Ajanta and Ellora evoke a true sense of wonder in every visitor who is lucky enough to visit. Perhaps it was the way Ajanta was “rediscovered”. A real Indiana Jones story. It was 1819 and Captain John Smith, an officer with the Madras Regiment of the British Army, was in the area, hunting a tiger — because if you’re going to have a legendary discovery in India, tigers should appear somewhere. He happened upon the gorge of Ajanta, hacked away at the overgrowth and stepped into Cave 10. Discovering this marvel, Smith promptly carved the 19th-Century equivalent of “Smithy woz ‘ere ‘19” on one of the pillars. And that’s how this heritage site was discovered.
We knew from our travels to Jaipur and Agra, that if you want to have the best experience at tourist sites, you must reach as early as possible. We booked a taxi for the day, which cost us ₹1,600. Ellora is home to more than 30 caves that are open to the public — Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples (including the famous Kailasanatha temple) and Jain temples. You’ll spend most of your time gaping in awe at the Kailash temple, but that isn’t the only gem that Ellora has to offer. The Buddhist monasteries are multi-floored caverns. At the back of each is a giant sitting Buddha — sitting just as he did almost 1,500 years ago. The Jain temples are reachable via a short bus ride. Each Jain temple still retains a large amount of painting on the walls and pillars, offering a glimpse of its former splendour.
Food is not allowed inside Ellora, which is good, because it’s kept really clean. The exception is water, which you’ll definitely need in the heat. Outside, there are plenty of food stalls. If you’re really hungry, Hotel Kailas is nearby, and serves a variety of tiffin items and North Indian dishes.
When we think of the Mughal emperors, we think mausoleums, forts and ornate buildings. The nondescript resting place of Aurangzeb and some of his family is the antithesis to this. No domes, no jewels, no display of wealth. Just a small unmarked gravestone in the corner.
Of all the forts that I’ve visited in India, Daulatabad Fort is my favourite. The rock upon which it was built was hewn to form vertical walls with a deep water moat encompassing it. Even if an invading force did manage to cross the moat, the only route to the top of the rock was via a pitch-black tunnel. Carved into the rock, it’s a labyrinth of irregular floors, twists, turns and pitfalls. As a visitor, you can also experience what it is like to pass through the dark, bat-infested tunnels. The journey to the top is almost as arduous, and only the very fit can climb the never-ending steps that zig-zag upwards.
If you explored all the caves at Ellora and made it to the top of Daulatabad Fort, you’ll arrive back at your hotel utterly exhausted. You’ll need to get plenty of rest, because the next day you have to be up early.
Nothing quite prepares you for Ajanta; you have to see it for yourself. Set in the valley of a deep winding gorge, the caves are a sight to behold. Of the 29 caves, a few really stand out. Cave 10, the one that was discovered by Smith, contains a huge stupa. One can only imagine what went through Smith’s mind as he walked into that dark cavern for the first time. Cave 27 is one of the most interesting caves because it is unfinished. You can scramble over the rock gullies and ridges and understand how they actually excavated the rock. If you’re feeling up to it, a stairway leads up the opposite side of the gorge, where you can take in a panoramic view of the caves. You can even spot a waterfall which is active during the rainy season.
No food is allowed inside the Ajanta caves either. There is an on-site MTDC restaurant at the ticket office, which serves excellent thali meals.
On the way back to Aurangabad, we stopped at the Bibi Ka Maqbara, also known as the baby Taj. By itself, it’s a fine mausoleum. It’s in need of repair, but nevertheless, quite stunning. However, when compared to the Taj Mahal, it’s a very poor copy, both in scale, aesthetics and craftsmanship — so it’s best not to compare the two.