Monday, November 10, 2008

Ajanta and Ellora -1

“John Smith -1819”, said the hastily scribbled wording near the entrance of Cave 10.

This speaks volumes about the cultural differences between eighteenth century British and 1st century Asians. I am talking about the fact that Ajanta caves were built by hundreds of monks over the span of 800 years and not one of those monks signed their names or left any literature tracing their name to this masterpiece while the British army general who chanced upon this monument on one of his hunting trips, chose it fit to inscribe his name.

Historians believe that Ajanta caves were built between 2nd century BC and 6th century AD. These were the times when the subject and object of all art was god, Lord Buddha in this case. Ajanta is full of paintings and sculptures describing the life and teachings of Buddha.

This was our first trip in India after we returned back from the US. August is in the middle of the monsoon season in Maharashtra when the entire state wears a carpet of green. It is a beautiful time to travel and I didn’t lose any time convincing Saru.

Vam: Hey, let’s go to Ajanta and Ellora for the August 15th weekend.

Saru (watching TV and paying no attention): Sure

Vam: Really? Great!

Saru: Sure.

Vam(this is too easy): Trains are booked, so we have to fly to Aurangabad. It will be a little expensive.

Saru: Then – No.

Vam: What do you mean No?

Saru: No

Vam: But this is the only long weekend you have till October. Do you really want to stay at home?

Saru (stopped listening to me and was singing): Hai Muscular, Hai Popular, Spectacular, is a bachelor


Saru(totally oblivious): BUTPappu can’t dance Saala! hoye hoye hoye

Saru never watched desi movies in the US and now he knew lyrics of songs. That was thanks to - FM radio. The first few weeks after he started driving to work, he would come home steaming mad and rant – “these idiots drive like crazy”, “freaks! They should go to hell”, “I want to move back”. Then he discovered FM radio. Now he comes home humming tunes and talking about ‘Kamla-ka-Hamla’ and ‘Nukkad-ka-Sukkad’.

Vam: BTW, you get LTC, so that is like a 30% discount.

Saru: That’s right. I completely forgot. Let’s go

Vam: Excellent!

Saru moved on to the next song When I say King…you say Singh….Singh is King…Singh is king… Singh is king

I started planning the trip. We flew into Aurangabad and stayed at Hotel Rama International. I am not the type to spend a lot of money on expensive hotels, but this was our first trip in India and I did not want to take any chances.

We rented a car (comes with a driver) to go to Ajanta, 100 km from Aurangabad. The road was surprisingly good. The driver told us that Japan spends a lot of money maintaining these Buddhist monuments. It took us 2 ½ hours with a couple of stops to admire the scenery. The mountains were green and it was a very beautiful drive to the caves. We drove by beautiful canyons and gorges in the Sahyadris.

Once we reached the site, we had to park the car at a lot and take a bus to the caves. They are trying to reduce pollution at the site. Once we got off the bus, it was a steep climb to the caves. The caves are setup in a horseshoe pattern. There are a total of 30 caves, some finished and some unfinished. The early caves follow the ‘Hinayana’ school of Buddhism which preached simple and rigorous ascetic living and did not believe in idol worship. The latter caves showed the growth of the ‘Mahayana’ school that believed that Buddha was god and worshiped his idol. Early caves had more paintings depicting stories of Bodhisattva and Jatakas.

Ajanta is famous for its paintings and Ellora for its sculptures. People mistake these paintings for frescoes but they are actually murals. The difference is that Frescoes are painted on wet plaster and murals on dry plaster. Minerals were used for colors and it is a miracle that they still exist more than 2000 years after their creation. The Archeological Survey of India is doing a wonderful job preserving these national monuments. The caves are quite dark and have minimal artificial lighting which makes it very hard to take good pictures. That begs the question - How did they paint in these dark caves? Apparently they used mirrors to deflect sunlight into the caves!

We hired a guide who explained the stories (Jataka tales) behind the paintings and sculptures. There were two types of caves – ‘Chaitya’ (prayer hall) and ‘Vihara’ (living quarters). The Viharas were very simple with concrete beds. Chaityas has stupas and sculptures of Lord Buddha. The caves were full of tourists, but we soon noticed that most people were very impatient and would walk in and out very quickly. I am not a "been-there-done-that" kind of a tourist, but more of "been-there-taken-that-perfect-picture" kind. Snobbery aside, we would wait patiently and be rewarded with a minute or two of quiet and empty caves. These are shots taken at those moments.

The sculptures in some of these caves are amazing. Their attention to detail is mind-blowing. If you stare at the pictures below, you will notice details like clothes, jewelry and even expressions. That picture of Buddha with a serene smile just blows me away.

On our way down, I told Saru that I felt this inexplicable sense of pride touring places in India. This spectacular monument is in OUR country, the guide was talking about OUR history and that evoked very special feelings in me. It is one thing to travel other countries and marvel at their art and architecture, but a totally different feeling to find out that your country was producing these artistic masterpieces thousands of years before other civilizations.


