Auranga-not-so-bad

May 2nd-3rd, 2017

Kumar from Seashore, Ganesh bless his Tamil heart, had booked us our night bus to Aurangabad in central Maharashtra state and we had to leave the cricket match early and rush to the bus station only to find out the bus left over an hour later. 
While at the bus station, we met a Japanese traveller named Yuto who we invited to share our free pickup and to come with us to our hotel because he didn’t have any accommodations booked.
In the morning, we were picked up by a driver and driven to our hotel, the still-under-construction, but still enjoyable, Hotel Holiday Era (hotelholidayeraaurangabad.com). We were offered tea and coffee and told we had less than an hour to get ready before our driver left for our first stop. 
Aurangabad is the jumping off point for two of India’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Ajanta Caves and the Ellora Caves. The city itself was quite isolated, run-down and dusty.
Since both us and Yuto only intended on staying one night in Aurangabad, we had to move fast in order to fit everything in and a driver split in three ended up being only marginally more expensive than taking the bus. 
The driver was ready and we left on the 2-hour journey to the Ajanta Caves, our first stop on the UNESCO parade. 
The Ajanta Caves date from 200 BC to 650 AD and are all related to Buddhist worship, whereas the later caves are Mahayana (another form of Buddhism). This massive site is laid out in a beautiful horseshoe canyon straddling the Waghore River. 

After being dropped off in the parking lot, we had to take a shuttle bus the remainder of the way before walking through souvenir and snack shops to get to a final staircase leading up to the first cave. There are 30 caves in total, but only around two thirds are accessible for viewing. 

Our introduction to the caves was Cave 1, which was a Mahayana Vihara (Buddhist monastery) and one of the latest to be excavated. 

Most of the caves are incredibly detailed and intact because as Buddhism lost its appeal to the Indian people, the caves were gradually abandoned and forgotten, and, as a consequence, not ruined! Yay, negligence! 

I will spare you the details of each cave we visited but suffice it to say that they were all incredibly impressive. In order to preserve the remarkable artwork inside, they were very dimly lit, but luckily for us, Yuto brought a little flashlight so we could really appreciate the detail. Yay Yuto!

Cave 4 is the largest vihara at Ajanta and has some incredible sculptures inside.

Cave 9 is one of the earliest chaityas (Buddhist temple) and contains a 3m dagoba, or stupa, inside, making it nice for photos. With Yuto around, Tracy and I could actually get good pictures together! Yay, Yuto! 

Cave 10 is the oldest, dating from 200 BC, and was the first one spotted by British soldiers in 1819 while on a hunting expedition. 

We took our time admiring the various caves in the brutal heat of the desert, both the intricate interiors and the sometimes grandiose exteriors, while frequently resting from the sweltering sun. 

On our way out, we passed a staircase that would give a nice view over the entire site and I wanted to climb it. Yuto had actually visited a pilgrimage site in Gujarat a few days before and had to climb 12,000 steps but was still a trooper and climbed up with me while Tracy went to rehydrate. 

The views were beautiful and you could really appreciate the architectural feat these ancient Buddhists had achieved. 

On the drive back through the very desolate desert, Tracy claims she saw an ISIS flag flying above a shack in the middle of it. I’ll take her word for it. 

Once back in Aurangabad, we wanted to grab a bite to eat so we headed to Tandoor Restaurant. On the way we passed a tuk tuk driver who hilariously had Canadian and Quebec flag stickers on the back with “Les Amis de Montreal” written on it. We took some pics with the guy and exchanged some friendly conversation and he offered to take us to the restaurant for free, stating that people from Quebec never have to pay for a ride! So random! 

Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed until 7 but he drove us back to our hotel for free out of the kindness of his Quebec-loving heart. What a guy! 
The following day we started off going to the Ellora cave temples, another UNESCO World Heritge Site. These caves date from 600-1000 AD and are separated into three groups: Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain. There are 34 caves in total and the various groups are relatively spread apart. 

