Aurangabad, Ellora and Ajanta
A city named after the last Moghul emperor, Aurangabad may not have a lot of sites to attract the modern visitor, but those it has are truly world class.
First and foremost the town is most famous for is as the stepping off point to see the truly incredible UNESCO World Heritage cave complexes at both Ajanta and Ellora. As we were travelling down from Burhanpur in the north, we visited the Ajanta caves first.
Set in a stunningly pretty horseshoe shaped canyon, the caves where lost for more than a thousand years before a British hunting party in 1819 caught a glimpse of an arch in the rock pocking out from behind dense foliage. On pulling the creepers away what they found would go down as one of the greatest historical discoveries of the colonial era. Gaining permission from the Nizam of Hyderabad, on whose land the caves were uncovered, a team of archaeologist unearthed 30 caves that were created over an 800-year period from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD. And when we say caves, this is not really the right term for they are entirely man-made, usually cut out of one piece of rock and carved into intricate forms of Buddha and other important mythological figures. As it was Sunday and still the Diwali holidays there were plenty of local tourists present, but that could not distract from the incredible carvings inside each of the cavernous holes.
And if we thought that was impressive, to be honest it paled in compression to Ellora. Cave 16, as the Kailash Temple at Ellora is pragmatically named, is I think quite literally the most impressive man-made site I have ever seen, anywhere in the world; more so even that the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu. While those are all buildings, the Kailash Temple is a monolith, carved out of one piece of dark black basalt rock. Cutting vertically down, over 40 metres, the most sumptuous temple is shaped like a giant chariot complete will life-size elephants to pull it. Looking down on it from above you are struck by the scales of the place as you see tiny people moving far below, and when you actually are in the complex looking up it feels like you have stumbled on to a set from an Indian Jones movie. Quite bonkers really. It was created between 756 and 900AD, meaning the ruler that commissioned it, never got to see it. We spent over an hour wandering around the various temples and atriums, beneath the towering columns, on the vertiginous walkways, before checking out some of the other caves in the complex. In all there are 94 caves at Ellora but only 35 have been opened to the public.
And as if that wasn’t enough, having seen Aurangzeb’s modest tomb in the village of Khuldabad we visited his wife’s wholly more impressive resting place back in the centre of the city. Known as something of a puritan and against what he perceived as the wastefulness of building expensive monuments, Aurangzeb grave was a simple marble plinth open to the sky, beside that of his favourite holy sage. His wife and chief consort, Rabia Durrani, also known as Dilras Banu Begum – heart melting beauty – had no such misgivings and once her husband was out of the way set about creating a monument worthy of her position, by essentially copying her mother-in-law’s final resting place at the Taj Mahal. And what you see today is, if not quite comparable, a dam good imitation. The char barg – or four gardens – completely surround the main building, unlike the Taj which only has two. The four minarets are much higher than at the Taj. And most importantly for the modern traveller, the crowds are far less… that’s to say completely non-existent if you visit first thing in the morning, and very manageable in the evening as well. As the sun set we sat and enjoyed the site for over an hour in total peace and tranquillity.
One more site that should not be missed if time and energy permits is the impressive fort at Daulatabad. Originally build in the 12th century, between 1327 and 1341 under the Tughlaq dynasty, it was briefly made the capital of northern India and due to its excellent defensive position, on top of a hill, and some ingenious fortification including four main outer walls, a crocodile-filled moat and an internal labyrinth of dark tunnels and booby traps any invader would have to overcome, it was never taken by force. Situated on the road from the city to Ellora, it’s well worth a stop either on the way or on the way back – if doing the latter, you might want to skip the 700-step walk right to the very top!
All in all I have loved my time in Aurangabad and its surrounds. A fascinating place that thankfully remains pretty much off the beaten track.