After our eventful evening (being stranded in a small crowded town in the middle of nowhere and a mad dash 3 hrs in a taxi racing against the clock to get our train) we arrived somewhat exhausted but relieved in Pune about 7am in the morning – fresh from our first sleeper train experience. This wasn’t actually too bad and was miles better than our previous sleeper bus experience!
Having briefly freshened up in our hotel, we headed straight out for a much needed breakfast (having not eaten since yesterday morning due to our train mishap) at the German Bakery where we were admitted by no less than 2 guards and a metal detector entrance. Although 6 years later, we learnt that this was down to a fatal terrorist attack that took place in the Pune cafe back in 2010.
Pune is a large thriving city, known as the centre of academic and business that epitomises ‘New India’. It’s also a real mix of ancient and contemporary – there was certainly a lot of young people and students around plus plenty of nice places to eat, especially around the more trendy area of Koregaon Park. As just a stop over destination for us, it was therefore perfect for our purpose and we spent our few days there running various errands such as trips to the bank, booking train tickets etc.
Two days and another bus ride later we arrived in the city of Aurangabad – our base for exploring three of our ‘must-sees’ – the World Heritage Sites of Ellora and Ajanta and the Lonar Meteorite crater.
On our first day we headed 105km north of aurangabad to the Ajanta caves – and our most northerly destination in India so far.
The Buddhist cave temples of Ajanta date from around the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD and are among the earliest monastic institutions in the country. After being deserted for about a millennium, the caves shielded by the surrounding forest, they were rediscovered in 1819 by British Officer John Smith and his hunting party who happened to stumble upon them. What a discovery that must have been!
Set in a remote river valley, the 27 caves line the steep face of the horseshoe shaped gorge – making a very pretty setting in itself – but the caves are truly spectacular.
As well as huge Budda statues, many of the cave interiors are decorated with frescoe-like tempura wall paintings using natural dye. Stories of Budda, scenes of every day life and decorative detail adorn the walls, including six-tusked elephants, four deer sharing one head, flowers, and people. One mural rendition of Bodhisattva Padmapani shows the princess applying her make-up. When a tour guide directed the beam of his torch on her neck, we were stunned to see the paint glow candescently. Despite their ancient age, most of the paintings remain remarkably well preserved – you can even see small potholes in some of the cave floors which were used as colour palettes. As a graduate of Art History it was a dream come true! Standing bare foot in the middle of the dimly lit ancient caves, carved out of the rock by hand and with such striking images, all created so very long ago, gave us both goose pimples.
The next day we set off again to spend a night in a little town called Lonar. The 4 hour bus ride was very bumpy (bums regularly flying off seats) and the town itself incredibly unremarkable…except for the massive 50, 000 year old meteorite crater that is…
At 2km across and 170m deep, it’s crazy to see the result of such a large piece of space rock slamming into the earth here. However, the spot is incredibly still and tranquil – with dense forest areas full of wildlife lining the green alkaline lake.
After dumping our bags at our hotel, we went straight down to the crater in hope of an impressive sunset sight. Sadly, like our attempt at Hampi, it was not to be.
Th0e following day we trekked down the steep slopes to get a closer look at the saline lake at the base. On our way down we had to watch our step as the path was littered with yet more giant millipedes. Plus the odd wild peacock flying out of the trees. Once we reached the lake, in which only algae and bacteria can survive, we decided against a swim (later we would discover that pilgrimages are often made to Lonar Crater as the water has properties beneficial to people with skin conditions).
We left Lonar the next morning on bumpy bus V2. After another night in Aurangabad we had yet more ancient caves to see. Although not as old or as idyylically located as the caves at Ajanta, the Ellora caves were superior in terms of scale and variety.
Before reaching Ellora, we had a pit stop at Daulatabad Fort. Resembling something from Game of Thrones when Winter isn’t coming, the fort was both imposing and charming. It was also fun to explore – designed with deadly deadends, death slides and holes. We ducked and scrambled our way through dark tunnels and spaces housing the most bats we have ever seen. Seriously, there were thousands of them! Overall the fort was worth a couple of hours of anyones time.
The Ellora caves rock (sorry). Featuring over 100 caves from Buddhists, Hindus and Jains these caves represent an era of significant religious tolerance – maybe a certain US presidential candidate and his son should pay a visit – and what they may lack in artistic refinement is certainly made up for in ambition and scope.
The sheer size of the Kailash Temple and the attention to detail in the sculptures was breathtaking. Excavated over a 100 year period by thousands of men, the temple is the largest monolithic (carved from a single piece of rock) structure anywhere in the world. It is truly a Wonder. One which stopped us in our tracks and demanded our undivded attention. While sitting beside life-sized granite elephants, comparisons were drawn with the naturally sculpted boulders of Hampi and reflections were made on the power of nature and mankind in shaping our environment – deep 😎✌
Next up… The West coast of India and dozens of palm fringed beaches.