We've flown north, through Mumbai and then east to Aurangabad to visit another impressive art historical site—the 2,000-year old Buddhist caves of Ajanta.
The caves are not included on the normal tourist route because of their remote location, but in my opinion, they should be. One disclaimer though: getting here is a bit of a gauntlet. Maybe that's irrelevant because at this point, I've resigned to the fact that pretty much everything in India is more complicated than in other places. It's part of India's charm, right?
Our driver collects us from a hotel in Aurangabad early in the morning. We set out at top speed, weaving around huge carrier trucks hauling sugarcane and cotton. Most of the trucks are so full, cotton tufts burst out the sides and flutter by. Our driver grips the wheel, accelerating past and barely avoiding multiple collisions with oncoming traffic. It's a stressful two hour ride. We ask him to slow down, but I've come to learn that Indians have an aversion to safe driving, no matter how much you plea.
The dirty, ugly city is now behind us and we speed through rural villages and fields. People relieve themselves on the side of the road in plain sight, women carry silver jugs of water on their heads, cows haul carts of corn husks. The air is bad here, hazy and filled with smoke. Everything is barren, desolate and dry. This was once lush jungle, but I simply can't imagine it.
At last we've arrived. We exit the taxi and are immediately greeted by a barrage of salesmen. Another relentless reminder, lest we forget—the rhythm of Indian life is rarely free from chaos. Besides that, everyone always wants something from you if you're a tourist. Their tactic is to befriend us by "gifting" a piece of crystal in hopes that we will return to their stall to buy a trinket upon departure. My advice: don't accept it (unless of course you actually want it). You'll be sorry a few hours later. Trust me on this one.
We have to pay an "amenities" tax, then we're required to buy a bus ticket, and at last we've arrived at the base of the stairs up to the caves. Here is where we buy the actual entry ticket. Oh, India, so many processes for everything.
The 30 caves are carved out of volcanic rock in the side of a horseshoe-shaped ravine. While the Waghora River sits dry and crispy below, it will be plenty flooded come monsoon season.
This UNESCO World Heritage site doesn't look like much from the outside, but each black hole is filled with ancient paintings and carved sculptures, 2,000-year old masterpieces of Buddhist religious artwork.
The caves were created in two phases. The first was during the second century BC. Later, during the sixth century AD, the compound was expanded. We're talking throwback to ancient Roman times. That's pretty old considering that many of the sculptures seem visually modern enough to furnish any trendy Californian home.
After the second phase of creation, the caves were abandoned in 650 AD only to be rediscovered in 1891 by a British soldier. This guy, John Smith, stumbled upon cave ten while tiger hunting. Apparently he didn't realize the importance of his discovery as you can still see where he defaced one of the paintings by carving his name directly over it (classic).
We spend all day exploring the caves. Each is unique, some more elaborate or well-preserved compared to others. Almost every cave has a central Buddha figure facing the entrance, his strength and power grounds the room. Surrounded by tourists, it's strange to imagine that long ago, monks worshiped, taught and lived here. I try to picture sleeping on one of the cold, carved stone beds nestled into the cave wall. It does not seem comfortable.
Some of the most famous caves contain now deteriorated paintings. Rounded figures with sparkling eyes and lashes gaze down at us from centuries ago. A few have rich, valuable lapis lazuli blue ceilings. I have a hard time fathoming how artwork this awesome and this old still exists.
It gets hot as the afternoon wears on. It's overwhelming to take in so much stimulus consecutively. We've just been touring the amazing temples of Hampi, and now here at Ajanta I'm overwhelmed once again with wonder. I want to sit and absorb the energy and history, to feel the peace, but I know there is more to see.
Visiting the caves increasingly becomes the opposite of meditative as numerous school groups descend on the site. Remember when I wrote about how being a Westerner in India is kind of like being a celebrity? Let's just say that this was one of those peak moments.
Most fans I meet don't seem to care who I am, but that doesn't stop them from wanting to shake hands and snap a photo as if to prove that I exist and that they met me. I can't say no since I'm determined to be a kind ambassador of my own country, yet I can't seem to make it from one cave to the next without being mobbed. I smile, nod politely, but honestly, I find this exhausting and just wish I could enjoy the historic art I came to see.
Our visit concludes with one of my favorite sculptures, a 24-foot reclining Buddha in a beautiful hall filled with fluttering bodhisattvas and other haloed figures.
Four hours later, we've made it to the last of the caves. On our way out, a cluster of creepy monkeys emerges to bid us goodbye.
TIPS FOR A VISIT:
Time recommended for visit: one day
Time by private taxi from Aurangabad to Ajanta caves: 2-3 hours
Distance from Aurangabad to Ajanta caves: 100 kilometers
Flight time from Mumbai to Aurangabad: 1 hour
Note: Bring your headlamp or flashlight to illuminate cave paintings!