Google Aurangabad and Ajanta Caves comes up as a must visit spot, every time! Incidentally the caves are around 110 kilometres from Aurangabad with absolutely no other historic or cultural site to see along the way. I almost missed it but the pressure of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) was tremendous!
Anyway Bunker, our talkative cab driver set our schedule; he insisted on an early march. Actually the site was far, there were 30 odd caves to explore and it closed at 5 pm promptly. According to him the road too was undergoing makeover in patches.
The early call caused a great deal of dissent among the ranks. At least my master plan of family bonding in the guise of a holiday was on track- two against two. Believe me, nothing binds Chalk and Cheese like vociferously protesting ‘the wake up call at crack of dawn, on a vacation to see some really old caves’.
I mentioned the dates (2BC to 480 AD).
Unfortunately, it didn’t impress them much but we were on our way.
Things to do in a taxi on the way to Ajanta Caves.
* See acres of cotton fields stretched on either side of the road. The cotton oozed out of the pod like a soft serve ice cream melting.
* Quiz Bunker about the economics of cotton plantations and hear his tales of how a man made fortune growing ginger instead.
* Catch a glimpse of a cotton ginning setup from the taxi window.
* Listen to enthusiastic discussions on national and state affairs, societal changes, Buddhism, tourists, social media between Hubby and Bunker (Chalk and Cheese still sulked preferring to snooze).
*Do Google search on the caves and bookmark the most famous and not to be missed among the 30.
* Excitedly read the accidental discovery of the Ajanta caves, lost and forgotten, by an English officer hunting a tiger in those parts. Spend next 15 minutes imagining how that would translate into a swell plot for Indiana Jones-4.
* Take notes from the driver to avoid getting scammed at the site.
On the way we stopped at a roadside eatery, I wanted to eat authentic Maharashtrian fare but instead found parathas and idlli–sambhar on the menu. I’m convinced they won the popular vote, pan India in the dhaba menu contest.
Three hours later, we were at the swanky Ajanta Complex that required us to buy tickets for entry. Enthusiastically I craned 360 degrees to see the caves but nothing. Instead we got swamped by helpful guys who pressed free gifts- pretty crystals and promises to show some fantastic souvenirs for home. My advice- smile and steadily walk towards the shuttle bus, buy tickets and travel to the base of the caves. Also on arrival, a counter awaits for another set of tickets, this time for the caves.
A short steep climb later, the elusive Ajanta Caves appeared.
From afar, they looked like holes drilled at regular intervals into the cliff side shaped like a horseshoe.
The path was broad and more or less remained crowded with couples, lone travellers, scores of tourists herded by their guides. Packs of teenagers or older scrambled disrupting the flow, flashing their mobile phones and selfie sticks, gesticulating, posing and clicking.
Majestic langurs draped on the parapets, boulders and on trees watched the human parade solemnly.
Strangely, the simians didn’t bother as much as the humans. We were plagued with request from the youngster pack to be a part of their photos and they were quite persistent.
I’m still perplexed, why?
As for the caves, visiting the bookmarked ones didn’t work because we went into each one of them.
The sulking party finally perked up, the UNESCO heritage site had begun working its magic.
Each cave was devoted to Buddhism and definitely unique.
They varied in size and a few were more ornate than the others.
The sleeping quarters of the monks were a revelation. Imagine sleeping in tiny bare cells punched along the walls of the caves, barely a few feet way from gigantic sculptures of Buddha in meditation and other poses.
“Life is a balance between movement and rest.”
On the walls and on the roof were incredible frescos, faded and peeling in places and yet eye catching. Painted centuries ago, they told stories now all but forgotten.
Two caves had beautifully carved elaborate entrances that lead to jaw dropping stupas.
“In the end only three things matter:how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” -Buddha
Another cave I went into had a steep set of narrow steps (without a railing) that lead to a floor above. FOMO egged me to climb up which I regretted deeply while climbing down. I literally had my fingers splayed on the smooth walls hoping they would stick like Spider-Man in case I fell!
Anyway, we did the cave darshan without the guides for they were all well marked with signboards. There was an attendant outside each cave who cautioned against flash photography and regulated the number entering.
One did have to remove shoes in case a particular cave had frescos, which was super irritating. Still the best part was that all the caves were in a row so one simply carried shoes to the next.
(Top right) Clue in the ancient inscription!
Interestingly the exit path took a picturesque route crossing the river, along a green forest. It was beautiful although it was a task to ignore the vendors selling cheap trinkets, magnets, even guavas and bottled water.
We made our way to the shuttle bus, bought tickets and soon enough we were back at the complex. All the helpful folks who earlier in the day pressed us to take the free gifts, again materialised. If you have the time, it’s a cool way to window/ souvenir shop.
We didn’t have time, Bunker was eagerly waiting for us. It was dusk by the time we neared Aurangabad.
Chalk and Cheese grudgingly admitted to having not a bad time, they couldn’t wait to get started on their Instagram stories. Thank goodness for that because the next day was already booked for Ellora Caves with Bunker. He was determined that we tick all the cultural, religious and shopping boxes on the next trip.
“Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” – Pico Iyer
To the never ending story, cheers!
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