This blog is dominated by ancient history, religion and architecture. No shortage of
both in India, but the areas I visited in Maharashtra must surely provide some of the most stunning examples anywhere in the world.
My starting point was Aurangabad in Maharashtra, the hub for visiting the historic cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora. As usual getting the flight from Delhi proved an interesting challenge. I arrived at the check in desk on time only to be told the flight was at least an hour late and no I couldn’t check in yet – go away and come back later was the instruction. An hour and a cup of tea later I returned to find that the flight was now leaving on time, in 10 minutes to be precise. Traditional Indian "anarchy" does at times though have some benefits and miraculously I was able to get through check-in, security and onto a bus in 5 minutes flat. I wasn’t at the time quite so confident my luggage would be quite as fortunate; but credit to the airport staff, it also made the plane.
Aurangabad is more than just a staging post for Ajanta and Ellora. The name Aurangabad derives from the great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, who marched here from Delhi and spent part of the second half of his reign trying to conquer the Deccan uplands of central India. Relics of the Mughal era can still be found in and around Aurangabad. The tomb of Aurangzeb’s wife has many similarities to the Taj Mahal in overall design and scale, albeit of much poorer quality. Just outside the city is the impressive medieval Daulatabad Fort, complete with citadel towering
250m above the surrounding countryside on a volcanic plug. Occupied by successive rulers of the region, the fort contains the remnants of both Hindu and Muslim architecture as well as a 31m high victory tower in the shape of a minaret. A highlight of a visit to the fort is to climb part way up to the citadel through what were once secret tunnels in the volcanic rock. Illuminated by a flaming torch and with only bats for company, the guide took great delight in telling me that the fork in the tunnel we had just reached was intended to cause invaders to pause just long enough so that boiling oil could be poured on them from above; fortunately for me hostilities ended some time ago.
There are two sets of caves near Aurangabad – Ajanta and Ellora. Both are world Heritage Sites, and after visiting them I can see why. Ajanta contains the oldest caves, dating back to 200 BC. They are also the furthest away from Aurangabad, about 2
river valley. The valley itself is blind at one end, with the river filled by a waterfall from the plateau above. This probably explains why the caves were left undiscovered for a thousand years or more until stumbled across in 1819 by British Army officers out tiger hunting. There are 30 Buddhist caves in all, dating from about 200 BC to 650AD. The earlier style is characterised by rectangular section rooms supported by pillars, all cut out of solid rock and with walls decorated with murals and Buddhist statues. The later caves more closely resemble a conventionally constructed temple; a facade carved in the cliff face with doors and windows that gives way to a large room with vaulted roof supported by carved pillars, again all made from solid rock. Elaborate carvings adorn the walls and giant Buddha statues illuminated by light from the windows occupy pride of place at the far end of these caves. The result is a stunning testament to the vision, engineering and craftsmanship of those who inhabited these lands thousands of years ago.
Ellora is much closer to Aurangabad, only one hour
drive, and the caves are more recent, about 500 to 1100 AD. These caves comprise a mix of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples. Many of the caves are similar in concept to those at Ajanta. Others have taken the concept of a cave temple in a different direction - the most magnificent example of which is Kailasanatha Hindu Temple. Built in the 8th Century AD, this magnificent three-storey temple is completely open to the elements having been carved from the top down out of the solid cliff. It is surrounded by an open courtyard complete with elephant statues and obelisks and lined by a whole series of cave temples carved out of the remaining hillside, this is a remarkable triumph of imagination and endeavour.