Goa and the Art of Self-Discovery

I have has been to Goa a few number of times, thinking of each visit is like deep diving into memories of various phases in my life.


Of caves, impregnable forts and the poor man's Taj..


Of foggy woods, gurgling waterfalls and rains that painted the hill green..


Of ferry rides, seagulls and (almost) private beaches...

Andamans (Part 1)

Of Island hopping, underwater adventures and different shades of the sea...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Aurangabad: Of caves, impregnable forts and the poor mans Taj

Even while being all excited about the trip to Aurangabad, I was a little worried if I would be able to appreciate the world famous Ajanta-Ellora caves the way it’s meant to be, thanks to my knowledge (or lack of it) of architecture and paintings.

Being the very punctual beings that we are, we reached the bus stop by 10 and the bus walas being themselves, reached by 11.30. And then the fact that I just cannot sleep in a bus didn’t make the night look too appealing, but thanks to a good conversation the night was saved and the sleep deprivation made up for.

Saturday morning and we were off to Ajanta. The weather was ..err, very romantic. It’s the kind of cold which doesn’t call for a jacket, but rather an arm around your shoulder.

The view point, where we went to first, was where the English soldier John Smith while on a tiger-hunt chanced upon the Ajanta caves which had been hidden in the dense forest for centuries. His names been made immortal thanks to his signature carved into a pillar in one of the caves.

Ajanta. Be prepared to be overwhelmed.

Besides giving a glimpse into their times, it teaches you patience, what attention to detail really means and what not. From the ingenious way of reflecting light using a smooth metal onto the water collected inside the dark caves to chisel their way into history or the fact that 20-30 generations toiled hard to achieve this level of perfection, everything is a story on its own.

We had to take an “environment-friendly” bus from a certain point to get to the caves and trust me, the only thing environment-al about the buses was the fact that they were all painted green.

Ajanta, which is about 110 km from Aurangabad city, is a group of rock-cut monuments from 2nd century BC. It’s a series of 27 caves, the last couple of which are incomplete.

The first thing that strikes you as soon as you enter the caves is the sudden change from the blaring sun, we went there in the afternoon, to the cool comfort of the caves; not even the best of the airconditioners can give the comfort and peace mother nature provides.

Thankfully we got a guide (from cave 1 itself), which is something I would strongly recommend if you want to do some justice to the magnanimous effort that has been put into it.

There are paintings and sculptures in every cave, lit beautifully with a warm yellowish light that gives it all a life of its own. Huge statues of Buddha in various stages of meditation adorn every cave. The guide pointed out many influences, such as a cave which is built almost like a cathedral or the one which had some Greek architecture thanks to emperor Asoka’s grandmother, a Greek princess. Seems like the world was indeed a small place even in those times.

Ajanta is all Buddhist caves and all the paintings, sculptures have Jataka tales, life and times of Gautama Buddha. Among the many many sculptures the one that struck me the most is the one depicting Buddha, after attaining Nirvana, coming back to the wife, Yasodhara and son he left behind 7 years ago; as a sadhu asking for alms. It is said that he left her in the middle of the night to seek enlightenment; I kept thinking what Yasodhara would’ve been through and how her story is one that in unspoken and incomplete. Would she have been perfectly happy to give up her husband and family all for the greater good or would she be secretly resentful of the fact that she was denied of the companionship of a husband and a father for her child?

The aura inside these caves is such that you’re compelled to just close your eyes and imagine them patiently chiseling their way to their own personal nirvana. One can easily spend an entire day cave-hopping; there certainly is something very very alluring about dark caves. But then come 5.30 and you are (forcibly) done for the day.

It’s a long drive back to the city and I loved it every bit as Ajanta itself. Fields on either side, with few trees, not too many, just enough to see the earth and sky meet somewhere far far away, yet so near...with windows rolled down, the cold air adding to the beauty of them all. Having someone to snuggle next to and keep me warm would've been perfection. Made me want to pull over and spent the entire night lying on the fields looking up at the star-studded sky.

“You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in the fields of gold....

..Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold”

Once we got back to the hotel, like it is with big groups, there was some confusion; but mix happiness, some confusion and a little vodka and you’ve got yourself a bunch of laughing hyenas.
And because of the tight schedule for the day after, we called it a night and went back to our own private little kingdoms.

Sunday morning and we were off. First on the agenda was Dautalabad fort, of Mohammed-bin-Tuglaq. High school history flashback kicked in: “something something introduced coins something..” My history teacher would’ve been so proud *sniff*

The fort’s defense mechanism really is something. I remember somebody telling me it was so good that the only way the Mughals could conquer it was by stopping the inflow of food and grains into the fort and thereby leaving them no option but to surrender. We climbed up for some time and then reached this maze sorta structure, from where you need a guide’s help because it’s a dark passage ahead.

As you move along, the road splits and apparently while the enemy soldier would be trying to decide which way to go, hot oil would be poured over from above. If he were to survive that there are holes in the dark passage from within which the spear-men would poke them to death. As if it was not enough, the path again splits up and meets after sometime, but it’s so dark that the enemy soldiers often ended up killing themselves, it’s said. We were all blown off by the ingenuity of it all.

Then we started climbing up again, the highest point which is about 600 feet high, boasts of a big cannon. Even though the cannon isn’t much to talk about, the view from up there was worth it. But you might want to take lotsa water if you don’t want to end up like us, almost considering manhandling a little girl just to get some water.

We had to hurry and have a quick lunch because we had to get to Ellora.

Ellora again is a series of caves, 35 to be accurate, we went to the most famous Kailasnath Temple first (Cave 16). I remember reading somewhere that it’s the biggest monolithic structure in the world. Its made out of a a single rock and carved from top to bottom.

It is so huge and magnificent; it’ll make you feel ridiculously insignificant. We couldn’t get a guide, so we moved around trying to make sense of things on our own (we could, a little bit, thanks to a friend who had been there before) but other than that what started off as I-think-it-is-Dasavathara ended up with oh-god-these-women-had-such-big-boobs by the end of the day.

We didn’t have enough time so we had to rush through the rest of the caves, but somehow Ellora (except for maybe the Kailasnath Temple) didn’t have that much of an effect on me as Ajanta did.

Two days before the trip I had come to know of Bibi-ka-Maqbara (or Poor man’s Taj Mahal as it is rudely called) and was really looking forward to going there. For some reason, I had made up my mind to like it and started taking it as a personal insult when people who had been there told me it looks cheap and not that great.

As you can see, it’s almost the Taj, except maybe less marble and elegance. But then again, considering the fact that Aurangzeb’s son built it in memory of his mother, one has to appreciate the thought. It certainly doesn’t compare to the Taj, limestone’s what been majorly used instead of marble and it has started peeling off, the inside where his mother resides is fully marble by the way, and one can point out faults here and there, but as a friend rightly put it, “there certainly is something beautiful about the imperfections.”

It was getting dark and time for us to get back, pack up and leave. None of us wanted to leave the laid-back city to get back to the fast-paced Mumbai and the Monday blues.

And for some reason, by the time I got back, I knew this was a trip I certainly wouldn’t be forgetting anytime in the near future :-)