Way before that Jesus bloke cropped up shouting about being the son of god or some shit, men with hammers and chisels were hacking elaborate caves into rock faces in the name of much older religions. Ajanta caves date back to around the 2nd century BC and the younger Ellora caves started being created around 600AD. Both sets are easily reachable by local bus from Aurangabad so I started with Ellora, hopped on the bus at 6am and dawn was just occurring as I rocked up which is exactly what I’d planned. I was literally the first one through the gate and I had to fight every single tiny OCD tendency I had not to start with Cave 1 and instead I beelined for Cave 16 because this is what I wanted to see before the bus loads of tourists started swarming all over it. This is why I’d dragged my face out of my drool-soaked pillow before it even started thinking about getting light, chose something from a street food stall which could have been absolutely anything from deep-fried Play-Doh to deep-fried monkey face, dodged dogs that were barking in a way that could probably have been roughly translated as, “Scuse me, mate! Want some fucking rabies? C’mere! Have some fucking rabies!” and finally shuffled into the bus stand and employed the tried and tested method of repeating my destination until someone pointed at a bus, and all before any of my basic motor functions had decided to kick in properly thankyouverymuch.
What makes Cave 16 so special that I felt it necessary to not only sacrifice my sleep time but to also upset my fragile collection of thinking cells by viewing the caves out of order? Ok, see if you can get your head around this. Cave 16, the Kailasa Temple, is the largest monolithic structure in the world. For those who haven’t just swallowed a dictionary, this basically means that every single thing you see was carved from the same piece of rock. Everything. Every shrine, column, idol, statue, every single thing was once part of that one rock, which was a solid part of the hillside, until someone carved it out where it stood. The block of rock used was isolated, in place, from the surrounding hillside, excavated from top to bottom then scooped out from the outside to the inside. Everything that was to be used for the artwork had to be carefully left where it originated. There was no margin for error. And to put the size of it in perspective, there are two life-sized stone elephants in the courtyard and the temple dwarfs them. It actually melts my brain a little bit.
Apparently it took over 200 years to complete and once it was finished it was plastered and painted, and a fraction of this artwork remains. The cleaner ended up showing me around with a torch for a small tip which I appreciated, I’d have missed a lot if he hadn’t been there. I wandered around the complex until hoards of school kids started filtering in then I bolted to Cave 1. So Caves 1 to 12 are Buddhist and I know two tenths of fuck all about Buddhism. I wish I’d learned something about it before coming here though ay, I think I’d have gotten more out of it. There’s all manner of talk about Buddha’s previous incarnations and people called Bodhisattvas. The caves range from vast, empty, unimpressive rooms to slightly more impressive rooms with carvings, and most of them have an inner sanctum containing a statue of the Buddha, usually flanked by these Bodhisattvas who, according to Google, are enlightened beings. So that’s nice then. All of the caves were monasteries apart from Cave 10 which is a chaitya griha, which I think just going off the information boards is a Buddhist cathedral. It’s my favourite Buddhist cave at Ellora, it can’t be easy trying to keep it varied when there’s only one main dude in your religion. You’re kinda stuck with seeing how many different ways you can carve the same sitting down guy into rock but with Cave 10 they pretty much out-did themselves. There’s still the Buddha as the “object of worship” and behind him there’s a stupa which is, and again I had to turn to Google for this, a mound containing Buddhist relics and can also be an object of worship. That ceiling though! That’s all carved out of stone.
I was pretty Buddha’d out by the time I got to the Hindu group of caves though. I’d probably see Buddhas in my sleep that night. Cave 12 was just saturated with Buddhas, it’s like they had all this space left and they didn’t know what to do with it.
“What shall we do with this massive gap here?”
“Errrmmm… I dunno. Chuck another Buddha in there I guess?”
“But one Buddha statue will only take up a seventh of the space I have to fill. What shall I do with the rest?”
“Sooo… Carve seven Buddhas? And whilst you’re at it you might as well do the same on the other side then we can get down the pub.”
