Go Back 2000 Years In Ajanta-Ellora

In the first semester of my history of arts course, we studied about Buddhist art and architecture in ancient India. While I studied it with vivid interest, I soon forgot how much of it still existed and how impressive it all was. So when a long weekend presented itself, we decided to plan a holiday to Aurangabad in Maharashtra to see the UNESCO sites of Ajanta and Ellora caves. Our minds are blown. It is difficult to describe their scale in words, or even through pictures, but we’ll do our best.

Getting there

  • Flights: Jet Airways and Air India operate flights from Mumbai to Aurangabad.
  • Train: There are trains from all over the country to Aurangabad. Check here.

Before you go

  • Ajanta is closed on Mondays and Ellora is shut on Tuesdays.
  • You will need a taxi to drive up and back to both places. I recommend our driver Aslam or his brother Hussain, reachable on +91 8855835494. Polite, punctual and knowledgeable, but you will need to speak to him in Hindi. Best to get your hindi-speaking friend to help you out!
  • Stay in the centre of Aurangabad. We stayed at the Lemontree hotel – good location, really good food, beautiful property. Book direct with them to get additional benefits like discount on food bills and airport transfers.
  • You may struggle with finding clean public toilets – I recommend you carry toilet paper, soap and sanitiser with you all the time.
  • You may also struggle with finding non-Indian food when out and about, but you will get simple western food like cheese sandwiches. If this could be a problem for you, pack sandwiches from your hotel in the morning to take with you.
  • You have to walk a LOT, and you have to take your shoes off a LOT. I recommend strong comfortable slip-on shoes with socks that you can keep on to protect your feet from the hot stone.
  • Carry a torch to see the paintings and sculptures inside the dark caves. You aren’t allowed flash photography.
  • You MUST carry drinking water with you when out and about.
  • Be prepared for hawkers coming at you from all angles selling magnets, coins, rocks etc.

Day 1

7.30am – Ellora Caves

Tip – purchase a book about Ellora before going in, it will do you good to have a quick read before going into each cave, so you know what you’re looking at. You will find hawkers selling them, pay upto INR 100 for a good book.

  • Indian entry – Rs. 30
  • Foreigner entry – Rs. 500

Ellora is a 45 minute drive from Aurangabad, and you should plan to leave as early as you possibly can. It opens at 9am, and crowds start pouring in around 10am making it impossible to see anything quietly or get any good photographs. The Ellora caves date back to between 600 – 1000 CE and are among the world’s best examples of Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina rock-cut cave temples. You have to wonder what must have gone through their minds when they looked at these gigantic rocks and decided to chisel out monasteries and temples.

You will start with the most impressive of the lot – the Kailasanatha Temple. Be prepared to have your mind blown at its sheer scale. It is the LARGEST temple in the world, to have been carved out of a single rock. They literally went down into the rock, chiselling out the sides, and then went inwards to create the hollows. Climb up the sides for a spectacular aerial view!

There are 34 caves in all which are open to the public, and are clustered into Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina. You can walk along the rows of Hindu and Buddhist caves, but you have to take a red bus to the Jaina section, at a distance of about 2km. The bus ticket costs 21 rupees each for both ways and has to be purchased from the conductor before getting on.

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2pm – Lunch

We ate at the Hotel Kailas, a stone’s throw from the entry gate. The food was simple, tasty, hygienic and reasonably priced.

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3pm – Aurangazeb’s Tomb

This one took us by complete surprise. Having seen the grand scale at which the Mughals lived and died in Delhi and Agra, Aurangzeb’s Tomb is hard to believe. To see the most non-Mughal Mughal mausoleum, you need to go to through the mosque’s entrance and a tiny gate to the left. Aurangzeb rests in an unmarked grave (it was his wish to be buried in a simple grave) in the complex of the dargah of his teacher, the Sufi Saint Zainuddin Shirazi¬†of the Chisti order. The Mughals seem to have had a lot of faith in the Chishti clan – one can see a dedicated tomb to Salim Chishti in Fatehpur Sikri, built by Akbar, the greatest Mughal among them all.

