Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Aurangabad: Shadows of a Distant Past

There was a time when Aurangabad was the epicenter of the Deccan Plateau. There was a time when it housed Mughal nobles, and was the headquarters of the Mughal movement across southern India seeking to eradicate an annoyingly rebellious Hindu king called Shivaji.

Only brief glimpses into that time are possible now in the urban jungle, but when you only have two days in hand and a bike, the glimpses are enough.

As I rode into Aurangabad, customarily got lost once and eventually found the hotel I was looking for, It was nearing noon. The ride to the city had been marred by the clutch wire giving up and me having to replace it in a tiny town, but all had been well otherwise. I booked a room in the Lonely Planet-recommended 'Tourist's Home' hotel near Aurangabad rly station.

I dumped my riding gear and sack in the room and, changing into the casual cap-n-camera attire, started off towards Ellora. The road towards the cave complex passes through the town of Daulatabad, which houses the famous fort. Jutting out of the mountain like Rivendell's galleries, the fort looked disappointingly small, but held a distinctly imposing charm. It was too hot for a proper climb, so I (coward, I know) left the fort for another time.

The cave complex has vast amounts of parking, which costs Rs 5, and there is a Rs 10 entrance fee (for Indians). I didn't get a guide, since I was strictly on a budget (and I have a certain amount of knowledge of Hindu mythology), but if you are with a group, getting one is recommended. The complex is meaningless if you don't know what the idols are, and professional expertise of mythology is a welcome addition.

It is also recommended to buy a booklet describing the various tourist spots around Aurangabad. It costs Rs 70, and numerous hawkers all around the complex are all too eager to convince you to get one. For once, it is worthwhile to succumb to a typical touristy lure, since the booklet contains valuable information about the sculptures in Ellora as well as the Ajantha caves.

The caves are scattered in a fairly linear fashion, going leftward from the entrance. A few caves are relatively bare, with just a few reliefs on the walls, but many have distinct idols. Popular scenes include the gods Vishnu and Shiva. Depictions of Shiva dancing the thunderous 'tandava' dance in his 'Nataraj' form is quite popular, as are monuments of various other gods, and animals such as elephants and lions.

What boggles the mind, though, is not necessarily the various depictions, but the sheer size of the whole construction. It is a testament to the power of the human mind, working incessantly to carve volcanic rock into something so spectacular.

Some of the farther caves only fill up in the evening, and are a popular and relaxing spot for an afternoon siesta, the silence only broken by the occasional honking of tourist buses or screeches of swallows and hawks.

The road between Ellora and Aurangabad is littered with countless sugarcane juice sellers, a common streetside refresher particularly in Maharashtra. The scorching April sun had taken its toll on me, and a couple of glasses of virtually pure sugar did a lot to lift my spirits.

My evening meal turned out to be a surprisingly good roadside biryani, bhel, and the everpresent sugarcane juice, on Aurangabad's Station Road. The delicious biryani cost just Rs 30, and I got a whole freaking leg piece! What else could a man possibly want?

The next morning was dedicated to Bibi-ka-Maqbara, a monument built by one of Aurangzeb's sons in memory of his mother. The road leading to the famous monument is, though not the worst I've ever had, in a state of disrepair, and passes through areas that could really use the monument to bring about some development.

The site itself is carefully looked after, and charges the same Rs 10 for Indian tourists as the Ellora Caves. It is a deliberate copy of the more famous and more beautiful Taj Mahal in Agra, and though the inferiour quality is unabashedly obvious (plaster walls, for one), it has a certain unique charm. Unlike the Ellora Caves, a guide is quite unnecessary here, since the buildings are clearly marked and described with placards, and the Rs 50 is much better spent on another plate on the aforementioned sumptuous biryani.

It doesn't take up a lot of your time, and in just over an hour, I was getting ready for the ride back home in my hotel room.

The hotel I stayed at lies very close to Aurangabad Railway Station. It has a helpful staff, clean rooms, convenient location, and a rudimentary restaurant. Double rooms can be booked for Rs 400. Short of a homestay, it is the ideal choice for the budget traveler.

Aurangabad deserves an extended stay, because it is impossible to properly enjoy Ellora, Devgiri, and Ajantha, the three biggies of Aurangabad, in one weekend. The Lonar crater lake, about 140 km from Aurangabad, is one of the very few large crater lakes in the Eastern Hemisphere, and is also worth a visit. A week-long excursion to this city of the Kings can't come soon enough.

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