On last April 21st in 2011, I went on a trip to Aurangabad, the city of history and culture, former capital of the Mughal Empire and home to one of the 12 Jyotirlingas. Aurangabad was every bit as I expected her to be, and then some more.
Took a bus from Pune on that fateful Thursday evening and reached Aurangabad at around 11PM. Thankfully hotel booking was already done. It took around 10 minutes to reach the hotel from bus stand by Auto. And it was time to sleep as next day was going to be hectic. We rented a car next morning with the plan to visit 5 of the most prominent spots on that very same day. They would be Panchakki, Biwi Ka Maqbara, Ghrishneswar Temple (One of the 12 Jyotirlingas situated in india), Ellora caves and last but not the least Daulatabad Fort.
We started at around 10:30 Am. There are 17 gates or “Darwajas” scattered around the Aurangabad town built in different times. Previously there were 18 but one could not bear the brunt of time any more and broke down few years back. While on the way to the main spots, you will be able to see some of them, can even get out an click a few pic as some of the gates are very nicely built and also bears the evidence of time on their bodies. One cannot help but imagine ancient monarchs passing through them on their majestic elephants and horses and people standing in line saluting and greeting them. And now few centuries later, you are passing through them on a fast moving, chauffeur driven, motorized vehicle feeling the least bit enthralled. Time does pass by so fast! But thankfully such structures will always be there to remind us of times forgotten.
Shortly we reached our first destination, the Panchakki. It is near the Mahmood Darwaza, one of the 17 gates. Built mostly during the 1695 , Panchakki means Water Mill. Water is kept in a large reservoir, and is made to fall on the mill from quite high. It drives the grinding stone that prepared flour to feed the pilgrims and army men. Excess water is let into the Kham river. The building houses a mosque of Baba Musafir Shah, a sufi saint. It contains some other graves as well and a there is a huge Banyan tree in the front of the entire yard. One large hall is built that uses the bottom of the reservoir as its ceiling. This keeps the hall cool during summer and Pilgrims gathered in that hall during summertime, and they still do. In a museum, some articles used by Musafir Shah and his disciples are kept. It takes around half an hour to finish the visit of Panchakki. One has to be amazed by the application civil engineering in a structure dating back almost three and a half centuries.
The next destination was Biwi ka Maqbara. A mausoleum erected by Mughal Emperor Azam Shah as a tribute to his mother. Due to its resemblance with Taj Mahal, it is often referred to as Replica Taj Mahal or Taj of the Deccan. From a distance, it looks really majestic and a lot like the Taj itself. The main structure based on a hexagonal structure while four minarets cover the angles. The canal in the front used to contain water once. Now it only does during rainy season, it is said that it enhances its beauty many times.
The way to the top and front of the main structure is accessed using narrow stairs. View of the surrounding is quite good from that height and you can easily get distracted by it for a minute or two. The main burial chamber must be entered bare feet as it houses the grave of the late empress Rabia Durrani. Upon entering the main hall, you reach a circular balcony. The grave is located at bottom center. There are beautiful designs on the walls and ceiling. Strategically created windows which let only part of light pass, create a dramatic ambiance at times. Some pigeons were nestled really cozily in the corners of the chamber.
There are nice ornamentation on the outside walls and doors itself. There was renovation work going on hence some parts were inaccessible. Most the structure however was open and provided some good opportunities for photo shoot. All in all the experience of Bibi ka Maqbara was good, but would have been really good if the sanctity of the mausoleum could be preserved a little more. Constant chatters and too much of crowd kind of dulled the surreal atmosphere that could grow in such a monument.
After that we had a quick lunch and was on the way to the Ellora Caves. One of the most famous series of caves that contains sculptures created by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain devotees. There are total 34 caves spanning across a 4 kilometer diameter. Among them cave no. 16 is the biggest and most popular. It houses the famous Kailashnath temple. This cave is the biggest and contains numerous sculptures along with the temple. The sculptures include that of Shiva Parvati, Ravana, Viahnu and other gods, Different animals (Mostly Elephants) etc. Observing this cave completely takes around one hour itself. Upon entry, towards the left there is balcony at the top which makes for a good photo shooting place. Since the insides are dark, flash must be used for photographs.
As you start to observe the sculptures, it does not take long before you immerse in the beauty of them. Almost fifteen centuries ago, a bunch of men equipped with only hammer and chisel, cut down hole mountains to create timeless sculptures to honor their gods. A long time has passed, but the minute details in their work are still awe inspiring. The goddesses are beautiful, the gods are somber, the animals are beastly, the rakshasas are devilish, not one place you will find , where you can say the work was inept. The Shiva-parvati statue is one to definitely look at. Also the sculpture where ‘Nrisinghavatar’ is killing ‘Hiranyakshipu’ is breath taking. I doubt there are many such sculptures in India.
In the center of the cave yard, stairs go up to the Kailashnath temple. The Kailashnath Lingam is situated inside a dark cave while hundreds of devotees throng the place. Taking photographs is allowed but getting a clear shot may take some time due to the crowd and lack of light. Right opposite the cave temple, is a statue of Bhringi, one of Lord Shiva’s two mounts. There are some pillars with beautiful carvings all around the cave. After the 16th cave, most of the other caves are smaller and some are lacking any sculptures inside them. One most notable is Ravan ki Khai( Cave no 14) which has a sculpture of Ravan trying to lift Mt. Kailash. Among others, cave no.1 (Vishvakarma Cave) is a notable Buddhist cave containing a Chaitya, and beautiful carvings on the ceiling.