There is no entry fee here, so please donate some money (a couple of hundred rupees) to the mosque and the person who will forcefully narrate Aurangzeb’s tales to you.

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3.30pm – Daulatabad Fort

  • Indian entry – Rs. 30
  • Foreigner entry – Rs. 200

First thing you need to know about this fort is that it’s massive to walk up to, and your legs are going to hurt like HELL, 100%. I walk for an hour everyday and think of myself as a fairly active person, but I couldn’t even make it to the very top and needed a painkiller afterwards. There are over 650 steep uphill steps! Of course, I got mercilessly mocked by my husband for being a weakling, but I knew his legs were killing him too and he was just trying to be too manly to admit it.

This impregnable fort sits on top of a high rock hewn vertically to make it impossible to scale. The pathways twist and turn through ninety degree corners which were designed to confuse the enemy, so you will be a bit confused too. Just follow everyone else through the passageways and hope they know the way! You will see fort wall ruins, canons, a 61 metre-tall minar, tanks that doubled up as training swimming pools, black-faced local monkeys called langurs, a step-well, and some splendid views of the city below.

The best part is a dark passageway that smells unmistakably of bats and rats and was constructed to guide the enemy into an unknown zero-visibility tunnel, with hidden crannies to attack with weapons, hot oil and even poisonous gas. Pretty terrifying to go through so avoid if you’re claustrophobic!

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Day 2

Sunrise – Ajanta Caves

  • Indian entry – Rs. 30
  • Foreigner entry – Rs. 500

Ajanta is about 2 hours outside of Aurangabad and opens at ‘sunrise’. There is no definite time mentioned for sunrise, so safely assume it will be open at 7am if you wanted to go that early. I strongly recommend you get your butt there as early as you possibly can, because there’s a lot to see and a lot to climb, and you want to avoid the silly screaming crowds.

Ajanta’s caves have been carved out of the hill to create monastries and temples, which have some of oldest surviving cave paintings in the world, rendered in a distinctive style with Buddhist themes. There are 29 caves in all, 26 of which are accessible and open to public. You will see the rock cut architecture evolve as you go from 1 to 26. You must go to every cave and see every remaining painting you can, I suspect they will soon be lost forever unless something is done to permanently preserve them. Please do not use camera flashes in here! You must also climb down into the gardens until the waterfall in the end, then turn around and climb all the way up to the view point from where you can see the source of the waterfall (well, some of it anyway). You can climb even further up through the fields, but we had to skip this because we were silly and didn’t carry lunch with us.

Top tip – carry a packed lunch and water to save time. You can’t break for lunch and then go back in again, but if you go early enough and finish by lunch time, there’s only one restaurant run by the Maharashtra Tourism Board near the exit gate.

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4 pm – Bibi Ka Makbara

  • Indian entry – Rs. 15
  • Foreigner entry – Rs. 200

This is the mausoleum of Emperor Aurangzeb’s wife, built by her son in her memory. You can see there’s an attempt to copy the Taj Mahal (her mum in law’s tomb), but it falls short pretty spectacularly. It is best not to compare it to the Taj, and look at it as a standalone structure, which then becomes interesting. Open from sunrise to sunset, it’s a grand structure with symmetric gardens on all four sides, defunct fountains and other smaller structures like mosques and guesthouses. It is a favourite local hangout though so prepare for thronging crowds.

If you have an extra day, you can do this in the morning when there will be less people.

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If you have more time:

Aurangabad Caves – also examples of Buddhist (with Hindu influence) monasteries.

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Things NOT to do:

  • The zoo – this is a very sad zoo and made me cry because of the way the animals are kept. The elephants are chained, the wolves and jackals kept in tiny cages; all restless and agitated.
  • The museum – has not one single interesting pot, rock or bone. Do yourself a favour and chill in your hotel room.
  • Soneri Mahal – this is a random building that’s promoted as a palace but it’s not. The drive to the building is beautiful though, through the Aurangabad University green campus.
  • The water-mill – it’s just a little wheel that spins mournfully.

Aurangabad on the Map

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