We have now left lovely Mumbai and are in a city that has only made it on our itinerary because of its proximity to two of the most amazing sights anywhere, one of which we visited yesterday.
Proximity is a word I am using loosely. We are 104 km (about 65 miles) from the caves of Ajanta, and we really wanted to see them. Though it took three hours and 45 minutes to get there, over the worst roads we have seen yet, we and our driver persevered. The problem is that so many people want to go from Aurangabad (the closest city you would want to stay in) to Ajanta, that they have decided to widen the two-lane road to a four-lane road. Great idea, but unfortunately the old road has been completely ripped up in preparation – almost all 100 kilometers of it – so that there are only a precious few meters of paved highway left here and there. It was one of those rides where you have to keep your teeth together lest you amputate your tongue.
And what were we going to see?
In 1819, the caves of Ajanta were covered by jungle and accidentally “discovered” and brought to Western attention by a colonial British officer, Captain John Smith, who was on a tiger-hunting party. He saw the curved arch of one of the cave entrances and started to investigate. The caves had been abandoned and hidden for centuries, which accounts for their excellent condition.
There are currently 26 of these caves open for viewing and the entire complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The caves constitute ancient monasteries and worship-halls of different Buddhist traditions carved into a 250-foot horseshoe of rock and date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE. (Photo of an aerial shot included.)
The most amazing thing to keep in mind about these temples is that they didn’t start out as caves. They are individual monuments done at different times, and carved into solid rock. Some geniuses of design and architecture were at work in a world without artificial light or power tools. Several of these caves evoke medieval cathedrals, and they are equally breath-taking in their scope.
The caves’ paintings and rock-cut sculptures are described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art, including particularly expressive paintings that are amazingly vivid. The paintings depict the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha and the carvings include rock-cut sculptures of Buddhist deities. These caves may have served as a monsoon retreat for monks, as well as a resting-site for merchants and pilgrims in ancient India.
Each of the caves we visited was slightly different, featuring either statues of the Buddha or a stupa monument, usually housing sacred relics associated with the Buddha or other saintly persons. So vibrant and so artistic – so much talented devoted to religious worship.
In one corner of the last temple we saw, there are hollows on the stone floor below some wonderful paintings which were the places where the paint colors had been mixed. Too much!!!
We were amazed that we were allowed in these caves. The taking off of shoes was for reasons of respect, not for any purpose of preservation. Isn’t all that carbon dioxide and humidity bad for the paintings and even the carvings? Then we learned that the new visitors’ center being built will contain recreations of the caves, and that once that opens – maybe next year? – people will no longer be allowed in the caves. Makes sense, just like the caves of Lascaux in France. But we’re awfully glad we were able to see the real things.
One last thing to head off Don’s version. At the caves, they offer palanquin rides to those wishing to avoid the 96 steps up to the caves. This is the thing where four men carry you on a chair, and yes, I did it, and yes, I have no regrets. The guys said that if people wouldn’t take these rides, they wouldn’t have a job, so I immediately felt less guilty. I got Don to pose in the chair at the end, which the guys thought was very funny, and so did the monkeys.
Don’s Food Corner
One of the interesting things about the food in India is that they are obsessed with Chinese food, particularly as you move north. It’s actually Indo-Chinese food because the Indians have adapted it to their taste by adding Indian spices to classic Chinese dishes. (They can’t help themselves. Nothing goes un-spiced here.)
Since there is a highly rated Chinese restaurant in the hotel, we decided to give it a try. Everything on the menu looked vaguely familiar and so we ordered things that we knew from the U.S and our one trip to Hong Kong.
We started with soup. Jo went for the won ton with chicken. I did the hot-and-sour with chicken. Not exactly as we’ve had before, but pretty close with a some added kick that was hard to identify.
We moved on to what was billed as Szechuan prawns. Again, fiery as you’d expect but with a little something else in there. Cumin?
Then, we tried a platter of mixed dim sum steamed dumplings. They were all meat-filled and were actually kind of dull until we doused them with some soy sauce.
Reportedly as we get closer to China — like Kolkata — the Indian take on Chinese food gets more complex and idiosyncratic. We’ll give it another try — or two. There are Indian-Chinese restaurants in New York, but we’ve never been to one.