Visiting Ellora and Ajanta caves on a backpacker’s dime

The double-bill, heavy-hitters of Maharashtra state’s historic offerings are unquestionably the UNESCO world heritage sites at Ellora and Ajanta. Extraordinary is really the only word that can describe the experience of visiting them.

For our expedition here, which we thought would be a well-worn path, we based ourselves in the nearby city of Aurangabad, assuming it would be a sinch to negotiate; oh how wrong we were. Over the course of our weekend, we plied local buses, where Roman script was as foreign as we were, scrunched into a minivan where even the driver was double-bunked for a time, and stood in the middle of nowhere, in the naked afternoon heat, hoping that the instructions to just ‘wave the bus down’ were not going to result in our stranding.

Fortunately, across the same weekend, we also took in some of the most extraordinary and breathtaking sights we’ve seen on our trip so far. The payoff, in short, was well worth the anxious moments. So, if you’re heading this way, I well recommend a visit, and here’s how we did it.

Firstly though, Aurangabad, unfortunately, was not pleasant. We tried to like it, really we did; maybe we were staying in the wrong location? Either way, we just couldn’t find its redeeming features, its central heart.

It was just a dusty expanse centred around a main road that felt completely pedestrian unfriendly; chaotically busy but with no street life. We ended up leaving on the Sunday night, after the day trip to Ajanta, rather than staying a day longer. Positively, though, we were pretty close to the myriad transport options we utilised, so one silver lining!

Ellora

We day-tripped to Ellora first. In retrospect, I would probably do the visits the other way around, as Ellora is most immediately breathtaking; Ajanta unfurls itself in more subtle revelations.

The 34 caves comprise three groups, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain, which were constructed concurrently over a period of around four-hundred years, from AD 600. It’s believed to represent the renaissance of Hinduism in India, the subsequent decline of Buddhism, and a brief resurgence of Jainism. The caves line a gentle slope about 2km long, and this allowed their architects to create elaborate courtyards in front of the caves, containing sometimes quite detailed sculptures too.

Jain temple

As this was the closer of the two sites, we didn’t race away at the crack of sparrows to get there, instead getting underway about 10am, which proved enough time. We made our way to the local bus stand, striding passed the bank of tuk-tuk jeeps, which congregate just across the road from where we stayed, and ply the same route. They don’t leave until full though, and, as there was clearly an imbalance of drivers to potential passengers, we gave it a miss.

The folly of our confidence was exposed when we arrived at the bus stand and discovered not a single incidence of familiar, comforting Roman script. Fortunately, our second attempt at asking a bus official resulted in a platform number (12/13) and, as we made our way in that general direction, a local furiously pointing at a departing bus and saying, ‘Ellora, Ellora’. We jumped aboard the quickly moving bus with the confidence of a local (it wasn’t moving that fast), confirmed the destination with the conductor, and, just like that, about 40mins later were at the entrance to Ellora.

The musically eerie chaitya

Exploring the complex is an extraordinary experience and worth savouring over many hours (we were there about six all up). Unfortunately you do enter at the Kailasa Temple, the centerpiece of its appeal, so everything afterwards is slightly less awe-inspiring. However, there are many great moments, from the beautifully intricate and interconnected Jain temples, to a Buddhist assembly hall and a truly atmospheric chaitya.

Chaitya were early versions of Buddhist shrines/prayer halls, and we were incredibly lucky to be in there when a French tour group were creating a drone-like chant, as a demonstration of the astounding acoustics created by its curved, ribbed roof (whether they may have been used for the purposes of music and/or chanting, I’ve not been able to ascertain; missed opportunity if they never realised the possibilities though!)

The extraordinary Kailasa Temple, where everything was sculptured out of a single granite hill

But there’s no getting around it: people are primarily here to see Kailasa, a Hindu temple of such extraordinary scope, ambition, and execution, it’s jaw-dropping once you realise what was achieved.

In one single, continuous sculpting, over a period of about 200 years, the side of an imposing granite hill was literally chiseled away by first creating three deep trenches, leaving more or less an oblong to work with. This was then masterfully woven into a full temple and courtyard surrounded by covered galleries full of sculptured panels. It was definitely one of the temple experiences of all of our travels.

Of the other Hindu caves, we had the fortunate experience to find ourselves momentarily alone in the vast cave #29. It’s the last of the Hindu caves and sits away from the rest of the group, no longer accessible along the path (you have to go around the road). It’s also a few hundred metres south of the Jain temples, so you get the feeling that not so many people bother to make the effort. Which is a shame, as it’s quite different than the rest, so not just another cave; it’s huge and airy, and to find yourself alone within it just adds a further eerie layer, which can’t help but enhance the overall impact.

