Ajanta, till this day, continues to attract millions of travellers all over the world. The Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsang has mentioned Ajanta in his travel memoirs! The enormity and scale of paintings of Ajanta is unparalleled in the annals of Indian history
Srivdhya, my son Krishna and I huffed and puffed from the bus station to the mini shopping cum cultural market and spotted an eating joint. A quick survey of the menu board and decisions were quickly made. We plonked ourselves on a chair and bellowed for 3 sada dosa and 3 masala dosa followed by tea. The last morsel of food, save for the occasional biscuits, we had was for breakfast which was at about 9 a.m and now the time on my watch showed 6 pm. After 15 minutes of frantic gastronomic act of stuffing our stomach we paused, for a while, sipping tea. This is the second time I have been here. I still am not able to cope with the onslaught.
A Red Vented Bulbul hopped on to the rails and gives a impromptu rendition of its favourite song. It doesn’t wait for any standing ovation. It does, what it is ordained to do, fly away. It is late in the evening and darkness is rushing to embrace the surrounding landscape. I took a final click and muttered to myself “Thats all..for this time”.
Dear reader, if you still have not been to Ajanta and have visited Europe and the Americas and fawned at the jumping kangaroos and flipped a coin over your shoulders at the Trevi fountain in Rome and been to Bangkok for whatever….as they say in Kerala, you have butter in your hand and you are scouring the world for ghee.
To those, you are yet to visit Ajanta read on….
If there is only one mantra you need to follow to do justice to Ajanta- START EARLY. It takes about 2-3 hours to reach Ajanta depending on the state of the roads. They were widening the roads when we visited. START EARLY.
To photographers and mobile maniacs- do not use flash for it is harmful to the paintings. Learn low light photography before you plan to visit the caves. Not that I am an expert in any form of photography, at least one should leave something for our future generations to gaze at. Tripods are also not allowed, though I saw some students using it. The distance between you and the paintings is about 2-3 metres and barricaded to stop dunces from scrawling their sad love life on the paintings and special lights are installed. Normally I do not do much of research before I visit a place. But for once, I wish I had at least brought a good book on Ajanta. Local guide books are not worth it. Go buy one and read up and carry it along with you. People who wear specs, for God’s sake don’t forget it in your vehicle!
The Ajanta caves are located at a distance of 110 km to the North of Aurangabad. Waghora river flows deep in the gorges flanked by mountains on either side. I would recommend a visit to the view point straightaway which would come on to your left. It would give a ring side view of the caves. The reason I say this is that by the time you wind up seeing the caves, you will be exhausted and will not be in any frame of mind to climb further.
The caves are excavated in a horseshoe like arc. A bolt of lightning should strike you and make you wonder, how did the excavators choose this particular hill? Why did they not choose the other one? What kind of soil testing knowledge they used to have? Now that you have started to workout those grey cells, lets climb down to the pathways and halt.
There are 30 caves which have been hewn out of rock. Buddhist monks are the creators of Ajanta and work in the caves started from 2nd Century BC and continued till end of 6th Century. The kings or their vassals who ruled this part of Deccan financed the excavations. As you walk towards the first cave, your mind, by now, should be spewing a very valid question….where is the JCB or the heavy duty tunnel boring machine which is used in constructing the Metro railways ? I mean, how did they bore their way into the mountain?
The creators of the paintings were masters. Period. The next question you must ask yourself is that how did they paint into the deep recesses in such great detail ? Surely, they would have used some kind of flaming torch. How come the flames did not affect the adjacent paintings and how come there are no traces of soot? The guides say that they used to fill water upto the skirting which runs across the four sides of the central hall and then they used mirrors to deflect sunlight onto the water which would in turn provide light inside the cave. Hmmm….is it possible? The paintings showcases the Jataka tales and the life of Buddha. The paintings are intricate with multitude of characters in them. Each square inch conveys a story.
As you walk inside the caves, drinking in every word your guide says and eyes feasting on the side wall paintings, do not forget to look up. The ceiling I mean. The paintings on the ceiling are as complex and colourful when compared to that on the side walls. Somehow, they seemed better preserved too. Again, the same question will haunt you. Did they lie flat on the back on a raised platform and then paint or would have climbed a ladder. They must have used of tons of Moov or Iodex on the neck and back! Look out for the fluttering shamiyana effect! To me all the caves are worth visiting. But you will spend considerable amount of time in cave 1,2 ,6,10,16,17, and 26. Cave 6 has a upper floor. Do not miss it. The guide will rattle away describing the paintings which are soft lit. Do ask them to slow down and some paintings will not be highlighted. Especially the ones on the pillars and you will be standing exactly 5 inches away nodding your head!
Ajanta’s most famous host- Padmapani
On the ceiling
Mother and Son ( Pillar Painting) Siddhartha’s wife Yashodhara and son Rahula – Supposedly (Pillar Painting)
King holding a court- Ceiling Painting
At the entrance of a cave- Ceiling Painting
Paintings embellishing a Vihara
Apsara- The sway of the jewellery to the right is to depict a slight breeze!
Some more Apsaras
The roof of the Chaitya Hall. That’s a story for another day
After you see all the caves, the final question which should cannon forth is how come the colours did last so many years? Say, about 1600 to 2000 years. Granted, many of the panels have decayed and some are under restoration. We also have played our part in the degeneration by allowing miscreants to vandalise and heartlessly scrawl over the paintings. What a grand sight it would have been during those times and when a monk would have accompanied you and explained the life of Buddha and the Jataka tales and your jaw then too would have dropped ten inches.
Strangely, I noted that the moment people stepped into the caves, they started to whisper lest the characters in the paintings wake up from their deep slumber.
Pack your bags and make a trip to Aurangabad and if you don’t, then all the best …till you find the ghee.
How to reach from Mumbai:
Ample trains available. Flights also operate out of Mumbai. By road, you can take Mumbai-Nasik-Aurangabad route or Mumbai-Talegaon(near Pune)-Ahmednagar-Aurangabad. While returning we chose Aurangabad-Ahmednagar-Alleyphata-Malshej Ghat-Murbad-Kalyan-Mumbai. The route upto Murbad was fantastic. Then the grind started.
Aurangabad has multiple stay options to suit every budget. We chose Opal service apartments. Clean rooms and well furnished kitchen. Perfect for a family with a toddler or senior citizens.