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Exploring the Caves at Ajanta and Ellora

    For years we’d heard of Ajanta and Ellora. Growing up, it was just one of those places “you have to visit”. The caves took on a different meaning, not really being one place any longer, but a buzzword for the need to travel. We found ourselves saying “we’ll visit Ajanta Ellora one day”, as if just willing it strongly enough would make it happen. So when we were given the chance, we immediately jumped at the offer.

    We flew into Aurangabad, our home base over the next few days, and began planning our trip to the caves for the next day. While in the city we also managed to see the lovely Bibi Ka Maqbara, a mini-Taj Mahal style monument, which we recommend to anyone who finds themselves in Aurangabad.

    Ajanta Caves

    Waking up bright and early, we crammed into a car and headed out for our two-hour journey to Ajanta. We arrived at the base of site via bus, grabbed a coffee at the little restaurant, and started the steep trek up to the caves. Discovered in 1819 by a contingent of British soldiers {who were hunting a tiger}, the caves are cut into a rock face that frames a river. Looking down the left gives you a view of the ravine, and sheer drop. On the right are the cave monasteries.

    Inside the caves were gorgeous paintings dating back as far as the second century BC. These paintings showcased the many lives of Buddha, and even revealed certain aspects of our culture previously unknown to historians. One of the paintings depicted a noblewoman using a mirror to put on her makeup, at a time when we were sure mirrors weren’t in use.

    Another showed an incarnation of Buddha spending time with an African prince, showing our civilisations were in contact long before we thought.

    As we were leaving the caves we noticed a scribble, etched in a stone pillar, in one of the caves. After much prodding we found a guide who told us that was the name, regiment and date of the British soldier who first found the caves. Depressingly hilarious, we thought. Here is a momentous historical site, made over centuries, by a series of anonymous artists whose names will never go down in history, and the only name that will live on is that of this one lucky soldier. Justice, eh?

    Ellora Caves

    We started the next day a little more lazily. With the Ellora site just a 45-minute drive from the city, we had the luxury of a late breakfast. The caves of Ellora are spread out and huge, and as such we visited only a few. Primary among them was cave no. 16, where the Kailasanatha Temple is located.

    Designed to recall Mount Kailash, the Kailasanatha temple is the undoubted star of the Ellora sites. Carved out of one single rock {take a moment to let that sink in} it is unrivalled in its design and beauty. This feat of vertical excavation took our breath away and is definitely a “must visit”.

    Built out of the rock face, it was carved from the top down. The sheer architectural and artistic talent needed to pull off such a feat astounded us. We saw massive pillars 20-feet high, huge elephants carved into the base of the temple, and intricately carved scenes from the Mahabharata on either side of the open square.

    Unlike Ajanta, which is primarily a Buddhist site {hence all the Japanese tourists}, Ellora hosts caves by Jain, Hindu and Buddhist artists. Cave no. 16 was an amalgamation of all these styles, with artists from all three religions coming together and showcasing these skills on one site.

    After doing some cursory research we found that the Japanese government had, over the years, donated tens of millions of dollars to the upkeep and renovation of the caves {as they are historically significant Buddhist sites}, and it made us think. When another country cares more about your history than you do, something is seriously wrong.

    Ajanta and Ellora are not like your typical tourist sites; everyone knows about the Taj Mahal. Any Delhi resident has been to the Qutub Minar, Jama Masjid or even Red Fort. However, perhaps due to the lack of advertising, the caves have rarely had their due, and for us, that is a shame.