Although they may never receive top billing on a brochure, an argument can certainly be made that the cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora, which rank among the wonders of the ancient world, make for as spectacular of a visit as one to Taj Mahal. The good thing about the reduced hype, of course, is that it translates to a less crowded and more intimate touring experience. And the best part for visitors of Mumbai? The sites are only a tidy weekend trip away.
A less-than-an-hour flight and a reasonably short drive can put you inside of a Buddhist cave filled with stunning paintings, or place you in front of a mighty temple carved from the hills, retelling the story of the Ramayana in intimate detail.
Dating back more than 2,000 years, the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora represent the most elaborate and spectacular cave architecture in the entire country. Both have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here, between the 2nd century BC and the 9th century AD, 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 awe for the 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.
To best appreciate the caves, allow one full day for each site, and remember Ajanta is closed Monday, and Ellora is closed Tuesday.
Suggested itinerary: A weekend trip to Ajanta and Ellora, while making your base in Aurangabad, makes for a perfect 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.