Writing from: A borrowed laptop, in a Rishikesh hotel room that we share with a friendly ants nest.
The guidebook calls Aurangabad ‘dog-eared’ and that wasn’t a bad description if you envisaged the dog to be a dusty fly-followed thing with a touch of mange to his ratty fur but a wagging tail behind despite all this.
It wasn’t Aurangabad we were there for though. The town is the gateway to two see-before-you-pop-your-clogs sites, the temples caves of Ajanta and Ellora. So somewhat bright and early for four weary souls who pulled into town at 5am to fall into (itchy) beds, we squashed into a grand white Ambassador taxi and drove into the hills for a bit of a few hundred years BC culture.
Ajanta’s caves could not be more Lost World if they tried. Away from the ‘Hello madam! You want buy rock? Postcard? Elephant?’ they sit two thirds of the way up a cliffside that swings in a horseshoe shape above a wandering stream at the canyon bottom.
You enter each temple cave with your shoes off, right away you feel a bit humble and holy, and are shoved back in time through the soles of your feet to the days when these caves were first made and were places of worship. The rock floors are smooth and cool under the soles of your feet, a far cry from the weight of the midday sun outside, which turns sandals-off to foot-on-temple-floor a bit burny on the hooves.
The basic temple layout is a wide pillared hall cut in the rock from ceiling to floor in layers, as if uncovering something that already lay there with chisels and picks. Along each wall are meditation cells, simple roughly cut windowless boxes. Almost every wall at Ajanta was covered, and I mean covered from ceilings to floors, in paintings made from pastes and water, depicting Bhudda and his people doing various holy doings. Painted animals crouched and growled in corners, faces winked from pillars, and tiny Bhuddas squatted on ledges.
At the side of some caves stood two hollow pillars, which rang at the bash of the heel of your hand in different deep tones.To help with meditation from what I could gather from the thick accent of our unasked-for guide (“You happy? No questions? Ok. Give rupee.”)
All this is seen by dim lights and the swinging beams of our torches, revealing teeny tiny detail in flashing jewellery or the edging of saris that have managed to survive far longer than the people who painted them (though many of the paintings had fallen away or were very badly worn).At the back of each cave sat Bhudda himself, face serene, knees all lotus-like, often with a single candle lit at his feet making him appear godlike (which I assume is sort of the point) in the darkness around him.
It is quite frankly all kinds of magnificent to stand in the dark with the cool cave floor beneath the soles of your feet, peering up at a carefully and adoringly carved image of so many people’s faith.
Ellora is quite another story. The caves are set opposite well-kept lawns and concrete paths, and the caves are home to three faiths: Bhuddist, Hindu, and Jain (sort of Hinduism without some bits and with other bits).
The Hindu caves were rammed full of many-armed, elephant-headed, multi-faced gods that twisted and turned about the walls, dancing on rocky shelves, trumpeting on plinths, grinning fiercely from all sides, and smiling blessings from all over the place. There’s lots of hideous beast-slaying, mountain shaking, and random people popping out of people’s innards. It’s fabulous to look at, and wonder at the imagination (or reality?) behind it all, which is something I can happily get my heart and head behind.
It’s less peaceful at these caves but there is much more going on, on the walls and across the floors as tourists (both Indian and ‘other’) throng there. Though I did prefer the quiet of the Ajanta Caves, I have to say Ellora lets you see the Indian tourist at his/her (of more often their as they travel in huuuuuuuge groups) smiliest and somewhat cheeky.
The cheeky came in the form of one of my favourite Indian moments so far. I was stopped in the main Hindu cave by a hugely-smiling saried lady. She waved her camera at me and said “Please, picture?”, so I nodded and reached for her camera so I could photograph her and her ever-so-happy family.
She promptly attached herself to my arm, grinning for her husband’s camera, and then ushered the whole family in for a group portrait. They remained assembled so that we could take a photo of our own, and then each colourful lady came to shake my hand and thank me and be thanked back by a slightly bewildered me.
It was ever so nice to be one of their holiday sights, and for them to be one of mine.