Ellora represents the renaissance of Hinduism and the decline of Buddhism in the region and the reason why the Ajanta caves were gradually abandoned. 

We started off at the mother of all temples, one of the most impressive temples I have ever see (and I’ve seen a lot), and the world’s largest monolithic sculpture.
This sculpture was the first one we encountered and is known as the Kailasa Temple, hewn out of the cliff-side by thousands of workers over a 150-year period. 

Construction/carving commenced in 760 AD and is said to represent Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas, Shiva’s home in the region. 

The size and scale of the temple, as well as the level of detail, is beyond compare. I am not the easiest to impress in terms of temples, but I was absolutely floored by this rock-hewn masterpiece. 

We spent quite a bit of time wandering around this beautiful sculpture and were sure that even Shiva himself would be impressed. 

Caves 1-15 are divided into the Buddhist group (1-12) and the remainder are Hindu. 

What’s interesting about the Buddhist caves is that they start off rather nondescript and simple, and as they converge in chronology with the Hindu temples, they become more ornate and grandiose, apparently to compete with the show-offy Hindu artisans. 

Cave 10 is the only Buddhist chaitya in the group and is said to be one of the finest in all of India. 

The Hindu caves in this group are unique in that they, like the magnificent Kailasa Temple, are all rock-hewn and have been carved from top to bottom. Really impressive stuff!

We took a shuttle bus and went to the Jain group, a few kilometres from the second Hindu group.

The Jain group only contains 5 temples, but their level of detail is absolutely remarkable. 
Cave 32, the Indra Sabha, is the most impressive of the Jain temples and several of them are interconnected.
Jain temples are usually extremely detailed and ornate, but this one takes the cake. 

We then took the shuttle bus to the second group of Hindu temples, but only went into 2 of them because it was beyond hot and 8 of them were just simple monasteries. 

Caves 21 and 29 were the most impressive of the group and we took our time exploring these beautiful masterpieces. 

Having spent a day-and-a-half exploring almost 60 temples, we were pretty templed out. Luckily for us, Aurangabad has even more to offer! 

Our next stop was the small town of Khuldabad. It is a holy shrine and pilgrimage site to Muslims in the area. 
The most famous interred resident is Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor. He is buried in the simple grounds of the Alamgir Dargah. The residents here were more into taking selfies with Tracy than visiting the shrine. 

After paying our respects, we made our way to Daulatabad, which is the home of a beautiful 14th century fortress. 

We toured the grounds and admired the impressive 60m high Chand Minar, built in 1435. 

As we continued to ascend, Tracy decided to sit in the shade and I convinced Yuto to climb up to the top. I’m sure his legs were still burning from Gujarat, but he was too nice to refuse. 

What I thought would be just a few flights of stairs turned into a 45-minute ascent and was actually quite challenging seeing as though there was literally no shade. I’m sure Yuto hated my guts at the time but he still chugged along with me. 

Once down we met up with Tracy and found out that she had quite the adventure when we were gone. A group of langurs (giant monkeys with long limbs and tails) decided they wanted her backpack and literally grabbed it right off her back. She thought a child had jumped on her because of the weight and force from these powerful buggers.

A group of men helped her get her backpack back, but not without a fight and not without further entrenching her animal-related PTSD. 
Our last stop of the day was Aurangabad’s Bibi-Ka-Maqbara, or “the poor man’s Taj Mahal”. 
It was built in 1679 as a mausoleum for Aurangzeb’s wife. 
Despite the sarcastic label, this mausoleum is still really impressive and well worth a visit. 

Central Maharashtra is kind of out of the way from the typical coastal route, but we think it is well worth the detour. From several world class UNESCO World Heritage Sites, sprawling fortresses, Muslim pilgrimage sites to an even smaller-yet-still-impressive mini-Taj Mahal, Aurangabad really has it all. Combine that with an incredibly small yet vibrant Montreal fan club, this place really becomes a must-visit for anyone and everyone. Just watch out for langurs! 

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