The Amazing Ajanta and Ellora Caves, Near Aurangabad, India
After a restful night in Mumbai followed by a gourmet breakfast at the Oberoi hotel, where men in tall white chef’s hats squeezed fresh juices and made me a fluffy asparagus goat cheese omelet, we flew to Aurangabad.
The Mumbai airport is filled with the most amazing contemporary artwork that I have ever seen in India, including visits to some very good museums.
Passengers walk quickly by wonderful works of art without even raising their eyes from their mobile phones.
The next time you are in Mumbai, I urge you to look at these stunning works of art.
If you have the time, walk around the airport and look at some of the installations.
They are truly the best contemporary artwork in India today.
We were on our way to visit an amazing spiritual art project, one that was started in the 2nd century BC.
It took over seven hundred years to create the Ajanta temple caves, and the Ellora caves which started later, took about eight hundred years.
When you think about these amazing Buddhist and Hindu works of devotion, it is really staggering.
How many people today would start a project of this size, with nothing more than a hammer and chisel for tools, when they clearly know that it will take HUNDREDS of years to create and hundreds more years to complete?….
It takes people of great vision and faith to even begin such a project.
Most people today will not commit to a project that would take only forty years to complete, let alone many hundreds of years.
But this is exactly what they did in the Ajanta Buddhist caves and nearby in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist caves of Ellora.
The caves are not near a major city.
Their rural locations were chosen by the Buddhist monks on purpose, as they desired to create a “Buddhist Pure Land Paradise,” surrounded by green hills, waterfalls and a flowing river.
The caves were abandoned for centuries, and not rediscovered until late in the 1800’s by a group of British officers who were hunting a tiger.
It must have been a most heart-lifting experience to chase after the pelt of a tiger, and to come upon this masterpiece, this treasure-filled Paradise land….
Aurangabad today is a busy city, but in the early 1900’s there were less then 10,000 people living here.
I imagine that in the 2nd century BC, the place was chosen because there were NO people living here.
It is best to stay in Aurangabad when you are planning to see the caves.
It takes a full day to see the Ajanta caves, and another very long day to see the Ellora caves.
We booked the Vivanta by Taj hotel in Aurangabad, which is currently the best choice to stay in the area.
The hotel has received mixed reviews, but it turned out to be clean, comfortable and very reasonably priced.
At the Aurangabad airport, by baggage pickup, we saw a prepaid taxi stand and we negotiated a price for a driver and a large Innova car, to take us to the caves over the next two days.
When you flip through the photos of the Caves online, you might think to yourself, “Sure, this is nice,” but what you need to realize is that these temples and large monasteries were not built from stone blocks, they were HAND CARVED from the hard rocks of the surrounding cliffs.
The monks living here did not carve stone blocks and erect huge temples and meditation halls, they actually chiseled and scooped out around each pillar, each statue, each vast hall.
The scale of each cave is very grand, resembling a palace, and not a cave at all.
The doorways are two stories high, and many of the temples are two, three or four stories high.
Each pillar is hand carved with decorations done in great detail, depicting Buddhist deities, guardians, mythical creatures, flowers, birds and scenes from the Buddha’s life.
In the Ellora caves, there are also sculptures of huge elephants, bulls and many large and beautiful gods.
Each sculpture is hand carved from the same stone from which they carved the caves around it.
In each Buddhist temple or monastery, there is an inner sanctuary that always has a large stone-carved Buddha with two Bodhisattvas at his side, one on the right and the other on the left.
Sometimes the inner sanctums are filled with carvings of flying angels, more bodhisattvas and other deities.
Seeing the Ajanta and Ellora caves is something that has fascinated me for years.
Tucked away in the middle of India, east of Mumbai, these meditation caves and huge temples were cut into the hard stone cliffs.
If you stand and look at the location of the ancient caves it is easy to understand the vision that the monks must have had.
The Buddhist sect of Pure Land Paradise did not only believe in inner harmony, but in creating harmony outside as well.
They believe in embodying the truth of enlightenment through right thought, right conduct and right livelihood, but they also believed that the earth itself could be a true Paradise if enlightened beings live in harmony with all our surroundings.
If you saw the magnitude of the area, you would find it nothing but astonishing.
The temples are large, spacious, intricately ornate, and painstakingly painted with a very high degree of skill.
They do not feel like caves at all, but are airy, shaded and soul expanding.
The day we visited the Ajanta caves, Jules woke up with an upset stomach, nauseous, shivering, and with a bad bout of diarrhea.
The night before we had eaten at the hotel’s restaurant the veg Thali, which included local specialities and a lentil dish which I felt inclined NOT to eat.
