Friday, February 25, 2011

Ajanta & Ellora caves

Apologies in advance if this post is a bit distracted but I’m sitting here in the city of Jalgaon, beautiful day outside, in my hotel room with the television on in the background showing Ireland playing Bangladesh in the cricket World Cup. And we’ve skittled them for 205! Anyway, back on task here. So what should be some sort of lap of honour in my last few days in India has instead been a hectic rush from Mumbai around Maharashtra to check out the famous Ajanta and Ellora caves. Being honest here I’m pretty much tired of being the tourist right now. I’m not even remotely tired of travelling but going to see ’sights’, taking photos, marking off an other ’must see’ etc has become more of a chore than a joy and so it is with both of the cave complexes I visit. And it’s a shame because they’re both spectacular and worth the journey to get here.

It’s Ajanta’s setting which impresses me the most initially with the caves carved out in a remote horseshoe-shaped ravine. The earlier caves here date back to the second century BC and all of the caves were excavated by Buddhist monks as monasteries during a time when Buddhism flourished in India. Ajanta is most famous for its cave paintings which are in various stages of disrepair and which haven’t been helped by some pretty haphazard attempts at restoration. By the time I’ve seen about 5 caves though - there are 28 in total - it’s all becoming ‘different cave, same painting’ but, fuck it, I’ve come all this way and so I march around all 28 of them. (And the first wicket has fallen for 23!) The paintings really are difficult to make out and the caves are scarcely an attraction in themselves.

Ellora, located to the south of Ajanta, rose to prominence as Ajanta was abandoned, and in fact may well have been the reason that it was abandoned. (And the second wicket is down for 36.) Whereas the setting is not as spectacular as Ajanta, the caves themselves more than make up for it. Whereas the Ajanta experience is predominantly about its paintings, Ellora is all about the caves. There are 34 caves here - some Buddhist, Jain and Hindu - and as the years passed so the craftsmanship developed and became much more ambitious and as I walk from Cave 1 on this becomes perfectly obvious.

The centrepiece is the incredible Kailash temple, hewn from basalt rock and staggering in its architectural intricacies. Sight weary or no it is impossible not to be stunned by Kailash. It’s less a cave than a freestanding structure but it’s the first thing you see upon arrival at the site and I‘m still seeing it as I hurry around the other caves in order to see it again. It took over 100 years and four generations of kings to complete and it’s a monolithic masterpiece. It was conceived of as a replica of Tibet’s Mount Kailash and would make Petra’s sculptors blush.

Having spent half an hour wandering around Kailash - it is that big - my appetite for the remaining caves has disappeared. (Shit, Joyce out and three wickets down.)

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