ANCIENT INDIA: ELLORA AND AJANTA CAVES

Taking an overnight train in India is quite a challenge, but always an interesting experience. This time we travelled only 5 hours in a cold and smelly sleeper compartment, but were lucky to get the lower berths (beds) to sleep, so that we could just put our luggage under the bed. The windows of the sleeper train aren’t tightly closed, and the later it gets in the night, the colder it gets inside. Wholly wrapped in all my clothes and a sleeping bag, I managed to close my eyes for a couple of hours when our train arrived to our next destination early in the morning.

We were pretty lucky to get a room in the city of Aurangabad, the base camp for visiting Ellora and Ajanta caves – a gem of ancient Indian architecture. Since it was Christmas time, Indian tourists were travelling all around their country, and it was a bit difficult getting train tickets and finding a room. We managed to find a very average one in a tourist complex called Tourist home. Nevertheless, it was only for spending one night, so we didn’t bother too much. After settling down, we took a short nap and then headed towards Ellora caves, one hour drive from Aurangabad.

A complex of 34 Hindu, Buddhist and Jain rock-cut temples spreading in front of us offered us a striking view, although a bit spoiled because of hundreds of Indian and other tourists visiting the caves. The caves were built between the 5th and the 10th century and they wonderfully demonstrate the religious harmony of that period. The first one to visit was the queen of all caves, the Kailasa temple. Being carved out of one single rock, it is definitely the centrepiece of Ellora. We spent quite some time there to observe all the carvings made in different levels and getting lost in the smaller and bigger halls of the cave. We walked inside and around it to get the true feeling of the value of the beautiful ancient architecture. Despite all the crowd, it was just amazing to observe all the detailed carvings and statues that were spreading all around us. Then we headed towards the Buddhist caves that were situated on the right side of the central temple. They were much smaller than the Kailasa temple, but still incredibly nice. One just can’t believe that before there was just an ordinary rock hill, from which ancient civilizations cut out all the temples, starting from the top and slowly descending to the bottom. Each cave is carefully carved out, representing different Buddhist legends.

In one of the temples we met Olga and Vaidas and we continued our sight-seeing together. It was a nice sunny day, so we took it very easy, having a stroll to the end of the range of the Buddhist temples and then continued to the Jain temples, located on the left side of the Kailasa cave.

Jainism is an Indian religion, which derives from Hinduism, although nowadays the Jains consider themselves as a separate community, completely independent from all other religions. It promotes nonviolence towards all living beings as a fundamental action of its religious practice. Per Jainism, unintentionally and intentionally caused harm bares the same weight. Strict Jains will always go out of their way even to protect small insects. They are not allowed to use any kind of transport; they go on a pilgrimage around India, making around 30km a day by foot and sleeping in the temples. Later on our trip we were by our Indian friend AJ, the Jain monks are obliged to follow very extreme rules. They live a strict, ascetic live that deprives them from enjoying any kind of pleasure.

For us, both Hindu and Jain, looked pretty much the same, with the same architecture and same carvings, although the difference should be more evident for religious people. However, we enjoyed our amateur visit as much as possible and arrived to our guest house nicely tired after a whole day of walking. We went straight to bed and got well rested for the next day that was going to be very tough.

We woke up at 6 am, packed our things and went straight to the bus station to catch the 3-hour bus to Ajanta caves. Our visit of Ajanta was express, but still very interesting. To tell the truth, we weren’t expecting much of Ajanta, but were totally blown away when we arrived to our destination. A range of beautiful Buddhist caves in the nature, carved out of a huge horseshoe shaped rock, was just as intriguing as Ellora temples. They are even older than Ellora, dating from the 2nd century BC to around 500 or 600 AD. They are known as “the finest surviving examples of Indian art, particularly painting” as described by Archaeological Survey of India. And they are indeed more than just caves. Many of them are so well preserved that you can observe all the details painted on the walls and carefully coloured with natural colours. Unlike Ellora, Ajanta caves actually represent a number of distinct Buddhist monasteries and shrines. Before the area was completely covered by forest and jungle, until it was accidentally discovered by a British hunter in 1819. The viewpoint from where the officer spotted one of the caves can be reached in a few minutes walk ascending up a nice a quiet hill. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to get there, but we did stop in a lower and still really nice viewpoint. It took us about ten minutes to reach a quiet spot overlooking the caves on one side, and a small canyon surrounded by a beautiful nature on the other. We wished we could explore a bit more to see some small villages further on, but we were in a hurry to catch the bus to Jalgaon, and from there an overnight train to the capital of Gujarat.

We reached Ahmedabad very early in the morning, and we were obliged to spend another hour or two freezing in the station until all the hotels opened. Our main reson for stopping in Ahmedabad was actually just to break our journey, but also to visit one of the most famous spots of the city – The Sabarmati ashram.

After finding an expensive, but not very pleasant room (although it had hot shower, which was something new for us!), we took a bus along the Sabarmati River to visit the ashram where Mahatma Ghandi lived for twelve years and from where he started the non-violent independence movement of India. The ashram is very well preserved, maybe even too well for our taste. All the rooms are restored and freshly painted. A part of it is turned into the museum, which tells the life story of Ghandi, including some original pictures. The most interesting thing was probably seeing Gandhi’s room with its original objects, the kitchen and some other objects that remain there from that time. Although there wasn’t much left from Ghandi’s period, we could still perceive the nice energy, which allowed us to escape for a few moments from the loud and hectic city.

Apart from that, there wasn’t much to see in the city of Ghandi. Like in other big Indian cities, we were looking forward to escape from the noise as soon as possible. Although visiting crowded cities can be interesting, it is also incredibly tiring. It consumes lots of energy to get from one point to another, with all the rickshaw drivers offering you a ride, the salesmen trying to convince you that you absolutely need their product (“Here sir, come visit my shop, looking is free!”), beggars asking you for money, drivers honking right into your head, all that while watching your step not to hit a cow, step on its excrement or a mountain of rubbish mixed with food. Yes, India is also like this. But after we left Ahmedabad the next morning to take the bus towards Udaipur, we were soon calmed down when we crossed the border of the beautiful Indian state of Rajasthan.

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