Even though we shared every dish in the meal, the lentils tasted sour to me, and I regretted not telling Jules not to eat them as well.
I thought that it was just a matter of my personal taste preferences, and did not realize that it was my intuition telling me not to eat it.
Jules did eat some of it, and it really messed up his stomach.
I was not about to miss visiting the caves, and Jules decided that he was going to join me.
It was hot and sunny on both days that we visited the caves, and there is lots of walking and climbing up and down hundreds of stairs, but Jules made it.
Jules is very good at knowing how to heal himself, and this time his method was avoiding all food until dinner.
For dinner he had only a grilled toast.
The Ajanta caves area is more shaded than the Ellora caves.
Many people were selling beads, small wood sculptures of Ganesh or of the Buddha, books filled with photos of the caves, crystals that they claim were found in the caves but of course weren’t, and the obligatory “Shelfi Shtick” (Selfie stick to take selfie photos with a mobile phone, truly a huge obsession in India nowadays).
There were also vendors selling fresh-peeled cucumbers, slices of pineapple, and ripe Cherimoya picked from the trees growing in the area.
The cherimoyas were absolutely delicious, and the cucumbers were quite refreshing.
The reason there were so many hawkers inside the cave boundaries is because an entry ticket for Indian citizens is only 20 rupees (30 cents), while for all other nationalities it is 500 rupees.
There were also many monkeys living in the area, and visiting families with screaming kids who climbed all over these ancient sculptures to pose for photos.
There were also many couples walking around with Selfie sticks, posing for photos in front of each sculpture, taking photo after photo of their smiling faces with almost nothing visible in the background of each ancient sculpture.
As always, Jules and I were asked to pose for hundreds of photos with many people.
It was the first time on our travels that we occasionally refused people’s requests to take our photos.
Some stopped us in the middle of climbing up steep and uneven steps, asking us to come all the way back down to pose for photos with their group, all waiting for us with smiling faces.
We politely refused.
But much more often than not, we agreed and posed with hundreds of people.
At times, we wondered WHY they were not asking the other white tourists….
After all, there were some cool looking people, including two guys from Brazil with bright red shorts…… why did they run after us, and asked the people from Brazil to take the photos?….
Years ago in Japan, when Jules had a short beard and a mustache, dozens of Japanese girls surrounded him, giggling with excitement, saying that he looked EXACTLY like Sean Connery; nowadays, it is anyone’s guess as to why we are still treated like celebrities….
Ajanta caves are located about one hundred kilometers outside Aurangabad, and Ellora caves are about forty Kilometers away in another direction.
The road was fairly good and we passed by many farms growing corn, sugarcane, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers.
We saw many cows and bulls with brightly painted horns.
At times, the horns had blue and white stripes, or red and gold, but I saw a bull with yellow horns and small blue stars on them as well.
It amazed me that the bull would sit quietly and allow its horns to be painted with so many small stars, but I assumed that it knew that it was being adorned and thus was patient and willing.
Our driver was Muslim, and like the many other Muslims in Aurangabad, he was dressed traditionally in an all white, knee length shirt, white Shalwar Kameez pants and a white skull cup.
He was a polite and courteous driver, and we were happy that we were assigned him for the whole three days we stayed in Aurangabad.
There are also other sights to see in Aurangabad, including a very impressive medieval fort, and a Mughal monument that somewhat resembles the Taj Mahal, but on a smaller scale.
Visiting the caves and seeing the beauty of the landscape around them is a great reminder of the beauty and grandeur of the human spirit.
We can rise to such great heights… accomplish such grand things…. if we only choose to live in harmony with our Spirit and not allow ourselves to get disheartened or discouraged.
Showing up every day and hand chiseling those cliffs, we can create astonishing masterpieces, one day at a time.
Those who did not have the capacity for details could still be helpful by simply chiseling out the main halls, or helping to clear tons of chipped stones to create the open temple spaces, while those who were gifted painters and sculptors did the detailed work.
When we took a break in the shade and rested, I envisioned the caves as they might have looked two thousand years ago.
There are indentations made in the rocks that indicate that there were once wooden doors, wall hangings and tapestries, pillar coverings and carpets.
Almost every square inch of wall space was covered by brightly painted, glorious frescos.
Knowing how beautifully wooden temple doors are traditionally carved or painted, and how amazing tapestries and pillar coverings look, it must have been a place of stunning beauty.
If you were able to transport yourself back in time and visit these caves when the people still lived, meditated and worshipped here, it must have looked and felt like you had arrived at Shambala, a true paradise on earth….