Roadtrip to Some Wonders of the World
I have decided that the only way to travel Maharashtra is by hiring a car and driver. Seven of us piled into Minakshi’s SUV and headed north to Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora. Bronwyn bought iPod speakers that we used to blast songs when the car went beyond radio signal, and Em and I gathered together a confectionary’s worth of sweets and snacks to munch on. We stopped at Indian rest stops and saw an emu and bought popcorn and ate spicy, regular Indian food so fast we could have won any number of televised eating competitions. We slept. We laughed. And we looked out the windows and saw a whole new part of India, outside of the city: the Deccan Plateau in all its glory, replete with amazing mountains that just rose from flat, winter-yellow farmland. And people, and their temples and houses and motorbikes and farm animals and children and towns and villages. All of it just a little bit different than Pune, a little bit new.
As for our destination: where is Aurangabad? you say. What can you find in Aurangabad? Well, for starters, the Poor Man’s Taj. Properly known as Bibi Ka Maqbara, it was built by the grandson of the man who commissioned the Taj Mahal in Agra. This palace is a tomb for that man’s mother, and was meant to rival the real Taj. It’s not entirely made of marble, though, and it is much smaller, and less intricate; but it’s still beautiful, and we visited at sunset and saw the moon rise over the white dome and towers. It was a lovely way to end our first day away from Sangam, and since I will be visiting the real Taj in approximately two days, it will make for some interesting comparison!
The real purpose of going to Aurangabad, however, was to be in close proximity to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. Neither of these sets of caves are really caves; they started out as mountains, and were carved into temples by ancient Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, using chisels and bare hands over the course of centuries. In Ajanta’s case, these cave temples were created in two sets, the first in the 2nd century BCE and the second in the 6th century. They are entirely Buddhist, run along a cliff face, and are most famous for their incredible paintings–no flash photography allowed, to preserve the pigment (so sorry in advance for the blurry photos!). Ellora is a little younger, and those temples built over the course of generations between the fifth and tenth centuries, and feature Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples–they are, according to Wikipedia, demonstrative of the religious harmony during this period in India. Ellora Caves are known for their sculpture, and at their center is the most amazing thing I have ever seen, the Kailasanatha temple, carved from the top down into an enormous hunk of rock to create this intricate, multistoried series of temples, bridges, tunnels and caves, adorned with hundreds of statues and carvings. It was gasp-inducing. Literally.
We did the Ajanta Caves first, and spent most of the day trekking along the ledge, bare feet burning on the hot stone, before ducking into each of the thirty temples, where it was cool and dark and beautiful. Nearly every temple featured an enormous Buddha at the back, and along the walls and pillars and ceilings were the remnants of gorgeous paintings. As the temples went along, they became more intricate, and, oddly, more church-like, with big, curved ceilings like cathedrals, and central stone statues or temples reminiscent of altars. The last temple, however, had an enormous Buddha carved into the wall, lying on his side, achieving Nirvana. It was incredible to behold. So were the carvings decorating the columns and ceiling and entrance. Just beautiful, and breathtaking.
We followed Ajanta with a really lousy lunch, at the only restaurant near the caves, and then headed to the little Taj and the most amazing dinner. We were completely tuckered out and collapsed at our little, cozy hotel, before getting back into the car the next morning and heading out to Ellora. The caves there were less dramatically set–no cliff face–but still stunning in their beauty. It was really cool to see the Hindu and Jain caves after having seen all the Buddhist ones at Ajanta the day before; the Hindu caves were chiefly dedicated to Shiva, and they were dramatic and expressive and humming with energy in an exciting way. The Jain ones were different, too, and set apart on this lovely half-mile walk that meant really strolling through the landscape and taking in the mountain scenery and the treetops down below and the incredibly bright blue sky. But by far the piece de resistance was the Kailasanatha Temple–400,000 tons of rock were scooped out of this mountain by 7000 workers over a few hundred years to create this incredible, open-air world of stone, replete with a small army of rock-carved elephants at the base of a towering, multi-storied temple. Reliefs of Shiva, Parvati and other Hindu gods and goddesses in all their many-armed glory were around every corner. Window seats and stone steps and benches offered the chance for peaceful reflection, and bridges and tunnels the opportunity to explore. I never wanted to leave. It was the most amazing place.
Nothing could ever top Ellora, but Dalautabad Fort, where we went next, was still incredibly awesome. Described by the guidebook as “Tolkienesque” and built by Yadava kings, it was Muhammad bin Tughluq who decided to turn it into the capital of India. In 1328 he marched the entire population of Delhi to Daulatabad. Then he ran out of water, and was forced to march everyone–something like 10,000 people–thousands of miles back. It really is an impressive fortress: it sits on this immense hill that took us an hour to climb, and has a series of gates and defenses and lots of cannons and a very deep and forbidding moat to keep intruders out. There are spikes on the doors so elephants can’t shove their way through. Most terrifyingly, there’s a pitch-black spiral tunnel, with no windows and no lights, that leads up a series of twisting, narrow, stone stairs to the second-highest level of the fort. Those who don’t bring flashlights resort to cellphones, and those who don’t have cellphones probably turn back. I would have, regardless of the light situation, without everyone else to coax me along, because this tunnel is the home of hundreds of squeaking bats, which you can’t see but can definitely hear and smell, hovering right above your head. I made it, though, and together we managed to get past the monkeys and the endless Indian tourists trying to stop us, the oh-so-fascinating Western tourists, for photos (as I said to one guy–”You have this incredible view, this incredible fort, and you want a picture of me?”) all the way to the top for an amazing bird’s-eye view of the city and surrounding landscape.
After working our way back down to ground level, we headed again to Aurangabad to the Paithani and Himroo Weaving Centre. This form of sari and shawl weaving is two thousand years old, and is, according to the centre, a dying art–the techniques used mean that a single shawl takes weeks and a sari can take months or years. The results are gorgeous, however–they use silk, and their products, because of the intricate weaving process on these huge, old-fashioned wooden looms, are reversible, with no backside full of loose threads. We were given a tour and explanation of the looms, and then sat down and given chai and had hundreds of scarves and shawls and wall hangings and other beautiful fabric things brought out for us. I caved and purchased several things; they were just too gorgeous not to buy, and I converted the prices to dollars to make myself feel better! It felt good to support them, too; they are reviving this traditional art, which is really spectacular, and I am happy to not only own something they’ve made but to have seen how they make it.
The five-hour ride back to Sangam involved a pit stop at a roadside restaurant with really great food. We were probably the only foreigners to ever step foot there, and five men came to take our order and peer at us. The food was spicy and delicious, though, and we all fell asleep on the rest of the ride back. All of a sudden, we were in Pune, and at Sangam, and in our own beds. It felt like we had been away for ever, not just two days. And tomorrow, Philippa and I take off for Delhi and Agra, for three days of adventure in the North. I am incredibly excited. Having seen Mumbai and now Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora–and Pune, of course!–I feel like I have a picture of what the state of Maharashtra has to offer, and what the culture looks like, tastes like, smells like, and sounds like. I am looking forward to seeing an entirely different region of India, and acquainting myself with new fashions, foods, people and places.