Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Incredible India - Part 8: Aurangabad and the Ellora and Ajanta UNESCO Sites

Aurangabad, the City of Gates, and the Fabulous Ellora and Ajanta Caves

February 18 - 20, 2024

Rob and I were up early on Sunday morning for our two flights to Aurangabad, the final destination of our India adventure.  The trip took up most of the day, so we arrived at our hotel, the Vivanta by Taj late in the day and just relaxed in our air-conditioned room for the evening. Aurangabad is in central India, in the state of Maharashtra.  Here in more southern India, the weather was noticeably warmer, and our three afternoons were in the low 90s F. (33-35 celsius.)

Airports in India often have Prayer Rooms and Yoga Rooms

Room, grounds, and lobby of the Vivanta Hotel in Aurangabad.

Aurangabad, under several other names, has existed since the 1st century B.C.  It was named Aurangabad by Aurangzeb, who annexed it into the Mughal Empire in 1653.  (You may remember Aurangzeb from an earlier post.  He is the son who had his father, Shah Jahan, locked in the Agra Fortress.)  Aurangabad is called the City of Gates because of the 52 gates that pointed the way to other cities.  Only a few of these are still standing.

The Bhadkal and Delhi Gates - Two of the many gates of Aurangabad 
(Photos taken from the car)

But the primary claim to fame of Aurangabad today is its proximity to some amazing man-made caves.  Who knew that India had its own version of Petra? I sure didn't! On Monday and Tuesday, we visited the astounding UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Ellora and Ajanta Caves. These are the sites of ancient Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain temples carved right into the basalt cliffs laid down by ancient volcanic activity.

Ellora Caves

On Monday, we visited the Ellora Caves, which lie about 32 km. from Aurangabad, but the drive on the country roads took a bit over an hour.

Village sights along the road to Ellora Caves

There are three sections of caves.  The earliest and most numerous are Hindu temples and monasteries, but there is one area of Buddhist temples, and a small cluster of Jain temples. These caves were situated along the trade routes that passed through India and were important stops for the travelers.

The Visitors Center and our first view of the temple caves of Ellora

The Ellora caves date from the 6th century A.D. There are over 100 caves carved into the cliffs, although only 34 of them are open to the public. There was not enough time to visit all 34, (and it was a very warm afternoon), so our guide led us to several of the most important. All of those we visited were fabulous, with ornate designs and huge statues and pillars carved into the black stone. Some of the caves were temples, with high ceilings and statues, while others had been used as monasteries, with flat ceilings, less decoration, and small rooms carved out on the sides as sleeping areas for the monks.

Some of the cave entrances were quite plain...

...but others were spectacular like this entrance to Cave 10.

Cave 10 is one of the Buddhist caves.  It is called the "Carpenter's Cave" because the rock has been given a finish that has the appearance of wooden beams.  The stupa hall contains this 15-foot statue of Buddha sitting in a preaching pose and flanked by two Bodhisattvas (a person who is able to reach nirvana, but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.)

The exteriors of many of the caves were gorgeous.

Some of the temples were two or three stories high.

Cave 5 was a huge Buddhist monastery with monks' cells cut into the sides.

Cave 2 was also a Buddhist monastery, but more highly decorated
with sculptures of Buddha in various poses.

Buddha  with attending Boddhisattva

More images from the dark interiors of the caves

Many of the Ellora Caves sit above a dry tropical jungle.

All of the caves were fascinating, but Cave #16, called the Kailasa Temple, was spectacular. It included a huge courtyard enclosing a large Hindu temple structure supported by elephant and lion figures. The wall on one side of the temple included a large panel illustrating (in stone carvings) one of the stories of the Ramayana, while the wall on the other side included a story from the 

The crown jewel of Ellora - the Kailasa Temple

The courtyard of Kailasa Temple

The Ramayana Panel tells stories from the Ramayana, 
one of the two major Sanskrit epic poems from Indian history,
A wall on the other side of the temple includes the Mahabharata Panel
from the second great epic poem.

