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Ellora Caves of Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India

Published by Drew Tapley, Managing Editor & Writer

Country: India

The Experience

India is like the proverbial box of chocolates. You never quite know what you’re gonna get. When fingering the relevant chapter in your guide book on the northern state of Maharashtra, the Ellora Caves are unlikely to be the last strawberry creams in the chocolate box that are unceremoniously oozing their sweet centre under the relentless north Indian sunshine. The fact is, there are no strawberry creams in India.

Sandwiched between Agra’s Taj Mahal to the north, and the Bollywood stronghold of Mumbai to the southwest, the small medieval town of Aurangabad (or ‘City of Gates’ as it is affectionately known) is situated on a major silk trade route surrounded by UNESCO World Heritage caves. As such, it forms the cultural heartbeat in the state of Maharashtra, and is a worthwhile journey from Mumbai by rail and bus.

There are many caves around the city, but by far the best in this region are the Ellora Cave Temples. These 34 caves are carved into the Charanandri hills and can be reached by sealed road just 30 km northwest of Auragabad city. The Ellora Caves depict Hindu, Buddhist and Jain carvings dating back to AD 1000 from the time of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty which once ruled vast belts of India and was known for its religious tolerance. Known locally as 'Verul Leni’ the Ellora Caves are a tremendously detailed and fascinating experience. You can spend countless hours exploring the Ellora Caves, but the principal temples not to be missed are Visvakarma Cave 10, Kailasa Cave 16, Ramesvara Cave 21, and the Jaina group of Caves 32 and 34. This selection will provide you with a comprehensive outlook of the three different types of art carvings at the Ellora Caves, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

The city takes its eponymous name from the expansionist Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who engaged in constant battle with just about anyone and everyone throughout his reign. He is often cited as the greatest Mughal king ever, ruling over the biggest territorial kingdom that India has ever known.

Aurangabad city centre also hosts a laudable replica of the Taj Mahal that is well worth seeing if you’re not planning to go north for the real thing. There’s also a great local bazaar to shop for cheap clothes. If you’re heading north into Rajasthan or beyond into the Himalayan region, it’s advisable to purchase all of your warm clothes and blankets here as the Thar desert of Rajasthan is freezing cold at night. It’s unlikely you will find clothes this cheap in the more tourist-saturated state of Rajasthan. As a tourist generally in India, if you show any kind of interest to a street shop vendor (I’m talking about fleeting eye contact) it’s taken as fair game to pounce upon you with the tenacious sales pitch of a second-hand car salesman. Bartering and trading are embedded cultural traits of India, and there is no price that is a fixed price. Every package, every size, every colour of garment will be opened in front of your eyes in a stockpile for your perusal. The service is friendly and very polite. Aurangabad is no exception to this clothing sales frenzy, so unless you intend to buy something – walk away sooner rather than later.

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When to Go to Ellora Caves

There is a local bus service that runs directly from Aurangabad to and from the Ellora Caves en route to local towns and villages. Indian public transport is a law unto itself, and can often go from the ridiculous to the plain dangerous in terms of how much breathing space is available. As a general rule, if you can’t slide a postcard vertically through a bus-load of people – then your body is probably not going to fit either. Remember that getting onto the bus doesn’t necessarily equate to being able to get off it again, unless you don’t mind jumping through the window of course. Think of frozen peas in the middle of a bag – but minus the cold imagery!

Rather than enduring an hour-long intimate exploration of the local armpits, an affordable alternative to get to the Ellora Caves is to hire a rickshaw driver for a day, or half a day. Haggle hard but be fair. The price you agree on is likely to change unless you repeat it several times loudly and clearly, with animated hand signals if necessary. The rickshaws here are comparatively cheaper than anywhere else in the state; if not in India. Being this close to Mumbai means most rickshaw drivers will speak good English, so the bonus of hiring a driver is that you’ll probably get a guide too. Be fair to the driver and tip generously. If you do get the bus there and miss the last one coming back, a rickshaw back to Aurangabad should cost no more than 10-15 rupees maximum. You won’t be the only one who missed the last bus (I assure you) so chances are you can split this fare with others.

The best time of year to visit the Ellora Caves is during the cool season which runs from October to March, providing pleasant temperatures and minimal rainfall.

Odds n' Ends

You’ll pay an entrance fee of approximately $5 US to get into the Ellora Cave grounds and also be issued with a very comprehensive map and historical guide in English. You’ll discover that this UNESCO World Heritage site is extremely well managed and maintained as a tourist site. This is not always the case in India. The oversight at the Ellora Caves seems to be a perceptible lack of anything edible. Bring something to chew on. My experience of Indian restaurants is definitely worth a mention here so that you don’t get offended by the overt hospitality that seems to permeate through every cell of Indian culture. If you order a meal from the menu, and the chef has run out of the ingredients for this meal, then there is a strong possibility the chef will choose your meal by what is available – without asking you first. This is presented with such polite innocence from the waiter that even the most baneful tourist would laugh it off. Whatever you end up eating it's always delicious anyway!

The main attraction among the very impressive Ellora Caves is the Kailasanatha Temple. Unlike most of the caves, this one has been excavated from the top down, and you can stand on the outer ridges and look deep inside the many layers of adorned rock.

If you’re easily offended by graphic depictions of nudity and sexual acts – then some of these caves might not be for you. Similarly, parents may wish to consider the ages of their children for some of the caves. Be advised that this is 3000-year-old tantric Hindu culture, and not the stuff that teenagers giggle at on the Internet!

The city YHA is a short ten minute walk away from the train station on the main road. It’s by no means luxury or even falls under the broadest definition of clean. However, it makes for a cheap tourist hub to get information and meet fellow travellers. The overly bureaucratic house rules are likely torn from the manual of English boarding schools, so if you don’t like being told when to go to bed, at least make sure to call in here to network and share travel stories.

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