Around 9am, my new friends came by with their driver and picked me up and we headed off to Ajanta.
It was just over 100 kilometers to the caves, through small villages and cotton fields. I was just thinking how nice it would be to stop and get a closer look, I'd never seen cotton plants up close, when suddenly one of the tires blew out on the van right beside a field. I hopped my wished didn't have anything to do with it, but grabbed my camera bag and headed across the road anyway... I don't know if it was from Places in the Heart, or a similar movie I saw when I was a kid but I remember hearing about pricking fingers on a thorn while picking cotton and that always stayed with me. Looking at the plants, I didn't see any thorns on the stems, but the way the pod opened, it sort of peeled back like a dried leaf with the tip turning out with a tiny thorn on the tip. I'd imagine after a day of picking cotton, you'd be bound to prick your finger tips a few times. Soon, the driver had the wheel back on and we drove past a cotton factory with huge mounds of pure white cotton piled outside.
It took about two hours to get there, which isn't bad, especially considering the flat tire, but then we had to walk through a whole town of tourist junk shops set up between the parking lot and the caves. I was happy to buy something to drink, but I was just about exhausted buy the time we made it through. Sang Hee told me that in elementary school they studied about the Ajanta caves, I'd never even hear of them until I opened my Lonely Planet book.
Once through the tourist market, we followed a cement path down and around the river bank until we could see the caves carved into the steep horseshoe-shaped gorge. The first ten caves were carved between 230 BCE and 220 CE, with twenty more coming between 460 to 480 CE but were abandoned almost immediately after being finished. Eventually, they became completely forgotten until 1819 when a British officer on a tiger hunting expedition accidental found his way into one of the caves, which had become little more than a bat cave over the centuries.
Of the three sets of caves I've visited, I'm really glad I saved these for last. They left the other caves in the dust...
Sang Hee had a good idea of which ones were most spectacular so we watched the flow of tourist and headed first to where there were the fewest people.
The first temple we went into is remarkable for the incredibly detailed and sophisticated murals that cover every bit of wall, beam, and ceiling. My personal favorite was an image of Padmapāni, Holder the Lotus, a form of Avalokiteśvara, painted with delicate but handsome features, an intricate headdress, and pinching the stem of a white lotus in curveded fingers. Other notable images were Maya holding her baby Buddha, wrapped in a white blanket, an interesting image of a prince wrapping his arms around the princess, possibly an image of Siddhārtha, an amazing but slightly deteriorated image of Vajrapāṇi, one of the earliest Bodhisattvas, a small image of a white bull, pointing his snout to the side in a curious grin, and one guy who looked a whole lot like post-surgery Michael Jackson! In the dim light, I really wished I had a tripod but didn't do too badly by lowering the exposure, they just came out a bit dark. The murals predated the Italian Renaissance by over a thousand years, but could have rivaled some Renaissance pieces.
The back-end of the temple had one of the most amazing with a huge seated Buddha, lit with psychedelic lights that faded from blue to yellow and green. There was a rope and a guard blocking it off. I couldn't even make out what Sang Hee said to him, but next thing i knew he was lifting the rope and she was grabbing my arm saying, "Come on!" We went into the shrine, with one of the Jeju girls kept with us and did three Korean Buddhist style prostrations before the massive Buddha. In Korea, I'd been on the wrong end of what Koreans refer to as "Ajuma Power" before (Korean Woman Power) but I was glad to have been on the right side of it in this moment! Inside the shrine were other standing figures attending the Buddha and more images detailed in the wall between them. A circle mandala directly above centered the swirling energy of the small room.
Of the other temples, the most notable was similar to the "Carpenter's Cave" in Ellora, with a ribbed dome and a central Buddha surrounded by rows of pillars. In this cave, behind the pillars, wrapping the entire inner wall were statues of the Buddha in different postures and his attendants, with the final one being a beautifully peaceful Parinirvana Buddha, depicting his last moments of worldly affairs.
Sang Hee and I went back and forth through the caves a few times until the day was getting old then the six of us met and crossed the far end of the caves and walked down to a little bridge crossing the river where we climbed up the opposite bank and had a panoramic view of the caves. It was hot, and we were all exhausted and enjoyed just sitting there talking before we had to make our way back through the tourist market and make the long drive back to Aurangabad.
From Auragabad, I was planning on heading straight to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, but when I heard Sang Hee was going along to catch her flight to Bangkok, I offered to travel with her. Everyone was relieved and thankful that she wouldn't be going alone, and I figured there were still a few interesting things in Mumbai I could do before heading out for good.