Once again, Rob gets invited to have his picture taken with Indian visitors.

The two towers in the courtyard are beautifully preserved.
Our guide showed us that one tower was used to decorate the 20 rupee note.

The Kailasa Courtyard was filled with sculptures, including lots of lions and elephants.

Some of the temple still showed signs of the bright colors
that once decorated the statues and walls.

Kailasa walls were carved with images of Hindu gods and goddesses

The multiple arms of Hindu gods represent their power
and their ability to do multiple things at the same time.

Elephants and dancing gods

A staircase from the courtyard leads the visitor to the Shiva temple

Interior of the temple

The stone of the pillars in the temple were carved with intricate designs.

Imagine the work that had gone into the contruction of these immense and elaborate caves!  Using only hand tools, workmen and artisans had created something truly astounding.  

On the way back to the hotel, we made a couple of brief stops at some highlights in Aurangabad.  The Bibi Ka Maqbara, also known as the "Mini-Taj Mahal," is a mausoleum built by Aurangzeb's son, Azam Shah, for his mother.  It does bear a strong resemblance to the Taj Mahal, although on a much smaller scale and not as beautifully preserved.

The Entry Gate to Bibi Ka Maqbara

Bibi Ka Maqbara - "The Mini-Taj"

Two weary travelers at the end of a long, hot day.

This time, it was my turn to be asked to join an Indian visitory for a photo.  
Makes you feel a bit like a celebrity!

The last stop of the day was the Panchakki Water Mill, which has brought water into the city through aquaducts since 1744.

There was a large banyan tree by the mill pond.

The mill pond at Panchakki Water Mill

We collapsed gratefully back at our hotel in the late afternoon. Today had been long and hot, but a day filled with remarkable sights!

Ajanta Caves

Tuesday, we drove for over two hours to reach the much older caves of Ajanta, another UNESCO World Heritage site. The 30 caves of Ajanta are all dedicated to Buddha.  The earliest six caves were built in the 2nd century B.C. with the rest built in the 5th to 6th centuries A.D.

We walked up a long set of steps to the impressive sight of the caves rimming a canyon wall high above the valley of the Waghora River.  The blossoming trees in the dry forest added to the beauty of the scene.

Climbing the stairs to the Ajanta Caves

Panoramic view of Ajanta Caves
Freakyyash, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>,
via Wikimedia Commons

Our first sight of the Ajanta Caves

Our views of the caves from both ends of the complex.

While the Ellora caves were always well-known, the Buddhist caves of Ajanta were rediscovered by an English officer named John Smith in 1819 while he was hunting tigers. From his perch on the hill, he noticed an opening in the cliffside. Upon investigating, he uncovered the opening of a huge room, filled with rubble, but also filled with painted artwork and statues! He reported the finding, and archaeologists began the work of excavating the caves. (Smith also left his "autograph" carved into one of the walls of the Cave 10, the cave he discovered.)

John Smith
April 18, 1819

Besides the huge stupas and statues of Buddha, these caves are known for the paintings all over the pillars and walls. While many of these are badly degraded, there is enough there to make out many stories from the life of Siddhartha Gautama as he gained enlightenment and became the Buddha. No flash photography was allowed in order to preserve these precious artifacts, so a lot of my photos are very dim. And really, the photos of both Ellora and Ajanta just cannot capture the grandeur and sizethese huge monuments. The caves often extended deep into the mountain side.  

At Ellora, we popped in and out of most caves so quickly that I didn't keep track of which cave each was.  But here at Ellora, each cave was so distinct, it is easier to describe the best of them. 

Cave 1:  This was one of the last to be excavated.  The entrance is beautifully carved, and the paintings inside show scenes from Siddhartha's life as a noble before he became the Buddha.  Our guide related many of the stories, but I did not have any way to record them, so with some help from Wikipedia, I was able to identify some of the murals.

The beautiful exterior of Cave 1

One of four frescoes for the Mahajanaka Jataka tale:
the king announces his abdication to become an ascetic.