Returning back to Aurangabad at the end of the day was a little confusing, as we stood out on the main road, surrounded by the throngs of people leaving, wondering where we needed go to find a bus. Before we had a chance to wonder for too long, we were offered seats in tuk-tuk jeep that was going our way and was essentially the same price as the bus (50inr each, as opposed to 40inr), so we enjoyed an interesting ride back with a family from Hyderabad. 

We were to gesture a few words, but otherwise just listened to their very lively conversation and tried to imagine what world-important news they were discussing (or perhaps just the price of the bananas at the market that day, who can tell).

Ajanta

Without doubt, Ajanta is certainly the more picturesque location, the caves running along a steep horseshoe-shaped bend above a river valley. As you walk around you get all sorts of great views, and you can also walk over to the opposite side to see them as the British first laid eyes on them, in 1819.

Ajanta is also much further away from Aurangabad, some 105km along some of the worst roads we’ve had the pleasure of riding (and boy was it a ride!). So, we were up and out the door by 7am, keen to avoid the tour bus groups that arrive around midday.

This time, all prepared for the bus stand, we didn’t even make it inside. Outside of the gate, a man was selling tickets in a proper minivan for 200inr each (NZD $4; not a whole lot more than the bus would have been), so we decided to flag operation ‘which bus to Ajanta please?’ and settle for the easier option. There was the inevitable wait for the van to first fill up, and then fill up some more, but it wasn’t too long before we were underway.

Of course there’s room!

Where I would have put maximum capacity at 18 – four rows of four, plus one in the front plus driver – we ended up squeezing in 20, and a comical game ensured whereby two Muslim ladies shared the front seat, and the driver and another man double-bunked the driver’s seat, making sure at all times to maintain the respectable space required between the genders (no touching, please). Hilarious!

In retrospect, this was a good decision though, as we were outside Ajanta by 10am, and the return bus was a far longer journey.

The Ajanta caves are far older than those at Ellora, with some dating to the second century BC, and it’s believed that the rise of Ellora was actually responsible for the abandonment of Ajanta (interestingly, it also appears that cannabis (well, hemp to be precise) was used in the mixture of plaster and lime at Ellora, which helped to repel insects and has preserved the caves there better too).

Like the Buddhist caves at Ellora, the caves here are temples and shrines, and there are also another couple of fine examples of chaitya. The real reason people visit, though, is to take in the stunning paintings that adorn the inside of many of the caves. There are few other examples of art from this time that are so well preserved, so its value is obvious.

The awe of Ajanta is therefore all about its historical magnitude. To walk around and realise that you are viewing artworks created so long ago is quite a profound feeling. And although there has certainly been degradation, there is also still a lot of beauty and wonderful detail to take in. Some of the caves are so richly detailed and ornate that time really slips away as you first take in the whole, and then explore the wealth of little details contained in the sculpture, architecture and paintings.

The bookends of the experience, caves #1, #2 and #26 were particularly impressive, especially the last, a chaitya, which contained extraordinary sculpture around its perimeter, and the most joyous drag queen-like dwarf/cherub frescoes, who appeared to be doing the heavy lifting, holding up the pillars.

Also of interest was one that was incomplete, containing elaborate pillars and an archway on the outside, but not a lot within. Although containing, therefore, little of artistic value, it was an interesting reminder that these brilliants artists and architects didn’t start their work with prepared canvases; they first had to work them, very hard, into existence.  

To get back to Aurangabad, what we had read online was totally true: you simply cross the road and wait opposite the T Junction, flag down a bus going in the right direction, confirm its destination is Aurangabad, and jump aboard. We didn’t have to wait for too long, but it was in the naked mid-afternoon heat, so if I were to do it again, I’d have a nice new bottle of cool water on hand!

Also, be prepared for the stares from astounded locals wondering why on earth you’re on a local bus and not a tour group like all the other foreigners! The bus back was over three hours of stops and bumps galore, but taking in the otherwordly sparse and arid countryside kept it bearable.

And this really sums up the weekend: Ellora and Ajanta are simply mesmerising experiences, and worth every single moment of awkwardness. Despite this, and the fact of being UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the logistics of getting there and away are not quite set up for self-directed tourists yet, not in a way that makes it truly easy anyway.

It does appear that visitors are by-and-large domestic tourists, foreigners using cars and guides, or people in big tour groups and buses. I guess it’s that thing of chicken or the egg: will demand lead to improved services, or will improved services help to drive increased demand?

Either way, it was by no means impossible to do, just a little bit intrepid, and I’d highly, highly recommend all of the experience, awkwardness and all!

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