Kailasha Temple, Cave 16, Ellora

The Enigma of Ajanta, Ellora and Lonar

Ellora caves located on Charanadri hill range near Ellora town is the only place in India where one gets to see caves, belonging to three different religious faiths: Buddhist, Hindu and Jain. They are a total of 34 caves which were excavated sometime between 6th and 10th century AD.

Ellora Caves
Ellora Caves @Rafiq Somani

It was late afternoon as we arrived at the parking lot near the caves. Numerous rickshaw drivers were eager to make a fast buck by charging you a few hundred rupees to take you around the caves spread over 2 km distance. On enquiring, we found that we could drive to the caves in our car and were spared of the menace created by the rickshaws.

Kailash Temple, Cave 16
Kailash Temple, Cave 16 @Rafiq Somani

Kailasha Cave no.16 is the undisputed centrepiece of Ellora with 15 caves located on the left and 19 on the right side. We decided to start with the left and then move ahead. Caves 13-29 are Hindu caves. Cave 29 had numerous sculptures from Indian mythology, particularly of Shiva and Parvati. Ravana shaking Mount Kailash as Shiva and Parvati are seated next to each other is one such noteworthy sculpture. As we visited one cave after another, we noticed that a few caves were double-storied, some were adorned with paintings while others were non-descript and incomplete.

Shiva-Paravati-as-Ravana-shakes-Mount-Kailas.-Cave-29
Shiva-Paravati as Ravana shakes Mount-Kailash, Cave-29 @Rafiq Somani
Lord Bahubali Cave, Cave 32, Ellora
Lord Bahubali Cave, Cave 32, Ellora @Rafiq Somani

Caves 30-34 are Jain caves and contain sculptures of the Jain Tirthankaras: Mahavir, Bahubali and so on. Jainism places emphasis on renunciation of material comforts and pleasure on the path to attaining realisation of the truth. The sculpture of Bahubali meditating in a standing posture as vines grew around his legs and body was eye-catching (Cave 32).

Cave16, Kailasha temple, was the most impressive and left a lasting impact. It is a monolithic cave carved out of a single rock to create the largest cave temple second to none in the world. Carving started from the top and progressed to the ground with multi-storied side galleries. In the central courtyard were the 17 metres high pillars called Mansthumb (emblem of Kailash) with giant elephants facing them. The temple has carvings from Ramayana and Mahabharata, and countless other masterpieces seeped in Indian mythology.

Caves 1 to 12 are Buddhist caves with Cave 10 being a Chaitya- Griha, that has a stupa, while all other caves are Viharas or monasteries. Some of these caves had beautifully carved facades. Images of Buddha in meditative postures and numerous events from his life adorned these caves. We were racing against time as we hurried through the Buddhist caves, as security guards began to whistle and remind tourists that it was closing time. We were a little disappointed at not being able to see all the caves, but we had no reason to complain as what we had seen was spectacular and a visual delight.

One wonders how without access to modern technology, these caves were skillfully carved and painted by craftsmen centuries ago. The sheer brilliance of human engineering and perseverance in executing these artistic masterpieces which rightly make Ellora Caves worthy of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After leaving Ellora, with a desire to return to see the unseen caves, we headed to Ajanta town and checked into our resort. We were looking forward to the next morning to see the Ajanta caves. The caves famous for their mural paintings and rock sculptures are a group of 30 rock-cut Buddhist caves that date back from 2nd century BC to 650 AD. These caves were used by Buddhist monks as Viharas (monasteries) and Chaitya Grahas (prayer halls) for more than nine centuries and then mysteriously abandoned.

In 1819 a British officer, John Smith, while hunting in the forests, accidentally chanced upon one of the caves (Cave 10) and soon these caves became renowned for their impressive paintings, exquisite architecture and bygone history. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Ajanta Caves
Ajanta Caves @Rafiq Somani

After an early breakfast, we drove to the Amenity Centre, which has a parking hall, shopping and refreshment area, as well as a bus stop. To conserve the caves natural surroundings buses ply from the Amenity Centre and drop you to the foothills of the caves. After purchasing entry tickets, we walked excitedly to the caves which are in the form of a horseshoe.

Facade of Cave 19, Ajanta
Facade of Cave 19, Ajanta @Rafiq Somani

The walls and ceilings of Cave no.1 covered with paintings depicted Buddha’s earlier lives as a Bodhisattva, stories from Buddha’s lives and Jataka tales. The cave was very dark, and only guides could use approved lights to show the detailing of the caves. Reflectors placed at the entrance of the caves provided some lighting as we spotted the well-known painting of Padmapani Bodhisattva with a lotus in hand, Bodhisattva Vajrapani and so on.

Bodhisattva Padmapani Cave 1, Ajanta
Bodhisattva Padmapani Cave 1, Ajanta @Rafiq Somani

These paintings provide a glimpse of the ornaments, hairstyles, textiles, musical instruments, customs, traditions as well as styles and fashion that prevailed in the earlier era. Black was beautiful, as many women were painted with darker complexions with well-endowed bodies that were oozing with sensuality and yet were coy and graceful.

