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Exploring the caves of Ajanta and Ellora

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Huffing and puffing up a hill was not what I had in mind when I pictured the basalt caves of Ellora, built between the 6th and 11th centuries. I tell my guide, Amod Basole, that I was expecting to hold torches - why, even candles - up to immaculately coiffured gods and goddesses in deep, dark, bat-infested chambers.


The ribbed ceilings at the Mahayana chaityas at Ellora have acoustics that facilitate soul-stirring echoes

Basole smirks and looks rather pleased with himself and the incline. I decide to trust him. I, for one, do not know too many businessmen who have given up their two-decade-long careers to become travel guides at the age of 50. I tell Basole he has the gravitas; he tells me he is just too confused to ‘settle down’.


The Kailasa complex was built from a megalith and took over a century and a half to be completed. Pics/Kareena N Gianani

Then, he points to our left. There it is - what some might call Ellora’s raison d’etre - the Kailasa. Basole shows me the topmost point on the roof of the three-storey, three-dimensional temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva below. Four menacing chimeras form a circle, overlooked by a carving of Shiva. “This is the only carving with its nose intact. No other sculpture in the 34 caves of Ellora, has a nose as unblemished.”


Some say that the Ajanta caves have been overshadowed by the carvings at Ellora, but that sentiment seems largely misplaced when you walk through the 31 caves around a horseshoe-shaped hill

The Kailasa is a 100-feet-high complex and was cut from a single rock, and holds pride of place amid the 12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu and five Jain caves in the Ellora complex. The Kailasa, Basole tells me, was carved from top down - not outside in. “Thousands of artists, only hammer and chisel in hand, stood up there and carved this complex over a century. Even after all these years, we still don’t know how they determined which rock was suitable, and that they wouldn’t encounter a stream or a large crack which could render their efforts futile,” he says,┬ávisibly awed.

We descend and enter the complex, which, Basole tells us, is double the size of The Parthenon and two lakh tonnes of rock were removed from this very site. There are galleries with sculpted panels, wherein Ramayana scenes carved with unimaginable detailing. Basole stops in front of a sculpture which depicts Ravana trying to lift Mount Kailasa, with Shiva and Parvati on it.


Most paintings at Ajanta depict the Jataka Tales, Buddha’s journey to enlightenment, ominous demons and apsaras

“The carvings at Ellora and the paintings at Ajanta are far more nuanced than, say, the Egyptian paintings. “Egyptian artistes did not have a sense of foreshortening (the perspective where an object appears shorter or compressed because it is in the foreground). Faces have no expressions. That’s not the case in Ajanta-Ellora.”

To illustrate this, he points back to the sculpture. Shiva’s teeth are bared, Parvati is shown struggling to balance herself. To bring attention to the effort Ravana has to spend while lifting the mountain, his knees are bent as he leans forward. Basole explains that this carving is seminal in Indian architecture because of the perspective the artiste has lent to it - Ravana’s struggle is palpable, Shiva is visibly the largest figure in the carving, which indicates his might and fury. Parvati is much smaller in size because she is not the main subject of the struggle. “The artist did not miss out on any detail- Shiva, with one hand, is seen supporting Parvati, as if assuring her.”


Ajanta’s most famous painting, the Padmapani, in Cave 1

Basole takes me around to his favourite sculpture in Kailasa. It is a marriage scene, where Shiva holds Parvati’s hand. I wonder what makes it so dear to Basole - caves in Ellora are full of similar scenes. “Indian artists and sculptors never marked their creations. Ajanta and Ellora have been created by millions of artistes over centuries, but you’ll never see their names anywhere. They believed that their names had no place beside the divine. But they did introduce their own quirks.”


The best views of the Kailasa temple is from the hill surrounding it

He shines the torch on Parvati’s head. “Look at the angle of the head - an inch higher would have made her seem haughty, and inch lower and she would look submissive. You will not find another carving which uses the same measurements. Each artiste has interpreted her feelings in the scene differently.” Basole focuses on Parvati’s feet. “And how do you convey coyness and a mild anxiety through a carving? Notice how the artiste has carved the right big toe slightly curling over the left foot. And slightly higher, you see her fingers twisting the edge of her saree, which conveys her shyness.”


Artistes of some sculptures in Ellora definitely got their anatomy wrong, but make for an amusing sighting nonetheless

Over the next two days, we visit the somber depths of the Buddhist caves and the most elaborate Jain temples. Ellora’s charms lie in the details - look closely and you’ll see the ungainly yakshas (temple guardians) embedded in the smallest of spaces and the grandest of pillars. Ellora is not for the prude; saucy carvings of couples pop up with regularity in the dark, desolate caves. Basole takes me to a cave which depicts a scene wherein young boys tease the bull, Nandi, by pulling its tail and, er, mooning him! In one of the caves, unskilled artistes definitely got their anatomy wrong and carved a Nataraja with shoulders at a grotesque angle.

Ajanta’s secrets
Over my four-day-long trip, fellow travellers often tell me that I could leave the paintings at Ajanta out. That, however, is sacrilegious. Within minutes of meeting my guide at Ajanta, I know he is no Basole. I sulk for a bit and follow him as he begins his monotone and tells me, in no uncertain terms, that stopping, staring, gaping and photography must strictly be done after he has finished showing me around.

But the dark, eerie caves of Ajanta are a window to a lost world, and my guide’s rancour does not matter. The wall paintings depict the Jataka tales, life stories of Buddha and his many avtars. The experience is further enriched by the fact that only a fixed number of tourists can enter the caves at a time.

In 1819, a British officer, John Smith, and his hunting party accidentally rediscovered the Ajanta caves, which were painted between 2nd century BCE and 680 CE. Contrary to popular belief, these are not frescos and were painted on dry walls, not wet plaster (Basole will later tell me how painstakingly the colours were produced. Pigments were crushed and then tied in muslin cloth. They were then flicked gently against stone and the dust produced was mixed with glue to make colours).

I look at the grandeur of the paintings - intricate depictions of the Jataka tales, Buddha’s avtars, his initial journey to enlightenment and ominous demons who try to distrupt his meditation. The Padmapani, which is hailed as the most significant painting at Ajanta, is sublime. Ajanta’s paintings belong to two schools of Buddhism, our guide tells us - the Mahayana (where both the idols and stupas are worshipped) and the Hinayana (which where only the stupas are featured). You don’t have to be a student of architecture or design to appreciate the engineering and artistic marvels of Ajanta and Ellora. All you really need is a healthy dose of curiosity, a penchant for history and a rather springy neck to look around.

Make it happen
Getting there: Aurangabad is a seven-hour drive from Mumbai. You could take a flight to Chikkalthana Airport, or take the Janshatabdi train, which takes 6.5 hours. Buses from Mumbai to Aurangabad take longer - about 9-10 hours.

Getting around: Ellora is a 30-minute ride away from the city. Ajanta, on the other hand, takes 1.5 hours to reach by road, but you will find plenty of taxis and rickshaws to take you there.

Stay: Apart from the budget hotels in Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora, you could choose the MTDC hotels.

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