple was excavated in the prevailing style. Its builders modelled it on the lines of the Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal, built by the Chalukyas. The Virupaksha temple was built by Lokamahadevi, the consort of Vikramaditya to commemorate his three victories over the Pallavas and occupation of Kanchi. This was perhaps built in about first half of the 8th century. It is said that the Virupaksha temple itself was modelled after the Kailashnath temple of Kanchi, which was built from 685-705AD by a Rajasimha ruler of the Pallava Dynasty. The Kailashnath temple of Kanchi also inspired the Chola king, Rajaraja to build the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur. With so many threads inter-sewing the history of India, it is hard not to visit all these places and understand the finer details of the architecture and the empires themselves..
After spending a good amount of time at Ellora, it was time to move on to our next destination – Daulatabad Fort. It is said to be an impregnable fort and the only time in history it was captured was by the army of Ala-ud-din Khilji in A.D. 1296. Prior to this attack, the place was called Devgiri. Muhammad-bin-Tughluq succeeded the Khiljis at Delhi and he renamed Deogiri as Daulatabad and seeing its impregnable fort, shifted the capital from Delhi in A.D. 1328. This led to serious repercussions as the city couldn’t support the water needs of all the people who had migrated with the king and he had to again transfer the capital back to Delhi within 2 years of shifting. Till this day, this decision of shifting capitals with the entire population is seen as a foolish decision and is mocked upon.
There is a distinct structure that stands out while entering the fort – Chand Minar which is a tower 210 ft (64 m). high and 70 ft (21 m). in circumference at the base. It was originally covered with beautiful Persian glazed tiles. It was erected in 1445 by Ala-ud-din Bahmani to commemorate his capture of the fort.
The walk to the top of the fort is really tiring but you shouldn’t miss it. The view from the top is really good and the fort itself is very well made, you don’t get to see such a good defence system. We came across moats, bridges, tunnels, very narrow pitch dark staircases with traps and bats! The part I enjoyed the most was the dark passages that lead to the citadel. Built to confuse the invaders, the passages have many devious routes through which they’ll eventually be trapped or better still, killed either by falling off the cliff or into hot oil! These passages are collectively called Andheri.
But we were really tired by the end of our descent. There wasn’t anything left to see as well apart from Ajanta caves. So, we decided to take a snack break and had some sugarcane juice, trust me, it’s the best drink when you need some instant energy. After gaining back our strength, we headed back to the city for dinner. It was time for a big feast after such an eventful day! We went to Karim’s which is a famous non-veg restaurant chain in India. Needless to say, everyone was really hungry and hogged upon everything that we were served. There wasn’t much left to be done that day and soon we returned back to the hotel and slept off.
The first couple of hours of next morning went into checking out of the hotel. After the initial hiatus, we started our journey to the Ajanta caves, which are located at a distance of 100 km from Aurangabad. I believe Ajanta caves proved to be the most distinctive part of the trip as nobody had seen such a wonder before and I’m sure there are only a very few places in the world which can leave you in such awe. The Ajanta caves are cut into the side of a cliff that is on the south side of a U-shaped gorge on the small river Waghora (or Wagura), and although they are now along and above a modern pathway running across the cliff they were originally reached by individual stairs or ladders from the side of the river 35 to 110 feet below. From a distance, the Ajanta Caves appear like a series of gaping holes drilled into the centuries old Sahyadri hills, but once you enter the caves, you can see the remains of fresco paintings from 3rd century India. Some of these paintings survived 1800 years, just this fact makes Ajanta a must visit location.
Lonely Planet explains the painting techniques – First, the rough-stone surfaces were primed with a 6- to 7-centimeter coating of paste made from clay, cow dung and animal hair, strengthened with vegetable fiber. Next, a finer layer of smooth white lime was applied. Before this was dry, the artists quickly sketched the outlines of their pictures using red cinnabar. The pigments, all derived from natural water-soluble substances (kaolin chalk for white, lamp soot for black, glauconite for green, ochre for yellow and imported lapis lazuli for blue), were thickened with glue and added only after the undercoat was completely dry. Finally, after they had been left to dry, the murals were painstakingly polished with a smooth stone to bring out their natural sheen. The artists’ only sources of light were oil-lamps and sunshine reflected into the caves by metal mirrors and pools of water (the external courtyards were flooded expressly for this purpose). Ironically, many of them were not even Buddhists but Hindus employed by the royal courts of the day. Nevertheless, their extraordinary mastery of line, perspective and shading, which endows Ajanta’s paintings with their characteristic other-worldly light, resulted in one of the great technical landmarks in Indian Buddhist art history. Below is the shot of one of the walls of a Vihara, the paintings are still very clear and sharp however, the bottom half has all been chipped off from all the rubble that got collected in 1000 years of abandonment.
The earliest group of caves were made during the period 100 BCE to 100 CE, probably under the patronage of the Satavahana dynasty (230 BCE – c. 220 CE) who ruled the region. Some time after the Satavahana period caves were made, the site was abandoned for a considerable period until the mid-5th century, probably because the region had turned mainly Hindu. most of the work in second phase took place over the very brief period from 460 to 480 CE, during the reign of Emperor Harishena of the Vakataka dynasty. But the caves were abandoned, yet again, after the fall of Harishena, in about 480 CE. They were then gradually abandoned and forgotten until their rediscovery in 19th century, a considerable gap!
The distinctive feature in Buddhist architecture is that there are 2 kinds of monuments with very different purpose and architecture style. A chaitya is similar to the concept of church, where the shrine is a Stupa and they are primarily built for the purpose of praying. Viharas on the other hand are like monasteries and they usually have many living quarters and a big central room for discussions and general gathering. Chaityas are usually elongated with the shrine at one of the ends of the room.The two sides have multiple pillars to provide support and ornamental carvings and decoration. Viharas are simpler in structural design and detail work as well when compared to Chaityas. However, when it comes to Ajanta caves, the Viharas have much more detailed paintings and stone carvings as compared to the Chaityas. The first picture below shows a Chaitya and the second one is of the central hall in a Viahara. In the rhird picture below, you can see the floor plan of the Chaityas and Viharas.
We spent good 4-5 hours in exploring most of the caves and were overwhelmed with the experience. There wasn’t much left for the day as well. We went back to Aurangabad, had our dinner and boarded the bus to Pune. The following day in Pune was meant to chill with friends and not for further exploration. So, going by our plan, that’s what we did and after a good day which included a buffet lunch of non-veg delicacies and a movie followed by drinks, we boarded the bus to Bangalore. The final back breaking journey brought us to the end of the trip and tired from the long travel, I spent the next day sleeping and getting my back straight again! Hope this post helps you in travel planning if you’re planning to visit the caves.