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Published: September 4th 2010
My 6 day Maharashtra mission has been excellent. It's 30 degrees and muggy out here, and while Mumbai is having sudden violent bursts of monsoon rain, here in Aurangabad it translates to a rather demure drizzle. I have visited four sets of caves - Elephanta, Ellora, Ajanta and Aurangabad caves - and have been loving the fierce renditions of Shiva, and the many carvings of the demon Ravana shaking Mt Kailash. To see it all fully I have even forsaken vanity and worn my budget, men's frame glasses so as to study them properly. Next thing you know I'll get all sensible and by an umbrella. For some reason, despite unusually high levels of planning and organisation on my part, I have managed to book trains and planes that leave in the dead of night and arrive in the dead of morning. On the Devagiri Express between Mumbai and Aurangabad, my alarm died - a dangerous situation as I was sleepy from walking miles through the city in the rain, and while my stop was at 4am, the train would actually terminate in Hyderabad, on the wrong side of the country. Falling asleep was not an option. Had to set my
Nintendo DS to wake me up every half an hour. Such a sophisticated traveller, I am. Still, tonight is worse - my return train to Mumbai leaves at 11.25pm, gets into the city just after dawn, then i have to mess around for a whole day for a 1am flight to Hong Kong! and when I get there i have to wait 5 hours before I'm allowed to check in to my hotel! Ultimately, while planning all this, I must have had my muppet head on. It is a good thing i have loitering over coffee down to a fine art.
Elephanta caves are on an island an hour's boat ride away from Mumbai's Gateway of India. As you leave you can see a panorama of the gateway with the Taj Hotel behind it. It looks as wonderful as ever, reopened and putting the horrors of November 2008 behind it. (Mumbai is a city that has bounced back from a lot things). The caves had awesome images of Shiva, the best I have ever seen, and I love to see him as the destroyer, with wide eyes, fangs etc. There is a 6 metre high statue of three headed Shiva
- one angry face, one serene, one beautiful. It's exquisite. It rained the whole time I was at the caves and a monkey stole my Thums Up cola right out of my hands, but macaques will be macaques - it was a good visit.
Aurangabad city has been my base for exploring Ellora and Ajanta, but it has a dynamic of its own. It was the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb's capital for 54 years and is full of old gateways and crumbling walls. There is also a 'mini Taj Mahal' which is nice in its own right, without being compared to Agra's tomb. Most of all, I like the countryside around the city - the green hills and the cotton, sugarcane and corn crops. People just herding their goats and getting on with life, waterbuffalo bathing chin deep in muddy pools, men talking over chai...
Ellora and Ajanta were especially pretty for their monsoon waterfalls. Ellora has Jain, Buddhist and Hindu caves dating from 600-1000AD, one of which is the hugest rock cut temple in history, too big to get your head round, intricate beyond description - the Kailasa Temple. At Ajanta the main feature of the caves are the ancient
Buddhist paintings that have somehow survived for many ages. (Caves carved/painted 2BC thru 6AD). They are incredible. Chakaas! Between the two places and the Bibi-ka-Maqbara ('mini Taj') I must have posed for about 120 snapshots with strangers. My policy is to say yes to everyone, unless it is raining too hard, or I'm keeping an auto waiting. It's nice to be nice, and almost everybody is so sweet and polite.
It's always a good time in India, sometimes a bit crazy too. A man came up to me in CST and said, 'Are you American?' I said, 'No, I'm English.' He said, 'Would you like to meet Barak Obama?' I said, 'Yeah, of course,' at which he put out his hand and grinned with pride; 'I am Barak Obama. Nice to meet you!' ('A pleasure to meet you too, sir!')
Aurangabad caves were my last set. There were only about ten people in the whole place. A huge group of lime green parakeets flew about, making a fuss. These are Buddhist caves so I was surprised to find Shri Ganesha chilling out with a few consorts in one of the smaller caves, his trunk and ears giving him away a
The time has come for me to pack and catch the night train to Mumbai, before heading on to China. The hotel will probably be pleased to see me go so that they don't have to keep making me big mugs of ginger chai...
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