Jahkre had promised to come by 8.30 am to do the Ellora–Daulatabad round. To get ready in time I walked to the entrance arch of the railway station for a cup of ‘bed’ tea and to buy a couple of newspapers. While returning to the ORH I found the distances to Ellora and Ajanta mentioned on one of the walls of the old ORH. What arrested my attention was the notice that Ajanta Caves are closed on Mondays and Ellora on Tuesdays. And today being a Tuesday meant that the plans so meticulously laid out and rehearsed many times over the previous evening have to be surgically recast. Jahkre felt miserable telling me the ‘bad news’ of the Ellora holiday. He suggested that we do Ajanta instead and I agreed to it immediately.
The Ajanta Caves are nearly 110 kms from the railway station and the road is passably good. We reached the ‘View Point’ in less than two hours. The magnificent location affords a panoramic view of the horse-shoe shaped caves, numbering 30, that overlook the Waghore River. It is from here in 1819 that John Smith and his party spotted a Tiger and pursuing it discovered the Caves that were lost to the world for over 1000 years. After drinking in the views with some tourists and students I was drawn to a few vendors hawking ‘rocks’. The vendors claimed to be farmers from the nearby area from whose land semi-precious rocks are ‘mined’, cleaned, categorized and sold. The semi-precious stones like amethyst, crystal, etc are found in plenty in the Basalt Rocks of the area. The Mountain Corals are elaborate and fascinating but lack the color and variety of the Sea Corals. I was hooked. I ended up buying nearly 20kgs of rock at what I thought was a bargain till the vendor told me his margin after the deal was done!
Jakhre had arranged with the MTDC to park the car in the VIP Parking lot. The journey of nearly 4kms to the Caves is covered in battery operated A/C and non-A/C buses deployed by MTDC. At the starting point to the Caves there are shops, restaurants and comfort stations. The Caves are reached by a fairly steep climb; one can either take the steps or the sloped walkway. For the elderly and the physically challenged there are cushioned chairs carried by 4 bearers. The key to enjoying the beauty of the art and appreciating the skills of the artists is to get a knowledgeable and patient Guide. Government approved Guides charge approximately Rs.700 for a two hour tour of the Caves. Thanks to Jhakre’s contacts we got one of the best in the business – the 67 year old Sikhle Patil, who has been a Guide for the past 37 years and has so far ‘guided’ 6 Research Scholars to their PhD on Ajanta Art.
The tour began with a short explanation of the method of construction – front to back and top to bottom – and the coloring agents used in the paintings – crushed colored rocks and vegetable dyes mixed with gum. The Caves date from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD spanning the Mauryan and early Gupta dynasties. These are Buddhist monastic Caves and the revival of Hinduism in the 6th century AD saw the abandonment of the site in favor of the Ellora Caves. Thus, among the 30 caves in Ajanta more than half of them are unfinished and some have collapsed due to seismic activity and weathering. The Caves depict both the Hinayana and Mahayana forms of Buddhism (based on the period of its development), the latter depicting Buddha in form and the former in symbols like Stupa and Wheel. The Caves are either Viharas (dwelling and meditation for the monks) or Chaityas (prayer hall). The Caves were not the work of Buddhist monks but those of artisans who inhabited the area. Thus, an elaborate group of designers, sculptors, painters, etc would have been based there for many centuries while working on the monolithic Caves.
One is free to visit the Caves (barefoot) that are open, but it is best to concentrate on those that are complete and have their paintings in better condition. Some of the paintings have been cleaned by the ASI and cement has been applied on some walls, but the paintings have not been redone. The paintings of Ajanta reputedly inspire designing of Sari, Bed Sheet and Curtain prints today. Fibre optic lighting has been installed in many Caves to appreciate certain details. Flash Photography is prohibited as it ‘harms’ the paint. Even the breath of humans ‘harms’ the art. Hence, the Caves are being replicated in modern structures being readied for the purpose, where the Cave art will be depicted using computers and modern software. The entrance to the Caves will be regulated by a combination of high tariff and special requirements like wearing of masks, etc. From among the ‘live’ caves, the Guides concentrate of Caves 1, 2, 9, 10, 16, 17 and 26. The statues of Buddha rising up to 8 meters and the reclining Buddha in Cave 26 are admirable for their proportions and detail. The sculpture and paintings indicate the life of the times in great details; the expressions and emotions of subjects have been minutely represented. Patil took us through the Caves unhurriedly explaining each and every detail till we understood them. He was seldom annoyed and even then only when our concentration was diverted to other groups thronging the Caves. The tour of the World Heritage Site which started at around 1 pm ended three hours later. In between the tour I was almost dehydrated – it was hot. Drinking water near the Caves saved me from collapse.
While returning to Aurangabad Jhakre insisted that I stay another day to visit Ellora Caves and Daulatabad. We were animatedly discussing various options when I took a wrong turn and travelled on the Jalna route for some time. An extra 40 kms meant that we got back to the ORH only by 7.30 pm. Dinner with Joe and family at the Rama International was the perfect ‘sun downer’.