  1. Amazing monuments. The pictures are awesome. Wait for a year and we will tag along with you two for these wonderful tours.

  2. Thanks Suganya. We would love to have you guys come along. Will plan some nice jungle tours to excite Vidit and Yashas.

  3. I recollect going to Ellora caves with my mom and dad when I was kid but I don't remember much other than the bats and the smell-- sadly that just reflects my artistic inclination when I was a kid. i am ashamed that I didn't enjoy them as much when I had a chance. I am sure I would appreciate the place much more now .....can't wait to make a trip there desh trip I should!

  4. And I forgot to actually say what I wanted to in my previous comment, that is - I enjoyed reading your blog (cudn't beieve Saru is singing movie songs now) and especially enjoyed each and every picture ......needless to say there is a surge in my urge to travel

  5. Shanthi,
    Thanks. The caves still have bats and smell of them, so you need a perspective to enjoy them. The thing that blows your mind is that they made these paintings and statues 15 centuries before the Sistine Chapel!!

    Oh...I am always up for talking and inspiring others to travel!

  6. Reading in books about an historic place is one thing, but experiencing that live in full form, while the beauty still lasts there, is something indescribable.

    You made me feel that I was there. Good work.

    Suggestions for some additions if in place to be more useful for readers:
    A bit of history on why this place was chosen, what was so special about this location etc.,

    Would be more useful if you add a small map of the geographical location, even though people could find in google. Sense of the geographical co-ordinates - say, where exactly from Aurangabad - would be really helpful.

    Also, being a heritage site if they have any online donation sites, pointers to that could be helpful too.

    Flora and fauna of the area, if any.

    Last but not the least,
    just ensure that the Talibans do not find this location. :-) :-)

  7. Lekhak,
    Good comments. I will put a map and add more details about the history of the place in my next blog.

  8. One of the best narrations of A&E I read anywhere. Your pictures do a lot of talking themselves and your snippets make it interesting reading! Keep writing Vamsee!

  9. oh wow, that is the best compliment I ever got on my blog. Thanks

  10. These caves, and the Chaitya, reminds me of the Karla and Bhaja caves I explored in August this year. (Written under label: 'Lonavala and around' on my blog).

    I echo Priyank's sentiments. This is one of the best read on A&E I've had so far, and splendid photography too. Thank you very much for sharing.:)

  11. Celine, I checked out your Lonavala pages - loved it. I agree that monsoons are the best time to tour the Sahyadris.
    You and Priyank made my day with that compliment. Makes me want to write more. Thanks for that.

  12. Hi Vamsee, I came here from India Travel Blog of Arun. You know what I am born and brought up in Jalgaon which is 60km from Ajantha :) My father used to ride us,me and my sister, to Ajantha twice or even thrice a year for several of my junior high years. Reading this post brought back some really good childhood memories. Can't express in words how grateful I feel right now. Thank you so much. All the pictures are terrific and the writing is top notch. Love the conversation and casual style of writing.

  13. Hi Ashish,
    Thanks a lot for your comments and compliments. It must have been great to grow in that beautiful part of Maharashtra.

  14. hi vamsee

    Lovely pictures. The last picture - the serene smile - is the Mahaparinirvaana - passing away of the Buddha. you will see his soul departing from just above his feet - to join a rejoicing crowd in the heavens, who are greatly joyed to see him back. Under his feet though,are a line of grieving monks...who are reflecting on the passing away of their master.

  15. I agree with your views that the monsoon is a great time to visit places in Maharashtra. My wife and I had been to Ellora during the Aug 15th holidays in 2006. We did a road trip, and it was simply beautiful!

  16. I was at the Ajantha and Ellora caves three weeks back, and I felt much the same way as you did when you saw the amazing sculptures and the frescoes. Also agree about the rather inexplicable impatience of most of the tourists, who, having taken all the trouble to get to the caves, only seem interested in getting away from the caves as soon as they can!
    Liked the photographs that you took. BTW what about Ellora? Coming up soon?

  17. Beautiful photographs...
    May I know which camera did you use for these..
    I am planning to visit ajant and ellora early next year.. while surfing came across your blog..
    I am an architect and a Classical indian danseuse with passion for travel.. its great to know like minded people..

  18. These are the unbelievable creations!!!!!!
    Thanks for our indian government for protecting these amazing creations......

  19. Good job dear I like your way to present your opinion.I like your blog its very attractive.India is such a wonderful place to travel the adventure tours, Historical monuments, safari tours, Himalayas tracking tours and many more thousands of visitors came across the world to travel India. Tour Packages to North India

  20. Fabulous monuments. There are many art and archietecture. The pictures are amazing...

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  24. Thanks for sharing above information... I am very impressed with this blog... Hope for more updates soon. Astro guru provides travel astrology predictions online. You can have a look on astrology site. I would be waiting for your valuable response. Thanks in advance.

  25. Nice post. Ajanta and ellora is famous caves in Maharashtra. Ajanta caves mainly describe the life of Buddha. If you like to visit such historical monuments then get list of caves in Maharashtra for your information.