Sibi Jataka: the king undergoes the traditional rituals for renunciants.
He receives a ceremonial bath.

The Bodhisattva of compassion Padmapani with lotus flower

The large figure on the right is the Vajrapani, one of the earliest-appearing
bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism.  He is the protector and guide of
Gautama Buddha and rose to symbolize the Buddha's power.  

Buddha in Cave 1

Cave 2: Built in the 400s A.D., Cave 2 is even better preserved than Cave 1.  It's best known for its paintings and focus on female figures.

Buddha and painted column at cave entrance

Buddha in the main hall

Even the ceilings were beautifully painted.

Mandala on the ceiling of the great hall 

This mural shows the birth of Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha.
I borrowed the photo of the same mural below from Wikipedia,
as my camera was not able to capture the detail.

By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra - Flickr [1], CC BY 2.0,

Stone carved images in Cave 2

Caves 9 and 10:  These two caves are some of the earliest.  Cave 10 dates from the 1st century, and Cave 9 from the 2nd century B.C.  They are both chaityas, or worship halls built around a huge stupa.

Entrance to Cave 9 
Akshatha Inamdar, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>,
via Wikimedia Commons

Cave 9 stupa

Cave 9 was notable for the colored pillars lining the great hall

Colored Pillars of Cave 9

Stupa in Cave 10

The arches of Cave 10 were painted with scenes from the Jakata tales of Buddha's life.

Inscription in Brahmi letters from one of the donors to the creation of the
Cave 10 Temple. This is also the cave where John Smith left his own inscription.

Cave 17: Cave 17 is considered one of the finest and most magnificent Mahayana monateries.  It is also called the Zodiac cave due to a gigantic wheel painted on the wall.  The paintings inside illustrated Buddhist stories and virtues, but the dark interior made them very hard to capture.

Zodiac Wheel

Buddha with mandala above

This captures some of the heaviness of these cave monasteries and temples.

Cave 19: This is another chaitya (worship hall) with a beautiful entry facade.  It was one of the last caves to be built, dating from the 5th century A.D., and the interior marks a departure from the earlier worship halls with Buddha carved into the stupa and there was Hindu influence on the art and design.

Cave 19 exterior
Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Stupa with image of Buddha included

Detail on the beautifully carved pillars of Cave 19

Cave 26: The last cave we visited was one of the most beautiful.  The large entrance facade was similar to Cave 19, but the worship hall is much larger.  An inscription inside from the builders said that they wished to make "a memorial on the mountain that will endure for as long as the moon and the sun continue."  The cave focuses more on sculpture than on paintings, and they are gorgeous.  The first sculpture appears just inside the entrance - a huge 23-foot-long reclining Buddha.  There are others devoted to stories from Buddha's life, and - as in Cave 19, a stupa with the Buddha figure included.

Entrance to Cave 26

Side Panels of the entrance to Cave 26

Reclining Buddha

These carvings show the legend called the "Temptations by Mara". The temptations include the seduction by Mara's daughters who are depicted below the meditating Buddha. They are shown scantly dressed and in seductive postures, while on both the left and right side of the Buddha are armies of Mara attempting to distract him with noise and threaten him with violence. In the top right corner is the image of a dejected Mara frustrated by his failure to disturb the resolve or focus of the ascetic Buddha.

Some of the many Buddha poses carved into the walls of Cave 26

In fact, there were entire walls of Buddha!

Stupa with Buddha

Carved pillars in the worship hall

We left the caves filled with awe at the immensity and grandeur of what we had seen.  But there were a couple of more interesting sights on our way out.  

This woman found a way to tour the caves without getting overheated!

Our guide had brought treats for the langur monkeys that
wait for visitors outside of the caves.

The astounding caves of Ellora and Ajanta were a very climactic end to our journey through India! 

As soon as we returned to the Vivanta Hotel, we picked out our bags and headed to the airport for our flight to Delhi.  We had one more night back in the Delhi Oberoi Hotel, then headed for home.  

What a trip!  Thanks for following along!