Bodhisattva Vajrapani, Cave 1 Ajanta
Bodhisattva Vajrapani, Cave 1 Ajanta @Rafiq Somani

While some caves had lavish paintings, others had sculptures depicting various stories from Buddha’s life. The famous incident from Siddhartha’s life when he for the first time, realizes the three sorrowful phases of human life:  sickness, old age and death can be seen engraved on a panel.

Prince Siddhartha and Three Phases of Human Life, Cave 1 Ajanta
Prince Siddhartha and Three Phases of Human Life, Cave 1 Ajanta, @Rafiq Somani

The external facades of some of the caves were beautifully carved with arches and niches with figurines. The image of the seven meters long reclining Buddha, Mahapariniravan, which depicts Buddha’s demise, in Cave 29, was impressive. On top of the panel were celestial beings ready to receive Buddha in heaven while at the bottom were his disciples mourning his death.

Bodhisattva Attaining Parinirvan, Cave 29, Ajanta
Bodhisattva Attaining Parinirvan, Cave 29, Ajanta @Rafiq Somani

No words or photographs can describe or capture the aura and allure of these caves. It is a mystery as to how the artists made intricate and detailed paintings and carvings in caves that were pitch dark. What inspired them to create these masterpieces? Why were the caves abandoned? Just as you don’t have answers to all of life’s questions so also the enigma of these caves shall always remain until someone dwells deeper.

It was time to say goodbye to Ajanta now as we headed to our hotel for a late lunch. Post lunch a 3-hour drive took us to Lonar to see our next gem. It was late evening as we checked into our resort. After having a simple dinner, we decided to unwind for the day.

The Lonar lake situated in Buldhana district of Maharashtra is lonely but lovely. Lonely because it is the “Only hypervelocity natural impact crater in basaltic rock in the world”, according to the Geological Survey of India. The third-largest crater in the world, this lake whose waters are both saline and alkaline is more 50,000 years old. It was formed when a two million-ton blazing meteorite at an estimated speed of 90,000 km/hour crashed into the earth, creating a depression 150 metres deep and 1.83 km in diameter.

Lonar Lake at base
Lonar Lake @Rafiq Somani
Lonar Lake
Lonar Lake @Rafiq Somani

The spectacular beauty and magnificence of this blue-green lake, surrounded by emerald-green forests on its rim, needs to be seen to be believed. After rising early, we took a guided tour of the lake. It was a 2-km trail from the top of the forest to the base of the lake. We could hear numerous bird calls as we set foot into the sprawling forest, which our guide explained, was home to a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. A paradise for wildlife lovers we spotted numerous birds including Peafowls, Ducks, Wagtails, Shallows, Oriental White-Eye, Green Bee-Eaters, Magpies, Robins and so on.

Located within the forest are 12-14 ancient temples, that date back to Puranic times, which were once thronged by worshippers but now are abandoned and in ruins. As we got closer to the floor of the lake, we could see rocks of varied shapes and formations strewn on the banks of the lake. Some rocks were porous as they had air pockets which made them float on the water.  Our guide explained how numerous geologists and experts both from India and abroad (including NASA) were researching this crater whose mysteries are waiting to be unravelled.

After spending some time at the lake and soaking in its beauty, it was now time to trek uphill. Our guide chanced upon some porcupine quills and the carcass of a hyena which excited my younger one. On the rims of the lake is the Gomukh temple, which has a perennial supply of freshwater that is drinkable (unlike the lake whose waters are salty).

 After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we set off to see the Daityasudan temple known for its exquisite carvings. Built during the reign of Chalukyan dynasty this Vishnu temple had erotic sculptures in panels and friezes that are reminiscent of the Khajurao temple. Scenes from the epics Ramayan and Mahabharata, stories from the Puranas, figures of amorous couples adorned the walls of the temple.

There’s an interesting story surrounding the temple. Lord Vishnu as a handsome young boy called Daityasudan descended on this place to slay the demon Lonasura or Lavanasura, who lived along with his sisters under the Earth in this area. In the battle that followed, the demon was killed by Daitya Sudan, which ended up in creating the Lonar Lake.

Not many people are aware of this natural wonder nestled within a lush forest in Maharashtra. While it deserves more footfalls, the flipside is that rampant tourism may also disturb the fragile ecosystem that is unique to this lake.  A delicate balance to achieve.

Just like the meteorite that had struck it, Lonar had left a lasting impression on us.

Nearest Airport: Aurangabad
Distances: Aurangabad-Ellora: 30 km (45 minutes by road)
Aurangabad-Ajanta: 97 km (2 hours by road)                    
Ajanta-Ellora: 100km (2 hours by road)                   
Aurangabad-Lonar: 140 km (3 hours by road)
Where to stay: MTDC hotels are located close by. Hotels according to budget and comfort are available in Ellora, Ajanta but limited options are available in Lonar.

This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons Magazine, Feb 2017.

1 thought on “The Enigma of Ajanta, Ellora and Lonar”

  1. Rafiq Somani

    Mesmerised read of this ancient and majestic masterpiece. Reading the blog felt like, I was visiting the sculptures and caves in person.

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