Hello Ellora, Adieu Ajanta: Exploring Rock Cut Caves in Maharashtra

After touring Tamil Nadu, my parents and I flew to Hyderabad from where we took an overnight bus to Shirdi, in Maharashtra. Shirdi is a town renowned for being the home of Sai Baba, a spiritual teacher who appealed to both Hindu and Muslim devotees at the turn of the century. It is one of the most famous pilgrimage places in India–on any given day, over 20,000 devotees visit the shrine to pay their respects. We visited the shrine in the early afternoon-and then day tripped to Trimbakeshwar, a famous Shiva temple in the Western Ghats built by the Marathas in the early-18th century. I loved seeing the stark contrast between Trimbakeshwar and the temples in Tamil Nadu–there are two main temple types in India: North Indian temples resemble a cave/mountain and have a towering shikhara (sanctum) while the tallest part of a South Indian temple is the gopuram or main entrance. South Indian temples are also much grander in scale, often encompassing many acres.

[Unfortunately, photos weren’t allowed at Trimbakeshwar but this article does a decent job of comparing the two main temple styles]

The next morning, we left Shirdi behind and travelled to Ellora, one of the best preserved examples of rock cut architecture in the world. I had studied about Ellora in art history class but was not prepared for the sheer size of the monuments.

Built between the 6th and 10th centuries, the caves are notable for being a space frequented by Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus. There are three main groups of caves, one for each religious group. Even though the rulers at the time were Hindu, they enthusiastically patronized sacred sites for minority groups within their empire, a noble sentiment.

The Kailashanath temple (Cave 16) was by far the most impressive structure. Created in honor of Lord Shiva and meant to replicate his home at Kailash in the Himalayas, the temple is supported by on the backs of stone animals, pays homage to the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and is connected to other parts of the cave by aerial walkways. It is a magnificent site and truly makes visiting Ellora an ethereal experience.

After visiting Ellora, we drove to Aurangabad, the nearest big city-and closest airport facility for visiting Ellora and Ajanta. Before heading to the hotel, we dropped by Bibi Ka Maqbara, also known as the Taj of the Deccan. Built by Aurangzeb for his wife, the structure was completed in 1660. Aurangzeb-as many know-deeply hated his father and hoped to outdo him by building his own mausoleum.

Due to a budget constraint and lack of materials and design, the structure doesn’t nearly measure up to the Taj’s beauty.

The next morning, we drove to Ajanta from Aurangabad. Ajanta is famous for being the earliest (surviving) example of mural painting in India. There are around 30 caves at Ajanta (about the same number as Ellora)-but not all are open to the public. Most of the caves were patronized between the 2nd and 5th centuries and all the caves are Buddhist. Ajanta is particularly important, even today, because of the impact the painting style has had on many prominent modern artists including Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of early conservation efforts (Ajanta was rediscovered in the late 19th century by a British hunting expedition) and heavy tourism, the famed paintings at Ajanta are fast disappearing. While the stone facades are still beautiful, without the ornamented cave paintings, the site loses a lot of its unique meaning.

For the entire trip, Mummy was suffering from a rough case of bronchitis and couldn’t enjoy the sights. While she managed to see bits of Ellora, to visit Ajanta, one needs to climb many stairs and walk up a rather steep mountain (mind you–this was all in the 90-degree heat). Luckily, at Ellora you can hire what is essentially a palanquin–four guys from the Archeological Survey of India will carry you to all the sites. Mummy had her reservations but we convinced her to take the service and I don’t know about her–but I really enjoyed taking pictures of the whole ordeal.

The two sites were definitely worth visiting, even if they are a bit remote. To the art historian, cultural enthusiast, and even to the traveller who loves learning more about history, I would urge you to visit Ajanta and Ellora. These sites won’t be around forever and they form a crucial part of India’s heritage.

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