No more Buddhas. Seriously. I couldn’t look at any more Buddhas. Hindus though, they have way more to play with. They have multi-armed gods and their vehicles, and their dancing consorts invariably have fantastic boobies which some people clearly couldn’t keep their paws off given the fact they were shiny and dark and stood out in colour from the rest of the carvings. Caves 13 to 29 are way more interesting and the ever-devout had left flowers and money as offerings draped over Shiva Lingams housed in inner sanctums. I’d also discovered a little path that lead above the Kailasa Temple for a better view from above.
Caves 30 to 34 are Jain caves and again, I know very little about Jainism. I know their basic principles of non-violence and their belief in energy as opposed to a god, and that they say every single thing has a soul, from humans right down to insects and plants. I had no idea what to expect from the caves though. Turns out there’s a lot of cock. Cock everywhere. In place of a god, Jains worship their tirthankars, the 24 men who I guess could be described as leaders or teachers. They’re enlightened, clearly, because ain’t no one gonna follow a dude who isn’t enlightened. They also don’t seem to wear clothes. The carvings here are of the tirthankars and they aren’t shy about whipping it, out and they also seem to be surrounded by women with perky knockers.
So anyway, that was Ellora. The next day I got out of bed at a similar time on account of Ajanta being quite a bit further away by bus, ran the canine gauntlet clutching my unidentified, grease saturated nourishment and made it to the bus stand. Turns out this fucker doesn’t open until 9am though so by the time I was dropped at the turn-off I was an hour early so I walked from the main road to the monument. And here’s the thing about Ajanta; the whole thing is Buddhist. All of it. And it’s all about the tourist infrastructure. If I hadn’t insisted on arriving at a time when even the sparrows raised an eyebrow and glanced at their watches there would have been a ₹15 bus to drive me the 4km up the road, and the veritable village of shops and cafes at the turn-off would have been open and there would have been hoards of men trying to convince me that my life wouldn’t be complete without a large quantity of souvenirs, two masala dosas and a chai. Once there, there’s a big screen flashing up suggested walking routes around the complex and there’s a large, slightly overpriced government restaurant right there as you walk in. Everything the everyday tourist needs to help them wave their cash monies goodbye.
These caves then. Where Ellora boasted some awesome carvings, Ajanta has murals. Lots and lots of ancient murals which they’re going out of their way to protect. Security guards make sure that there aren’t too many people inside the caves at a time, flash photography is prohibited because it could damage the natural pigments, it’s all taken very seriously. I just made my way from one cave to the next, trying to take photos but mostly failing because my Olympus TG-2 does many things well but low light isn’t one of them. It’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t buy another one, that and the fact it often decides it doesn’t particularly fancy focusing right now.
And again, because I don’t know anything about Buddhism I was pretty much just trawling from cave to cave, gawping at amazingly well preserved paintings with no real idea as to what was going on in them. Something about Jatakas which were the Buddha’s previous lives. The Bodhisattvas crop up again. I have to be honest, I’ve nothing really to write about them. I could genuinely appreciate them for the history they represent, the sheer age of the murals and the craftsmanship. They’re great and well worth a look, especially the cave with the reclining Buddha, there are a shit tonne of awesome sculptures in there. But hey, they’re just not the Kailasa Temple.
And in other news, I’ve got to give a little tip of the hat to the Three Striped Palm Squirrel. They’re everywhere in India but they look like chipmunks so every time I see one I get the Chip & Dale theme tune stuck in my head which results in me wandering around beautiful, UNESCO listed ancient monuments singing, “Ch-ch-ch-ch-chip and Dale, Rescue Rangers, Ch-ch-chip and Dale, where there’s danger…” Look at its little face though. This guy was angry with me. He only came over because he thought I had food and when he realised I didn’t I figured I should make a break for it before I had to spend the rest of the day removing squirrel from my extremities.
Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India
Stayed at: Hotel Indradeep