Just around the corner

As stated several times in previous posts the principle reasons for visiting India was to learn about the culture, step back in time to discover India’s rich history and to interact with the people of this vast country. Chelle did the lions share of planning, before and throughout the trip and has done a magnificent job in the logistics. I continue to be surprised by some of the side trips she uncovered.

It would be easy to stay in the “golden triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan. The circuit has a good spectrum of the country’s different landscapes. That we have visited so many other terrific locations is a testament to her time and attention to detail. Her cartography degree has been put to great use here whether it was planning a route from Jodhpur to Mount Aboo or just getting us back to our guesthouse after a day out touring. For me it really has been about the little jems not expected.

Aurangabad is 400 km (248 mi) east of Mumbai. It is a tourist hub mainly due to the city’s proximity to the Buddhist caves in Ajanta and Ellora, which are 100 km (60 mi) away. A two hour drive by car. Within the city are twelve Buddhist shrines cut out of basalt (volcanic) rock during the 6th and 7th century. The carvings and religious iconography represent the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) and Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) Buddhist lineages. On the road to the Aurangabad caves is the Bibi Ka Maqbara or as it’s known locally “the mini Taj Mahal” and was designed and erected by the son of the man who designed the original Taj in Agra. The air quality was considerably better around here than Agra. No haze to hide the enormous monument…the Taj in Agra was almost impossible to view.

We took a car to see Ajanta due mainly to the earlier time required to catch a bus. We reached the site before 11am but the glare of the sun was already influencing the photographic opportunities. Coupled with that issue was the prohibition on the use of a flash inside the caves. The Indian Conservation Society has done a decent job of erecting some lights, which accounts for some unusual shadowing at times. On the day we visited there were only two western couples with the majority Indian tourists and school children as well as two Buddhist monks.

The Hinayana sect which started the caves are located in the rear section of the complex. Mainly containing smaller chaityas or worship halls with barrel vaulted roofs. As Hinayana school of Buddhism was overtaken by Mahayana the architectural styles are of the caves changed. Viharas, lavish monastery halls where the monks lived and worshipped were built. The statues of The Buddha also became more prominent, which included long dangling ear lobes and short curls to distinguish the Buddha from lesser divinities. In its zenith Ajanta sheltered over 200 monks in addition to a community of laborers, sculptors and painters. For unknown reasons by the 8th century the complex lay dereserted and abandoned.

The preceding photo depicts the Buddha’s death and ascension to Nirvana. The lower statues depict the satanic Mara sisters attempting to corrupt the Buddha while a devilish figure in the top left (riding an elephant) looks down. The imagery, iconography, paintings and sculptures were, for a history buff and a Buddhist, fascinating. The work done by the Indian government is extremely valuable to maintaining the enduring historical legacy of India.

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