Monday, January 21, 2013
This weekend I kicked off my 2013 travel with an impromptu (by my standards) trip to Aurangabad. I had been planning the Ajanta-Ellora visit for almost two years now, but somehow it never worked out. Till this Friday, when we just jumped into a train, sat through a painful seven hours and reached the small town touted for being home to one of the masterpieces of Indian art.
After checking into one of the budget hotels with the bare minimum facilities, we exploited the advantage of its location, as we took a short ride to Bibi Ka Maqbara, also known as the poor man’s Taj Mahal. For a monument built by Aurangzeb’s son Azam Shah, with a budget of just Rs. seven lakhs as compared to the lavish Rs. thirty-two million for theTaj, it was a visual treat. But more than that, it had this addictive quality about it and we couldn’t get enough of it, as we just sat there through the evening, admiring it from different angles at different times: sunlight, twilight, sunset, shadows and finally in the dark. On our way back, we took a leisurely stroll through Siddharth Gardens, and got lost in the process.
The next day we decided to visit the Ajanta Caves and as we stood at the local bus stop, negotiating with the touts, I lost all sense of proportion. At times, I tend to forget that the basic objective of bargaining is to save money, and get all personal, imparting people with lectures on values, honesty and business ethics. After unsuccessfully arguing with a cab driver which ended with me screaming at him, “Your car may be nice, but you are not!”, we resigned ourselves to the travel desk at the hotel, hired a private taxi and spent the rest of the day trudging up the caves, overwhelmed, partly by the sheer beauty of the sculptures and partly by the tragic state of them. When I saw the faded paintings, battered and crumbling carvings, I couldn’t help feeling a tad angry. I had seen the Blue Mosque and the Hagiya Sophia in Istanbul or the Vatican in Rome, and the effort and investment made to preserve/restore the artistic treasures stand out in stark contrast to the callous attitude towards our national riches. But we still spent almost five hours, not missing out on any caves, devouring each sculpture and each painting, fully aware that the next time we come back, even half of these may not survive. Despite the borderline obsession with the Buddha and the Jataka tales, the caves did manage to stir a deep reverence for the intricate art that it stood for.
The last day was hectic to say the least, as we set out early, covering the Ellora Caves, Grishneshwar Temple, Aurangzeb’s Tomb, Daulatabad Fort and Panchakki, finally going back to catch a last glimpse of Bibi ka Maqbara. Now, as a teenager, I was fascinated (to the extent of being obsessed) with Muhammad Bin Tughlaq and Daulatabad Fort represented one of the many instances of his idiosyncrasies, when he decided to transfer his capital here from Delhi, only to change his mind almost immediately and change it back to Delhi. Despite the severe torture that my body was put through, I could not resist climbing the 700 steps leading to the top of the Fort, panting my way through steep, treacherous flight of stairs and musty air of the dark, damp rooms. But the effort was so worth it, as we enjoyed a panoramic view of the city, for a moment, imagining ourselves as a slightly paranoid, eccentric ruler back in the 13th century, forever insecure of being attacked by the enemy and looking out for signs of a possible outbreak of violence.
But the highlight of the trip has to be the Ellora Caves, or more specifically Cave No. 16, popularly known as the Kailash Temple. I mean, for all my respect for art, culture and history, there is nothing which I find completely overpowering. No, not even the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, as awestruck as I was with Michelangelo’s sheer genius. But as we were greeted by the imposing structure of the Kailash in Ellora, barely 30 Kms from the main city, I found myself automatically holding my breath. The sculptures vaguely reminded me of Hampi, but since I had visited the latter as a six-year-old, perched on my dad’s shoulders, with no appreciation of history or art, I couldn’t quite enjoy it. Understandably, the rest of the caves faded in comparison, despite the impressive mix of Jain sculptures, Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples, depicting stories of the Ramayana, Shiva and Vishnu’s different avatars.
The journey back was equally trying, as we barely managed to squeeze ourselves in a compartment full of screaming, overweight Gujju/Marwari aunties trying to outdo one another in a contest for “India’s most annoying”, kids who were testing our patience and old uncles, making peace with the TC.
But now that I have experienced the glory (albeit fading) of Ajanta-Ellora, Angkor Wat has high benchmarks to meet…