KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We made an early start, something we are not usually guilty of, because the Ajanta caves are much farther from Aurangabad than those at Ellora. It was wonderful to drive along the narrow country roads and see the surrounding landscape. This is something that we miss now that we have chosen to fly around India rather than travel by train. About an hour into our drive, our mobile phone rang. It felt so isolated this far from the city we were surprised to even have reception. We were even more surprised to find the call was from my aunt Audrey Hawn, calling from Denver, Colorado.
We had been playing telephone tag with her for several days as we tried to coordinate plans for her to meet us in Bangkok in April. She is joining us for five weeks as we visit Phuket and Krabi in Thailand, Yangshuo and Shanghai in China and Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan. It was surreal to be sitting in a small car in India, watching the villagers as they went about their farming chores and chatting to someone half a world away. I would have to say that the advances in communication are one of the biggest changes I have seen since starting my travels as a volunteer teacher in Nigeria in the early 1970s. I was almost giddy with excitement that Audrey and I could finally nail down some of the remaining issues we had so that she could proceed and book her tickets. We chatted happily for almost twenty minutes and signed off with a laugh at the wonder of it all.
And now for some background on the day's adventure. The Buddhist caves at Ajanta, 105km north of Aurangabad, have also been designated as a World Heritage site. These caves predate those at Ellora, being constructed during the period 200 BC - 650 AD. Construction at Ellora began just as Buddhism was waning and the Ajanta caves were abandoned and it seems, forgotten. A British hunting party happened upon them in 1819 and it is thought their isolation contributed to the preservation of the extraordinary paintings created on the cave walls.
There are thirty caves cut deep into the steep rock face at the end of a horseshoe shaped gorge in a bend on the Waghore River. The oldest caves were carved in the middle of the bend and the subsequent caves were carved outwards from the centre so that the newest are at each end. The caves are not as elaborately carved as those at Ellora; it is the frescoes that are the main attraction here. Technically, they are not frescoes at all as a fresco is a painting done on a wet surface that absorbs the colour. Tempera is the technique adopted at Ajanta; the artists used animal glue and vegetable gum to bind the paint pigments to the dry-stone surface.
Many of the caves are too dark to see without a flashlight, though some of the most important caves are now lit with soft coloured lighting. Much of the painting has been lost to damage from seeping water but restoration work is on-going and one simple cave has a display of before-and-after photographs to show the results of the restoration efforts. Centuries of dust and mildew have been cleaned away to reveal the paintings of the most exquisite detail. Flash photography is not allowed in the caves in order to preserve the paintings and I am not skilled enough to make the best use of my camera in low-light conditions. However, I hope that the pictures I uploaded on this entry will give you a taste of the beauty of the Ajanta cave paintings.
It was a two-hour trip on narrow country roads back to Aurangabad, but the quiet time gave us each a chance to absorb the beauty of the sculptures and paintings that had taken us two full days to see. It's such a satisfying feeling to finally achieve a long-cherished goal such as this. Ajanta is the more physically challenging of the two venues and we were both thankful that we hadn't put off visiting until another visit to India. While there were admirers at both sites much senior to us, we could see that they were finding the hundreds of stairs quite difficult. If these caves interest you in any way, I suggest you place them high on your must-see-soon agenda.