Near de city of Aurangabad, in the region of Maharashtra (India) you will find the Ellora Caves and the Ajanta Caves. Of the two, the Ellora Caves are much nearer: just 29 km. from the city of Aurangabad.
The whole complex is formed by a series of 34 “caves” built on the rock of the mountain by several communities of traveling monks between the centuries V – X A.C. However, to name these majestic architectures by the name “cave” is a severe understatement. Because these are amazing temples and whole monasteries carved in solid rock on the mountain-side.
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It is commonly believed that these caves were build at first by traveling monks that were constantly on he move during the dry months to promote and teach their religion. As soon as the rainy season began, these traveling monks would find a place to seattle-down, until the dry season was back. The caves were surely built to lodge them during the rainy season, and for some reason they decided to stay there and the place began to grow during the following centuries. So the place also began to attract other communities of monks from the main religions of the time (hinduism, buddhism and Jainism). The three of them lived peacefully and began in a way to compete by trying to beat each other in the majesty of their architecture, masonry and art. They seem to have stayed there until the X Century. But there are no hints as to why they left suddenly, leaving several more temples, shrines, monasteries and statues unfinished.
Ellora Caves is a site of great historical, artistic and cultural importance. And the caves and structures are in a very good state of preservation. The site at being there and seeing those huge arquitectonic feats called “caves” leaves tourists in awe and admiration.
People who want to visit Ellora Caves usually leave from Aurangabad city. The city itself has many very interesting historical, cultural and religious sites, such as its own group of caves, bazaar, palaces, castles, ancient city gates, etc. However, the actual reason that moves tourists to go to the city, the capital of the Maharashtra region, is the following pilgrimage and main touristic sites:
1) Ellora Caves
2) Ajanta Caves
3) Lonar Lake, or Lonar Crater (this is a huge lake formed in the biggest meteorite crater on basaltic rock that exists. The water composition has some characteristics that are still subject of study today).
4) The village of Shirdi, home to the spiritual guru Sai Baba of Shirdi from the second half of the XIX century until beginning of the XX.
5) The Aurangabad Caves
I have already written an earlier post about Shirdi (click here to read it). Regarding Ajanta Caves, Lonar Lake and the Aurangabad Caves I will post something soon.
Of these four amazing sites the less visited one is Lonar Lake, despite all the mistery that surrounds its origin and the history of the temples that are in its surroundings, inside the crater itself. But it’s somewhat farther from the city; plus the road is nasty, and most foreign tourists aren’t aware of it’s existence.
Shirdi is a pilgrimage destination. It has it’s own mass of pilgrims, and due to its importance as one of India’s most important pilgrimage sites, there are always Indian travelers going there to receive Darshan from Shirdi Sai Baba. However, the type tourists that go to Shirdi is not the same usually as the one that goest to Aurangabad to visit the Caves. The first being interested in a spiritual pilgrimage, while the latter are wanted to visit historical and cultural sites.
Aurangabad Caves is a complex of buddhist caves and buildings carved on the mountain. They are really very impressive, but unfortunately for them, they are downgraded because they are often compared with their cousins at Ajanta and Ellora, which are far better. Nevertheless, Aurangabad Caves are so near the city center, that you can easily negotiate a very low price with a Tuk-tuk driver, and he’ll take you to the main touristic sites in the day, including the caves. You can arrange that he wait for you.
Usually, people who visit Aurangabad for tourism go to Ajanta and Ellora caves. The locals and the guides will insist that you need at least one full day for Ellora Caves and two days for Ajanta caves. This is true, because there is too much to see and look around inside the mega constructions (some are actually so huge that you can spend a long time investigating around; with many chambers, shrines, levels, dorms, etc.) Also, there beautiful trails that you can trek through the nature, where you can see beautiful waterfalls and a better view of the whole site. However, when I went there I couldn’t spare more than one day for bot Ajanta and Ellora. And it is possible to do both in one day if you are hire a driver, and if you are by yourself and walk fast. But I had to convince the driver to be there by the time Ajanta opened. Then I disregarded all the annoying hawkers that wanted me to visit their shops. After Ajanta, I skipped lunch and went strait to Ellora Caves, where again I avoided the hawkers, and rushed to be able to see as much as I could from the caves. Caves 30 through 34 are a bit farther from the rest, so, if you are short of time, your driver can drive you there. That’s what I did. But still, by the time the place closed for tourists, I had still not seen about 6 caves.
Note: Ellora Caves are closed every Tuesday, and Ajanta Caves are closed every Monday. You have to take this into consideration, since many times the same agencies that organize your trips don’t even remember this, and may end-up hiring a car to find the caves closed.
There are supposed to be busses that leave from Aurangabad city to Ellora. However, my research proved a bit negative, because I only received bad feedback regarding how unreliable they were. And since I couldn’t waste any time, I eventually hired a car with a driver from a local agency. However, later I realized that I could have negotiated a better price with almost any taxi driver (perhaps something like USD 60 + tolls for the whole day, picking me up from the hotel, going to Ajanta, later to Ellora, and back to my hotel). Of course, being India the driving will always try to scam you into going for lunch, breakfast or tea (usually all the three together) at a place where he will get a commission; and he will also try to convince to you go see some “amazing” shops and exhibitions, even if he is very aware of you lack of time. They can be pretty trying and shamelessly annoying. But after all, that’s also part of the experience of traveling and knowing other cultures. And I guess it also tempers you.
At the entrance and exit from the caves you will also come across many annoying hawkers that will try to stop you to make you go to their shops “just to look”. They’ll try to make money with you selling whatever crap they can convince you to take along. I was traveling as a backpacker, and they wanted to convince me to buy a 50 kg. sculpture of Ganesha!
En Ellora the greatest and most majestic of all the 34 “caves” is the Kallasanatha Temple (Cave 16).
In Ellora you will find Hindu, buddhist and Jain “caves”. At the beginning I couldn’t tell the difference between the buddhist ones and the Jain ones. For me, they all had Buddhas inside in meditation position. But later I learned that the Jain sculptures are ALWAYS naked. So, that is the difference with buddhist sculptures, where you can at last see a hint of clothes in the sitting Buddhas that are represented on rock.
As a final comment, those foreign tourists that plan to travel to Aurangabad should expect the language barrier, because the whole region of Maharashtra speaks the Marathi dialect. This means that as second language they learn Hindi, not English. And thus it is very hard to find anyone who can speak English. Usually they can only speak and understand the most basic words as “tea”, “money”, “internet”, “eat”, and things like that. But they don’t have a conversation level of English, unlike other cities like Delhi, Varanasi, or Agra, for example, which speak Hindi, and thus their second tongue is English. This obviously is not the case in all the Indian subcontinent.