After we had seen through all the caves we were on our way to the Ghrishneshwar Temple. On of the Jyotirlingas of India, Ghrishneshwar imposes some strict rules on men. First of all no photographs must be taken in and around the temple. I did manage to sneak a shot of the outside of the temple though 😛 Once inside we had to remove our shirts, vests and belts to be able to offer our offerings to the god.
The temple took no more than 30-45 minutes to cover, if not less. By this time, the sun was slowly moving towards the west horizon with the daylight fading. This information is critical as our next destination was the Daulatabad Fort, and we had to complete the climb and descent before dark as there are no lights in the fort or the way up. People were climbing with electronic torches but we took the challenge and decided to complete the tour before dusk.
Daulatabad fort was one of the most impregnable forts all over the world. Protected by long walls, and a moat, this fort had never seen a battle. The climb to the top of the fort consists of about 930 stony steps. Just after the entrance there are 4-5 cannons kept. We decided to postpone the photo shoot till we got back. Then started the steps and ascent. Sometimes there will be long ground to cover between two steps. This gave a chance to catch our breath. However the road and steps are not well maintained and might make for a difficult trek. Some distance on the way, to the right, was Chand Minar. A monument made from red stones, was erected by Ala-Ud-Din Bahamani to celebrate his capturing the fort. It is 210 meters is height and gave us some shooting opportunities.
After Chand Minar, there are few excitements until you get to the top. We had to trudge to pitch black mazes and labyrinths at some places. The steps can be very steep at times. Also crossed a draw bridge on the way. The water beneath once used teem with crocodiles, ready to gobble up any enemy or traitor thrown in. Thankfully none are kept in these modern times. The water we took with us was consumed very fast. But the climb in itself should be pretty fast and we were almost at the top in about half an hour. The Chand Minar looks like a small red candle from that height and gives you and idea how far and high you have come. The final climb to the utmost top is treacherous as the steps are narrow and steep and almost broken. Upon reaching the top, there is a big cannon, that used to protect the fort’s perimeters centuries back. Now it only lies there like an aged crocodile, unable to hunt its prey, and waiting for the final moment to come.
There is also a tomb of one sage over there. The view of the town from top is not as breathtaking as we expected. In fact we were a little disappointed but it may turn greener and better during the rainy season. Chand Minar looks just a little thicker than a matchstick at this point. We took some photographs and started our descent. Still lots of daylight left and we were confident about making it down in time. On the way down we lost our way in the dark maze and went round in the same place, twice. But soon recovered and was on our track. Some photographs of the cannons at the starting were in order and we completed that in about 15 minutes. Soon our car started towards the hotel. We had hurting legs, thirsting throats, unkempt and dusty hair and cloths, but gleaming eyes telling the story of a day well spent. A day when we witnessed and touched a small part of the rich history of our beautiful country.
Next day was to be hectic as well as we had to travel to the Ajanta Caves. It is about 110 kms from Aurangabad and usually takes a whole day’s plan. We booked a car from the hotel for 1600/- and left at around 11:15 in the morning. There were some more gates on the way namely, Rangin Darwaja, Delhi gate, Bhadkal gate etc. We reached Ajanta at around 1:15. upon reaching we had to take a bus of Archaeological Survey of India to the starting of the caves. There from the counter we took the tickets and started climbing towards the caves.
Ajanta is a series of 29 caves consisting Buddhist paintings and sculptures. Caves 1,2 and 16 contain the paintings and to visit them we had to take separate light passes. However flash photography is prohibited in all of the caves. Cave 1 consists the most famous paintings Padmapani and Bajrapani. Age has taken its toll on all the paintings but still the beautiful coloring and detailing created during 2nd BC is enough to spellbound any one by its magic. Those people are lucky who visited these caves during their full glory and marveled at their grandeur.
Ajanta being Buddhist caves, contains chaityas in many of them. Also sitting sculptures of meditating Buddha, teaching Buddha, praying Buddha are also pretty common. Most of the caves have numerous small beautiful engravings and sculptures. Cave ceiling’s have been cut as ‘Mandaps’ or canopy, and pillars carved as though decorated with flowers. Sculptures of ‘Kinnars’ and ‘Yakshas’ are also abound. Cave no. 24 is the biggest but unfinished. It took us around 2 hours to complete viewing all the caves. The caves close at 5 PM so that time should be kept in mind. The beauty and somberness of the caves were breathtaking. Many of the caves would warrant revisiting them and that we did. Especially the caves containing the paintings were worth the second look.
Some of the statues convey a meaning towards life. The overhead beams carried on the back of lonely ‘Yakshas’ show fatigue but when they are carried by ‘Kinnar’ couples, they show bliss. It tells us that burden of life could be really heavy when carried alone but a jiffy when sharing it with others. The sculptures, created with Da Vinci-esque precision shows the the exact body structures while carrying a load. So both design wise and meaning wise these sculptures are truly magnificent. Also the details in the painting of the queen fainting from the news of the King’s death in battle , in cave no 16, is another one to savor. The minute details in dressing and body postures are unbelievable to have been done in an age so ancient. The huge Buddha statues have even their toenails created with scrupulous perfectionism. One of the pillars in a cave (might be cave no 11, can’t remember) creates tabla like music when knocked with the hand. The guards should be happy to tell you the location 🙂
We had some Vadapao after coming down and started towards the hotel. this trip concluded our journey to Aurangabad for that time. We had a great time in those two days, felt like experiencing a different era altogether. We had a bus to catch next day, but it took a long time for the marvels of Ajanta to vanish from my mind and let me sleep that night.