Mumbai: Places to Explore


Aurangabad, and the Ajanta and Ellora Caves

Mumbai may not have much in the way of ancient history—and the Elephanta Caves might just be a bit too crowded (with both humans and monkeys)—but just an hour-long flight from the cosmopolitan city are some of the finest examples of centuries-old, rock-cut temples and cave paintings in all of India. Ajanta has famous frescoes full of intricate detail, with once bold but now faded natural colors, and Ellora has some of the most elaborate and awe-inspiring cave architecture in the country. Both have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Dating back more than 2,000 years, the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora rank among the wonders of the ancient world. Here, between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century AD, great numbers (i.e., thousands) of monks and artisan/laborers carved cathedrals, monasteries, and entire cities of frescoed, sculptured halls into the solid rock. Working with simple chisels and hammers, and an ingenious system of reflecting mirrors to provide light into the dark interiors, they cut away hundreds of thousands of tons of rock to create the cave temples and other carvings. The work of these craftsmen inspires perpetual awe for the evident precision of their planning and knowledge of rock formations, their dedication to creating all this so far from the rest of India, and the delicacy and sheer quantity of the artwork. The cave temples span three great religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.

For optimum appreciation of the caves, allow one full day for each site, and remember Ajanta is closed Monday, and Ellora is closed Tuesday.

Suggested Itinerary: A trip to Ajanta and Ellora, while making your base in Aurangabad, makes a perfect long weekend trip from Mumbai. If you leave Mumbai on Friday morning, you can have dinner in Aurangabad—it's best to estimate more time, rather than less, when it comes to travel in India—and then head out early the next morning for the Ajanta caves, about a two- to three-hour drive away, for the day. Sunday morning you can head to the much closer (about 30 minutes), and more crowded, Ellora Caves, then head back to Mumbai that evening.

With several excellent hotels and a growing number of good restaurants, Aurangabad is a good base from which to explore the cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora.

Although probably not worth a separate trip in itself, Aurangabad does have a few sites that are worth seeing if you have extra time before or after visiting the caves.

The city is known for its himru (cotton and silk brocade) shawls and saris, and its gorgeously and painstakingly decorated Paithani zari, which are fine gold-embroidered saris—zari is the name for the gold metallic thread; and Paithani is a village very close to Aurangabad. If you're interested, pop into the Aurangabad Standard Silk Showroom or Aurangabad Silk, both near the train station; Ajanta Handicrafts in Harsul, on the highway to Ajanta; or Himroo Saris, on the highway to Ellora. An even better option to view Himru saris being woven is to venture over to the Himru Cooperative Society at Jaffer (also spelled Zaffar) Gate, an area in the western part of Aurangabad: There you can see the entire process in action in a traditional environment. The saris (which can be cut up and tailored into other items) are more reasonably priced here.

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