Into the past
Ajanta and Ellora. Meh. Or so I thought. A couple of those ‘heritage’ places everyone knows about but doesn’t really make the effort to visit, partly because they’re not really on the way to anywhere else, and mostly because there’s very little else to do there but see the cave temples. I’ve lived in Pune for close to a decade now but had never made the trip, a 6-hour drive to Ajanta or about 4 hours to Ellora. I didn’t think I was missing much, so I didn't ever make the effort.
My friends took the initiative. They took care of the logistics, the hotel reservations. I only had to agree to tag along. It was the best decision I had made in a long time.
Once in Ajanta, it didn’t take long to realize that we were looking at something special. A little piece of advice: Hire a guide, even if you don’t think you need one. They will show and tell you things you won’t find in guidebooks, and certainly wouldn’t be able to discover on your own. It took those ancient artisans 800 years to create Ajanta. I say ‘create’ because ‘build’ or ‘make’ just doesn’t do the place justice. 800 years! Starting in the 2nd century BC. Our guide estimated there were, at any given time, a crew of 60-80 artisans working in each cave. Multiply that by 31 caves, every day, 8 centuries, and you begin to get an idea of the scale and magnificence of it all. The artisans couldn’t light lamps inside – soot would damage the delicate frescoes – so all of the sculpting and painting on the floors, the walls and ceilings, was done with light reflected into the caves with the help of strategically positioned mirrors. Everything was hand-carved, hewn out of the solid rock of the hillside, and hand painted on-site. Nothing made elsewhere, nothing shipped in.
Hire a guide, even if you don’t think you need one. They will show and tell you things you won’t find in guidebooks, and certainly wouldn’t be able to discover on your own.
The first crew of artists was recruited from all over India, well known artists with 20 to 30 years of experience behind them, having already worked on important palace and temple projects across the land. For the next 35 generations, a temple at Ajanta would be the only project that an artist would work on. For his entire life. The frescoes depicted the daily lives and current trends of the time – fashion, entertainment, trade and travel – and believe me, these people certainly lived it up. With frequent visits from Persian, Chinese, Japanese and European guests. Happily, I didn’t see any depictions of war and destruction. And while Ajanta was predominantly Buddhist, Ellora had Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples sitting side by side in perfect harmony. Obviously the ancient citizens of Central Maharashtra got along with each other a whole lot better than their 21st century descendants. I am of the opinion that good citizenship must be included in the curriculum in all schools in India, with a trip to Ajanta and Ellora a must for all students. Judging from the behaviour of some of my compatriots at this historic site, the value of such education cannot be underestimated.
Where Ajanta captivates you with minute detail and enchanting colour, Ellora hits you with awe-inspiring grandeur. When you visit the Kailash temple, it takes you a while to understand that the whole complex was carved out of a mountainside, not built block by block. The beautiful corridors around the central courtyard, the pillars, the magnificent temple itself with its intricate reliefs from the Ramayan and Mahabharat, all painstakingly chiseled out of one gigantic chunk of rock. With no computer-aided design, no electricity, no power tools. It is said that when Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor, wanted to forcibly introduce Islam into the region, he sent his men to the Kailash temple to destroy it. After three years, they managed only to knock the trunks off a few of the elephant carvings, such is the hardness of the rock out of which it is hewn.
I am of the opinion that good citizenship must be included in the curriculum in all schools in India, with a trip to Ajanta and Ellora a must for all students.
I have to say I was impressed with the local guides. The pride with which they spoke of something that is part of our own heritage, the patience with which they answered our questions, the fluency with which they spoke Hindi and Marathi and English and French and Italian and Japanese and Chinese, and, most importantly, the appreciation they left in all our minds that we were just witness to something truly remarkable, a UNESCO world heritage site for a reason, really made the entire experience all the more worthwhile.
We were a little rushed for time, and that isn’t fair to Ajanta and Ellora. There are 31 cave temples in Ajanta and 34 in Ellora, and they all deserve a visit. They’re over 20 centuries old, they took 8 centuries in the making, and you need to take it all in slowly, let it seep into your bones. They are living, breathing history, a part of who we are and where we came from. They demand time and respect. As Indians, it’s the very least we can offer.