From Ahmedabad we took an eight hour or so night train headed east to the hub town of Jalgaon, and upon arrival immediately made our way to the bus station to catch a ride to the famous Ajanta caves about two hours away. The bus drivers know where to drop you- basically a wide spot on the highway- and from there you just walk through the parking area into a kind of tourist mall filled with vendors and food shacks. There weren’t many tourists around when we were there so all the vendors were pretty desperate for business and we felt like we were running some kind of gauntlet making our way through. We bought our tickets for the transport bus that takes visitors the few miles further to the cave area entrance, checked our backpacks, and suddenly found ourselves walking up the long flight of stairs to the Ajanta Caves.
We were pretty exited, as we’d been hearing rave reviews from other travelers about these caves for months, and we weren’t disappointed. Ajanta is a complex of 29 separate caves cut into the cliffs of a curving river gorge. Walking up and seeing the first dramatic views of the area was an incredible experience, which only got better as we explored inside the various caves. The oldest ones date from the second century BC, and are primarily of Buddhist origin. Some of the caves have beautiful original artwork and murals that are still in remarkable condition, and almost all of the caves are filled with amazing sculpture and architecture. There was restoration and preservation work happening in various places, and many of the caves had surprisingly good low level unobtrusive lighting that allowed us to see just well enough inside the otherwise dark interiors. All in all an amazing place that is well worth seeing.
After several hours of exploring we headed back to the entrance, grabbed our backpacks, and made it back to the highway where we flagged down a bus to take us the few hours further down the road to Aurangabad. Our guidebook had a list of what sounded like semi-interesting historical sights for us to visit here, but the only one we had the energy to visit was the Bibi Ka Maqbara, more often referred to as the “poor man’s Taj Mahal.” As you can see from the picture, the nickname describes it rather well.
We’d come to Aurangabad to use it as a base to visit the Ellora Caves, about 20 miles outside of town. They were built between the fifth and tenth century, and in our opinion these caves were even more incredible than Ajanta. Ellora is a group of 34 caves and excavated structures, the highlight of which was Kailasanatha Temple- for us this astounding temple ranks right up there with the Taj Mahal. It’s a huge, multi-story building designed to resemble Mount Kailash, intricately designed and executed. It’s twice the size of the Parthenon in Greece, but its most amazing aspect is that this structure was actually carved out of a single piece of rock. That’s right, this is the largest monolithic structure in the world; the builders removed 200,000 tons of rock from the sloping cliff face over a period of 100 years, leaving a freestanding temple surrounded by a large courtyard and intricate caves. We wandered around here for hours, feeling absolutely awestruck.
The rest of Ellora was almost equally as amazing. There are Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sections all built in different eras,
and the scale and craftsmanship of some of the structures is mind-boggling. In general, Ajanta and especially Ellora were true highlights of our time in India. They’re a little out of the way and hard to get to, but anyone in India who has the time should make sure and see them.